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Imitations of Life

Imitations of Life

The Normal Heart, a semiautobiographical play about a gay man's transformation into an AIDS activist, was a sensation when it premiered in New York in 1985. The drama was even more warmly received when it was revived on Broadway this year, and Tony voters honored it with three awards in June. The Normal Heart is just the latest story about AIDS to be embraced by critics'here are some of the most acclaimed depictions on TV, celluloid, and the stage: An Early Frost (TV movie, 1985): A big-name cast including Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, and Aidan Quinn brought AIDS into America's living rooms with a realistic dramatization of a family grappling with their son's diagnosis. The TV movie won Emmy, Peabody, and Golden Globe awards. Parting Glances (film, 1986): AIDS isn't the only story in this New York'centric independent movie, but the disease hovers over much of the action. Steve Buscemi made a big impression as an HIV-positive rock star in love with his best friend. Director-writer Bill Sherwood died of AIDS complications four years after the film's release. Longtime Companion (film, 1990): Though taken to task by The New York Times for putting a white gay face on AIDS, Longtime Companion was embraced by many critics, including Roger Ebert, who saw the movie as groundbreaking, as it was one of the first mainstream films to take on HIV. Life Goes On (TV series, 1989'1993) When it premiered in 1989, this family drama made headlines for featuring a main character with Down syndrome'it broke further ground two years later when Chad Lowe was cast as an HIV-positive teen who romances series star Kellie Martin. Thirtysomething (TV series, 1987'1991): The thoughtful ABC show took a big risk when gay character Peter contracted HIV. The Emmy-winning series won accolades for featuring not only an HIV story line but a budding relationship between two men. Falsettos (Broadway, 1992): Though not be as well-remembered as shows like Rent or The Normal Heart, this musical, which featured an HIV-positive main character, received critical praise as well as Tony awards for Best Score and Best Book. And the Band Played On (TV movie, 1993): The HBO adaptation of Randy Shilts's 600-page tome on the early days of the epidemic was heralded by critics, who saw it as a respite from the TV movies of the day that often focused on tabloid sensations like Amy Fisher instead of serious issues. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (Broadway, 1993): Tony Kushner's sprawling AIDS epic hit theatergoers like a punch and took home a Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The production's second half, Angels in America: Perestroika, premiered the same year and also won a Tony. Philadelphia (film, 1993): Based on a heartbreaking true story, this Oscar-winning film stars Tom Hanks as a lawyer fired for his HIV-positive status. Director Jonathan Demme intentionally followed The Silence of the Lambs, accused of homophobia for its transgender serial killer, with the gay-positive, HIV-sensitive Philadelphia.Kids (film, 1995): Controversial, disturbing, and lauded by many critics, Kids received an NC-17 rating when released in theaters. The movie takes a frank look at teenagers partying their way through New York City'a major plot point concerns a promiscuous boy spreading HIV to his numerous female sex partners. ER (TV series, 1994'2009): This much-loved show, which launched the careers of George Clooney and Julianna Margulies, also changed public perceptions of HIV with the character of Jeanie Boulet (played by Gloria Reuben), an African-American physician assistant living, working, and loving while HIV-positive. Rent (Broadway, 1996): Puccini's La Boh'me, the opera about struggling artists in 19th-century Paris, inspired Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize'winning musical about creative 20-somethings trying to avoid eviction in New York's East Village. The beloved characters are a diverse mix of races and HIV statuses. Gia (TV movie, 1998): This artful and sexy HBO film rocketed Angelina Jolie to stardom and won her a Golden Globe. Jolie plays Gia Carangi, a lesbian supermodel of the 1970s and '80s who succumbed to both heroin addiction and AIDS. The Hours (film, 2002): This Oscar-winning film, based on a novel by Michael Cunningham, focuses on three women in three different eras. The modern-day character of Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) spends a pivotal day planning a party for Richard (Ed Harris), a past love now dying of AIDS. Richard's struggle with the disease brings Clarissa's story line and the entire film to a startling end. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (film, 2009): Produced by none other than Oprah Winfrey, Precious is an unflinching study of a poor and abused black teen in 1980s Harlem. Raped repeatedly by her father, Precious Jones gives birth to two children and contracts HIV. The movie manages to be uplifting in spite of its very dark premise, a quality that endeared it to critics and the public.
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Neal Broverman