Angels in America
review by Gregory Avery, 5 December 2003

"Is Angels the film in which Meryl Streep plays a Mormon?" a friend of mine asked. Yes, in fact, among other things.

And this seems as good a starting point as any to discuss the extraordinary filming of Tony Kushner's ambitious 1993 stage drama, presented, as was the play, in two parts, and which encompasses everything from religion to political power, sexual politics, social identity, and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. At the conclusion of the drama's first part, one of the characters, Prior Walter, abandoned by his lover after Prior reveals he's HIV-positive, is rudely awakened by nothing short of an angel whose arrival shatters the ceiling of Prior's apartment, after which she proclaims him to be a prophet, HIV-positive or not. Prior, as most people would be, is taken aback. The main story is set during 1985-86, before the widespread use of AZT and protese inhibitors, when Pres. Reagan hasn't even spoken publicly about AIDS, making many HIV sufferers feel as if they're being rendered non-entities by a government that is ostensibly supposed to be providing for the common good. And this is but one aspect of Kushner's play to contemplate.

Which is not to say that it is dour and dull and instructional. Kushner's dialogue is often alive and has bite, and it also has the quality, at a time when many things are plainly generic, of speaking to us with a genuine voice. The works of Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams share this same, unmistakable quality, as does the recordings of Glenn Gould and the films of Hitchcock, Fellini and Truffaut. The debut of Angels in America was not only extraordinary for what it addressed (in fact, Larry Kramer had already dramatized AIDS in his play The Normal Heart, which, unfortunately, has been enormously delayed in reaching the screen) but also for its scope and span -- a drama which addressed issues of controversy while providing a human aspect that anyone could relate to, a work which aimed for the moon and stars and, to quote the famous "Rolling Stone" review of Bruce Springsteen's "Darkness at the Edge of Town", hit the moon and stars.

For the most part. Some of the flaws in the play are still evident in the screen version, although Kushner's screenplay has fine tuned certain aspects in the drama's second part which made its message seem somewhat jejune to some audience members (although, as Kushner acknowledges in the play's published edition, the expectations were enormous -- Perestroika, the second part of Angels, premiered eight months after the first, Millennium Approaches). There is also the split-difference on who the heavy of the piece is supposed to be. Two of the three plotlines that intersect in Angels have to do with Joe and Harper Pitt, an LDS couple freshly arrived in New York City, and Roy Cohn, the real-life attorney and dark eminence who attempts to turn Joe, an attorney, into his protege. Cohn also attempted to hide his HIV status by saying, to the end, that it was "liver cancer;" meanwhile, in Kushner's drama, unbeknownst to Cohn, Joe has crossed paths with Louis, who has just left Prior, and Joe, finding himself attracted to Louis, has to deal with his own identity issues at the expense of his marriage to (already troubled) Harper.

Cohn was, and still is, undeniably evil, having worked as Sen. Joseph McCarthy's right-hand man during the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, and in Angels he is seen visited by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, who, with husband Julius, went to the electric chair at Cohn's hastening. Kushner's depiction of Cohn comes off as harsher and more abrasive in the stage version, but that is not to say that Al Pacino's portrayal of him in the film isn't superb in its own way -- Pacino brings human aspects out of this unrepentant reptile, and his playing of Cohn's last scene is a real pip. But, with Cohn's exit, the burden of antagonist seems to fall to Joe Pitt, who is played by Robert Wilson with a face that has a beautifully unspoiled quality to it in close-up. Cohn lays a hand atop Joe's head and gives him a paternal blessing during one of Joe's last visits with him, when Cohn is in hospital, as if trying to pass on some last bit of the power, however venal, that he has accrued during his lifetime. (Cohn's hand is then seen slipping away, briefly touching Joe's shoulder and arm, as if Cohn were taking leave of the last vestige of carnal pleasure in this world.) Even if Joe's marriage to Harper is a sham and would make Joe a hypocrite, I don't think that necessarily makes him a terrible person. (I went to school with some LDS gay men, some of whom married in an effort to become "straight", and they suffered terribly because of it.) I think Kushner is more concerned with aspects of fidelity -- not just in how it relates to the communicable quality of the AIDS virus, but also in how it relates to how relationships will stand or fall based on the true character of those involved -- trust, truth, fairness, love, things which apply just as well to straight relationships as well as gay ones.

And Kushner's drama has, essentially, too much compassion towards the way that people suffer. Louis leaves Prior; Joe leaves Harper; and, in turn, when Louis and Joe split up, it is after Louis has discovered Joe's connection to Cohn, "the pole star of human evil" -- Louis uses the occasion to spill out all of the frustration and guilt that he has been feeling, not necessarily towards Joe, but also towards the whole thing regarding conservatives versus homosexuals, his guilt and sorrow about Prior, and more, and the emphasis is upon how profoundly hurt Joe becomes by the confrontation. (Joe is never given the opportunity to explain himself.) But Joe also leaves Harper feeling tremendously hurt, as well. Mary-Louise Parker plays her as someone who exhibits a sense of wonderment at how desolate she has become, but she also struggles her way into a place where she can see things more clearly, and thus sorts out and takes control of her life. Joe and Louis may have to reconcile themselves with what pain they have bestowed upon others, but the drama's conclusion, which achieves incredibly poetic levels, shows that the characters who arise at the story's finish are the ones who have defined what principles they see as the ones by which they can try and do right and good in the world -- they may disagree, but there is room for that, and it does not cancel out the ability to help uplift each other, as people or as a community.

Meryl Streep appears in the film as Hannah, Joe's mother, who wings in "from Salt Lake" to find out firsthand what is going on with her son and daughter-in-law, and ends up, by happenstance, meeting Prior. When he tells her of the visitations he has been experiencing -- a formidable angel, played by a formidable Emma Thompson -- Hannah calmly and confidently explains the situation to him: "You had a vision." Justin Kirk, who plays Prior, has a bit of a satyr-like look about his eyes, the look of the one kid in the classroom who can always be counted on as being incorrigible. But, in the closing scene, he communicates a deeply beneficent quality (because he's playing his role from within, not just a matter of putting on externals). The angelic visitations turn out to be a representation of whether, as a person with AIDS, Prior should lie down and give up or do something else. To his surprise, he finds that he can't give in to the disease -- even if he doesn't know what's ahead (and he's given a hint that it might be pretty lousy), he'd prefer to take the chance and live, even if it's for a small time, just for the chance to be alive, just to keep going, and in that way his character becomes august. As Kirk's Prior tells us,

"The world only spins forward; we will be Citizens."

The film that Mike Nichols has directed of Angels in America -- whose uniformly excellent cast also includes Ben Shenkman (as Louis), and Jeffrey Wright (as the proud, indomitable Belize, whom Wright also played in the New York stage production), and which has a beautiful and haunting music score by Thomas Newman -- captures the vaulting quality of the work without losing sight of the intimate, and it ends on a note of hope in that Prior is the first of many who will come forward and perform a great work in quelling the waters. It is a film that will be much discussed. We should be grateful.

Directed by:
Mike Nichols

Starring:
Al Pacino
Meryl Streep
Emma Thompson
Justin Kirk
Ben Shenkman
Robert Wilson
Mary-Louise Parker
Jeffrey Wright
James Cromwell

Written by:
Tony Kushner

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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