Last year could go down as one of the best in terms of LGBTQ representation in film, with close to 40 movies that featured major queer characters or storylines — including Love, Simon and The Favourite. But 2018 also presented numerous stories about HIV (many focused on the height of the epidemic), more so than any year in recent history. When the epidemic began to ravage LGBTQ people, indie films like Parting Glances, Buddies, Tongues Untied, and Longtime Companion were some of the first to depict stories of resilience amid the devastation. Then Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, starring then boy-next-door Tom Hanks, brought AIDS to mainstream theaters. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Philadelphia, and coincidentally or not, it was also the year that several feature films and one landmark TV show tackled HIV narratives after what felt like a relative dearth of content around the subject throughout the past decade. Here’s a look at those stories:
There’s no denying that the award-winning Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek as the charismatic, queer Queen frontman, is a mega-hit — grossing over $700 million worldwide by the end of 2018 and raking in two Golden Globes: one for Malek as best actor and one for best motion picture in the drama category. Some LGBTQ viewers have taken umbrage at what they see as the demonization of Mercury and his business manager Paul Prenter’s nonmonogamous sexuality. Others disliked how the film chronologically manipulated Mercury’s HIV diagnosis for dramatic effect, repositioning it so that he receives it and informs the other members of Queen prior to their magnificent Live Aid performance in 1985. Still, Bohemian Rhapsody includes an HIV narrative that has put the epidemic on the radars of millions of viewers and will garner an even wider audience after taking home significant awards.
While the biopic Mapplethorpe, about the acclaimed photographer and button-pusher Robert Mapplethorpe, hits theaters in March of 2019, it made the film festival rounds last year. Matt Smith (The Crown, Dr. Who) stars as the gay lothario whose frank depictions of male genitalia and BDSM were favorite targets of the religious right. Ondi Timoner directs the film that follows Mapplethorpe from his beginnings as an artist and a denizen of the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived with poet, author, and rocker Patti Smith (who wrote the gorgeous memoir Just Kids about their friendship) through to the height of his fame, his relationship with art collector and curator Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), and his death from AIDS complications in 1989 at age 42.
The big-screen adaptation of Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, chronicles the lesbian writer’s crimes forging letters by prominent (dead) literary figures. Lee and her (eventual) co-conspirator, Jack Hock, meet and form an unlikely friendship in Julius’, Manhattan’s famed gay watering hole. The crimes they deliciously commit, like scamming collectors with phony missives from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Fanny Brice, can’t be extricated from the grimy, HIV-decimated New York of 1990. While the film focuses on their friendship, the specter of the era and HIV runs through it, and eventually it becomes apparent that Jack is suffering from AIDS complications. Richard E. Grant, the marvelous British actor who plays Jack, opposite Melissa McCarthy’s Lee, told The Advocate in 2018 that he based the character in part on his friend, Chariots of Fire actor Ian Charleson, who was gay and died of AIDS complications at the height of the epidemic.
Jeff Kaufman directs this documentary about the life and career of playwright Terrence McNally that is absolute catnip to theater devotees. With McNally as the central interview subject, the film charts his beginnings as a gay boy growing up in homophobic Corpus Christi, Texas, to his move to New York City and his increasing success in the theater world amid the LGBTQ civil rights movement and the AIDS epidemic. The film is peppered with archival footage of McNally’s greatest works, such as Master Class and Love, Valour, Compassion, his beautifully incendiary play about a group of gay male friends navigating life at the height of the epidemic. The film also features interviews with acting greats, including F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Rita Moreno, Nathan Lane, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, and Chita Rivera.
FX’s Pose, from wunderkind producer Ryan Murphy, is nothing short of revelatory, featuring the largest cast of trans performers ever assembled and shedding light on the lives of trans women who shaped the New York City ball culture of the late 1980s. More than any series in history, the show also depicts the minefield that was HIV for trans women as well as gay and bisexual men in the ’80s. Starring MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross, and Golden Globe-nominated Billy Porter, Pose features several HIV storylines as it brings queer history to generations who weren’t even born until after the height of the epidemic.
Director Yen Tan’s emotional family portrait, 1985, shot in elegiac black and white, tells the story of a young gay man, Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), who goes home for the holidays to inform his religious parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) he’s HIV-positive. Jamie Chung costars as Adrian’s spurned ex-girlfriend who ultimately offers friendship and support as he copes with the terror and unknown surrounding an HIV diagnosis in 1985.