A Misguided Evolution
In 1989, Longtime Companion, the first film dealing with the topic of AIDS in its storyline, entered the mainstream media. Hollywood executives believed that by merely having the issue of AIDS represented in their films, the film industry would become associated with tolerance and evolution. While an evolution was visible between the films Longtime Companion and Philadelphia, which debuted in 1993, many ideologies in both films still proved to be problematic for audiences, critics and HIV/AIDS activists. Nevertheless films like Longtime Companion and Philadelphia were important because they shed light on the ideologies and phobias plaguing both the homosexual and heterosexual communities.
One of the ideologies that Longtime Companion reinforced was the idea of the victimized homosexual man plagued by AIDS. Firstly, almost every single homosexual man pictured in the film contracts AIDS. This not only sent forth the idea that everyone was contracting AIDS but also no that no one was taking the necessary precautions to avoid contracting the disease. Just as Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin mention in their book, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America, “Homosexual men were figured as diseased and deadly contagions” and a depiction where five out of the seven homosexual male characters die from AIDS, this is condemning homosexual men to be seen as these contagions (203). Furthermore, once the characters have developed AIDS they are illustrated as men who are incapable of providing for themselves in any way.
In one scene, Sean, who is a screenwriter for soap operas and is suffering from AIDS, is on the phone with his company while David, his partner, is on the other wireless phone listening into the conversation. By this point Sean’s condition is very developed in Sean and he is suffering from dementia. Thus during the call with his company, David is dictating to Sean exactly what he should be saying to his employer. When Sean fails to do so and becomes tongue tied as he tries to follow David’s instructions, Sean looks more and more like a child and is slowly succumbing to David’s wishes and consequently, his disease. A few scenes later, Sean is a state of near catatonia and vegetative state. This directly focuses on the “sensationalistic tropes of death, decay, victimizations and isolation” that were common in the media at the time (Benshoff & Griffin, 203). Sean has wasted away and the only people taking care of him are David and his nurse. He has become completed isolated from the world outside and has figuratively literally “decayed.”
In some ways, Philadelphia, a film released three years after Longtime Companion, tries to combat some of the permeated ideologies of a the victimized AIDS-ridden homosexual man. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who thinks his firm has wrongfully terminated him because of the discovery of his AIDS status. The plotline itself paints a picture of a man demanding justice and refusing to be a victim of his employers. Before Beckett is able to find a lawyer, he refuses to succumb to literally and figuratively abide to the rules society had inexplicitly set out for people with AIDS. Beckett takes on the task of acting as his own layer when he cannot find representation in order to ensure that he could move forward with his case. He continues working on his own accord, which is something that was not shown in Longtime Companion. In a scene where he is doing research in a public library and a librarian asks if he would be more comfortable in a private study, the camera begins to point at the people around him to show how displeased they are with his presence. Instead of moving, Beckett responds by saying, “No, would it make you more comfortable?” in reference to the people around him being more relaxed;’ if he were isolated somewhere. This goes against the previous stance that AIDS films were taking of being more conciliatory for the aim of purely educating its audiences (Benshoff & Griffin, 215-216). Philadelphia instead chose to attack the beliefs that audience members would have at the time, such as homo- and AIDS-phobia.
The character of Joe Miller, Beckett’s lawyer, played by Denzel Washington, personified these two phobias. In the scene where Beckett first asks Miller to represent him, the camera closes in on the lesions on Beckett’s face as well as all the objects he touches and comes in contact with to show how uncomfortable Miller is with Beckett’s presence and the presence of AIDS. Immediately after Beckett leaves his office, Miller accidentally touches his own face as he looks out a window and this prompts him to ask his secretary to schedule a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible. At the doctor’s office, Miller explicitly verbalizes what many people were worried about at the time: new findings about AIDS that would validate the fact that AIDS could be carried through basic human contact. Miller’s character perpetuated the discourse of “us (clean-living homosexuals” versus “them” (disease-ridden queers)” that was apparent in many narratives surrounding homosexual men and AIDS (Benshoff & Griffin, 215-216). The narratives that almost always invoked ideas of contagion, plagues and cures were made more concrete through the characterization of someone like Miller. Miller’s character was also problematic for certain audiences because it provided ahistorical representation of the resources made available to people with HIV/AIDS at the time. “Gay people built a world of services, advocacy organizations, and personal relationships in response to the epidemic that later became the foundation of support for HIV-infected heterosexuals” which was completely counteracted by the fact that Beckett approached nine lawyers before Miller accepted his case. This misrepresentation furthermore sustained the idea that people affected by AIDS were isolated from their communities (either racial, socioeconomic, or gender-based) and could not find HIV-communities to aid them.
While Philadelphia took on the role of exploring the way that heterosexual communities interacted with heterosexual men who had AIDS, Longtime Companion more specifically took a look at the way that the male homosexual communities were affected by the news of AIDS and problematic ideologies in the gay communities themselves. One of the first opening scenes shows a montage of all of the characters we will eventually meet reading an article in the New York Times that first broke the news of the “gay cancer.” One of the first reactions is that the “CIA is trying to scare us out of having sex.” While this was a funny reaction, it very much characterized the fear that many homosexual men felt as a result of the disclosure of AIDS. In one scene, Sean is in the hospital when his friend, Willy comes to visit him. Sean greets Willy by giving him a hug and kissing Willy’s neck. As the scene progresses, Willy looks uncomfortable until he excuses himself to the bathroom where he scrubs his hands and neck. This particular scene is very important because it shows that the heterosexual community was not the only group of people who had misconceptions about AIDS but so did the homosexual community. Willy’s scrubbing of his hands and neck are so reminiscent of the scene where Miller goes to visit his doctor in Philadelphia and wonders if AIDS will be transmitted through clothes, that its inclusion in the film shows that queer communities were just as, if not more concerned about contracting the disease than were heterosexual communities.
In another scene, Willy and his partner, Fuzzy, are laying bed together and Fuzzy asks Willy what he thinks happens once they die. Willy responds, “We get to have sex again.” Many activists had a problem with this scene because it conveyed the idea that abstinence was the way to avoid AIDS. In many ways, the film portrays the ideology that monogamy and abstinence was the way to avoid AIDS, not safe-sex. “There are no representations of gay sexual culture, no representations of condom use, no effort to promote alternatives to monogamy, and no inclusion of sex-positive rhetoric” (Roman, 289). Many activists argued that they would have liked to see the characters not just express sexual desire but also act on it despite the threat of AIDS, while practicing safe-sex. This would have been more representative and pedagogical for homosexual communities about how to avoid AIDS. Instead, the fact that Willy and Fuzzy are the only two homosexual men who are still living by the end of the film, further preserve the idea that the way to live was not to engage in any sexual activity. Furthermore, the fact that John, Willy’s friend and the only single character in the film, is the first to die of AIDS associates AIDS with not being in a monogamous relationship.
Similar to the problematic correlation between monogamy and abstinence and AIDS, the two films also depicted AIDS as being a punishment to homosexual men because of their sexual orientation. During Andy Beckett’s trial, one of the defense witnesses Melissa, who had previously worked at Beckett’s firm and had been diagnosed with AIDS, spoke about the discrimination she had faced at the firm because of her diagnosis. She, however, had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion because of severe blood loss during childbirth. This immediately placed her in a different category than Beckett’s, she was someone who provoked sympathy because she contracted the disease by mistake. This was one of the configurations that media gave people who had AIDS. They were either innocent, or “deserving (intravenous drug users and sexually active gay men whose allegedly chosen “aberrant lifestyles” had caused their illness)” (Benshoff & Griffin, 203). During the testimony in Philadelphia, one of the firm’s partners echoed these thoughts in his testimony when he said he felt and still feels “the deepest sympathy for people like Melissa who contracted this terrible disease through no fault of their own.” In this dichotomy, this meant that Beckett was seen as deserving of AIDS. During the trial, the prosecuting lawyer asks Beckett if he takes risks and he says he does in his work life. The lawyer then proceeds to ask if Beckett has frequented a theatre in Philadelphia that shows gay pornographic movies and if he has had sex with anyone in the theatre. He responds by confessing that he did once and that he had heard about AIDS but he didn’t know how he could get it or that it could kill. The prosecutor than sheds light on the fact that Beckett was living with his partner, Miguel Alvarez, at the time of his sexual encounter at the porn theatre and he could have infected his partner as well. This immediately categorizes Beckett as deserving of AIDS because he was engaging in illicit activities. His sexual encounter in the movie theatre and the risk he put his partner through somehow made him deserving
While many of the ideologies in films about AIDS continue to frame the subject “by a cultural agenda that is medically misinformed as it is socially misleading and politically motivated,” media representations were powerful because audience members receive all or most of their social information about those groups from media offerings, rather than learning about them through firsthand interactions as well (Watney, 72) (Hart, 78). Because of this, it is important to look back at the way in which the first films to begin the conversation about AIDS framed their ideologies in order to see what perception the public was receiving in regards to AIDS. Looking at films like Longtime Companion and Philadelphia allows audiences to see how perceptions of AIDS have changed over the last two decades but also helps Hollywood executives see in what ways depictions of people contracted with AIDS can more closely reflect the plight and lives of the people that are supposed to be illustrated on films in the future.
Sendziuk, Paul. “Philadelphia Or Death.” GLQ: A Journal Of Lesbian & Gay Studies 16.3 (2010): 444-447.EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 1 May 2013.
Benshoff, Harry and Sean Griffin. “A Matter of Life and Death.” Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. 201-218.
Hart, Kylo-Patrick R. “Representing Men with HIV/AIDS in American Movies.”Journal of Men’s Studies 11.1 (2002): 77. Print.
Román, David. “Remembering AIDS: A Reconsideration of the Film Longtime Companion.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12.2 (2006): 281-301. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 1 May 2013.
Watney, Simon. “The Spectacle of AIDS.” The Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader (1987): 71-86.
Longtime Companion. Dir. Norman Rene. Avant-Garde Cinema, 1989.
Philadelphia. Dir. Jonathan Demme. TriStar Pictures, 1993.