Longtime Companion: How One Gay Community Dealt Honorably and Loavably with the AIDS Crisis

Norman Rene’s Longtime Companion carried the burden of being one of the the first theatrical movies to deal directly with AIDS.  As such, it faced the tasks of placing the horrible AIDS crisis on the national agenda and in the broader socio-political contexts.

Timing is everything: This meant that the film became gentler in tone and uplifting in message than it needed to be–and would have been–under different circumstances.

“Longtime Companion” was not, however, the first fictional work on AIDS.  It followed Larry Kramer’s angry autobiographical play, “The Normal Heart” and William Hoffman’s “As Is,” both made in 1985, and the indie film “Parting Glances” of 1986, which not many people saw.

When first encountered, in Manhattan and on the largely gay resort of Fire Island, the tale’s characters are members of a community that rides high in the wake of the 1970s sexual liberation and the advances made by the gay movement.

Thus, in 1981, when the N.Y. Times first reports a rare strain of cancer among homosexuals, they respond with jokes, shrugging-off the story with disbelief.  Even as things begin to worsen, and some men die, there’s no new consciousness or activism.  The group continues to get together and engage in cooking, chatting, love-making.

Following the group over the next eight years, the movie chronicles how men devoted to pleasure and friendship shed their high spirits to take up new responsibilities, caring for one another unto death. Bafflement gives way to uneasy coping and finally to mournful accommodation. The change is gradual: At the finale, with half of the members dead, a surviving couple vows to become political activist.

In “Longtime Companion,” gay friends and lovers suffer an attack on their fundamental values and, finally, on their very existence. The movie implies that AIDS seeps into everyday life, changing love, work, and play. In Craig Lucas’ screenplay, AIDS is seen through the suffering of one particular group: upwardly-mobile white gay men who have well-paying jobs, wear designer clothes, shop at Bloomingdale’s and spend summers on Fire Island.  They are all handsome and vigorous and, until the advent of AIDS, their lives are joyous, and to a large degree hedonistic.

The film chronicles the terrible events that overtake eight friends between 1981, when they first become aware of the “strange” virus, and 1989, when loved ones are memorialized and buried. The movie ends as it begins, emphasizing the toll within the gay community and the need to face the catastrophe with heroic dignity.

The characters are sympathetic, particularly the central figure, David (Bruce Davison), a rich, middle-age man who doesn’t have to work for a living. With his smooth, reassuring manner, David is a pillar of strength. When his friends begin to get sick, he shifts from trivia and gossip to compassionate care-giver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David is a stabilizing father figure to all the other men: his lover, Sean (Mark Lamos), a successful soap opera writer; Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey) a showbiz lawyer; sweet-tempered John (Dermot Mulroney); John’s friend Willy (Campbell Scott), a gym instructor who takes up with Fuzzy; Howard (Patrick Cassidy) an actor who appears as a gay character on Sean’s soap; and Howard’s live-in lover Paul (John Dossett).

The only female character is Lisa (Mary Louise Parker), who hangs out with the guys as a close friend and reliable confidante.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Longtime Companion is at it’s most urgent and poignant when it’s specific in details.  The most memorable passages depict how David takes care of his disintegrating lover whose mind progressively weakens. At first, in an attempt to fool Sean’s producer, David writes his scripts as well as instructions of how to communicate them. But the befuddled Sean garbles the instructions and the conversations turn to shambles in scenes that are as painful as they are funny.

When hope vanishes, David gently urges Sean with the unforgettable credo, “Just let go. Relax. Nothing bad is going to happen. Let go.” Nursing Sean to the very end, David is a solacing angel easing his lover toward death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story is structured as a fable about an extended family in which the partners (David and Sean) die, leaving the children bereft and alone. Attempting to recreate a casual chronicle, the film implies that this is a typical group of New York homosexuals. Vincent Canby accused the film of being parochial and self-absorbed—“It’s as if the rest of America didn’t exist. This self-absorption makes the movie so tough to take, so depressing.”

The film’s homogeneity is undeniable. In only one brief scene a Hispanic with AIDS gets a mercy call, and the only black in the film is a male nurse who attends a dying white man. But is Canby’s accusation fair Canby himself concedes that “a movie doesn’t have to mention everything going on in the world to convince the audience of its awareness.” Is it valid to expect every black-themed film to embrace the entire spectrum of black lifestyles

In his astute review, the great Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris discussed the problem of creating individualized characters in the context of a collective statement.  The movie was undeniably ambitious and conscientious about the AIDS catastrophe, but is it fair, Sarris asked, to apply rigorous aesthetic standards to movies about AIDS For Sarris, the film viewed gay subculture from the inside, but he felt that the dialogue was so knowing, the laughter so confidentially unexplained that non-gay audiences would feel excluded from the conversation.

The filmmakers’ intent was to show people making the best of an inconceivable situation. While the goal is to console and inspire, this is not to suggest that the movie is flawless. Produced by American Playhouse, it has the restraining good taste that has marked this outfit’s other productions. Nostalgia and self-protection imply that everything in gay life was lovely before the curse–the promiscuity of the Fire Island scene is flaunted as a pre-AIDS Paradise Lost.

Under the circumstances it was made, Longtime Companion was understandably a little too tame, a bit too upbeat in showing how one particular gay community–affluent and hedonistic no doubt–was forced to become therapy-oriented and politically active.  The movie’s evident message was that AIDS could improve one’s character.  In this picture, no one panics, no one deserts his sick lover, no one gives way to despair.

Made in 1990, many gay men needed to hear those messages.

Oscar Nominations:

Best Supporting Actor: Bruce Davison

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