Film includes feature-length productions, documentaries, and made-for-television movies. Since 1984, HIV/AIDS has been a main or significant plot element in more than 120 films from almost two dozen countries. Although resistance to HIV/AIDS-related plotlines has limited the response from Hollywood and the major television networks in the United States, independent and foreign film companies and television industries have provided many thought-provoking and challenging cinematic works.

The first full-length documentary about AIDS, Stuart Marshall's Bright Eyes (Caught in the Act Productions for the United Kingdom's Channel Four, 1984), explores British sexual mores and the indifference of the media in the United Kingdom to the epidemic. Arthur J. Bressan Jr.'s Buddies (New Line Cinema, 1985), the first feature film about AIDS, tells the story of Robert, a gay man with AIDS, and David, a volunteer who agrees to become his "buddy."

The first movie about AIDS made for U.S. television was John Erman's An Early Frost (NBC, 1985), which was so groundbreaking that some critics praised actor Aidan Quinn for his bravery in agreeing to play a man with AIDS. The central character in An Early Frost is a gay lawyer with AIDS, but Erman's television movie minimizes the issue of homosexuality, instead focusing on the resiliency of the American family when faced with any crisis, including AIDS. With An Early Frost, American television had its first "AIDS as disease-of-the-week" movie. Others regularly followed, telling both true life and fictional stories about such figures as Liberace, Ryan White, and Roy Cohn.

One particularly notable early movie, Deborah Reinisch's Andre's Mother, from the short one-act play by Terrence McNally, presents the conflict between the lover and the mother of a gay man who died from AIDS when the two meet for his funeral. In another important movie, Gavin Millar's Tidy Endings, based on the last part of playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein's stage trilogy Safe Sex, the dynamic of the funeral confrontation changes to one between the lover and the former wife of a gay man who has died of AIDS.

Roger Spottiswoode's star-studded but tepid adaptation for the HBO cable network of Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On may have been the most controversial American movie ever made for television. Any attempt to reduce Shilts's massive book for the screen faced difficulties, but this film, nearly six years in the making, could never possibly have lived up to the prescreening publicity it received. Originally intended as a miniseries on NBC, the station balked at the film's criticism of key political and medical figures in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The ABC and CBS networks joined NBC in rejecting the miniseries as too controversial. What eventually appeared on HBO -- in Europe the film was released theatrically -- was the result of more than 20 rewrites and the handiwork of four directors. Although the star performances are impressive, much of what is important about Shilts's book, including many complicated issues about the early epidemic, was lost along the way.

In presenting films about AIDS, British television has been bolder than its American counterpart. Four British made-for-television films show less hesitancy in coping with the complex issues surrounding HIV and AIDS: Intimate Contact (Central Television, 1987) and Sweet As You Are (BBC2, 1988), in which married straight men contract HIV through extramarital sex with women, and Closing Numbers (Channel 4, 1993) and Nervous Energy (BBC Scotland, 1995), which follow the lives of gay people with AIDS.

HIV/AIDS-related documentaries conform to several patterns. Some chronicle the living; others memorialize the dying; still others record the struggle against public indifference to AIDS. Peter Adair's Absolutely Positive (Adair & Armstrong Productions for PBS's P.O.V. Series, 1990) provides a forum in which individuals, ranging from self-identified activists to otherwise unremarkable Americans, discuss what it means to be HIV-positive. Kermit Cole's Living Proof: HIV and the Pursuit of Happiness (First Run Features, 1993) does likewise. Mark Huestis's Sex Is (Outsider Productions, 1993) explores the impact of AIDS on the perceived obsession of gay men with sex. Juan Botas's One Foot on a Banana Peel, The Other in the Grave (Clinica Estetico/Joanne Howard Productions, 1994) eavesdrops on the conversations of AIDS patients in a New York clinic.

Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Academy Award-winning Common Threads (Telling Pictures, 1989) tells the story of people memorialized in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. John Zaritsky and Virginia Storring's Born in Africa, a project for PBS's Frontline and AIDS Quarterly (1990), chronicles the attempts of a pop singer to use his music to educate his fellow Ugandans about the frighteningly simple fact that "AIDS can affect anyone." Perhaps the most emotionally wrenching documentary about AIDS remains Tom Joslin's Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Silverlake Productions, 1993), which bears witness to the effects of AIDS on the lives of two dying lovers.

Two Canadian documentaries, David Paperny's The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter (CBC, 1993) and Tahani Rached's Médecins de cœur (Doctors with Heart; National Film Board of Canada, 1993), detail the burdens faced by HIV/AIDS caregivers, some themselves infected with the virus. Nick Sheehan's documentary No Sad Songs (Cell Productions and the AIDS Committee of Toronto, 1985) examines the effects that AIDS has had on the gay community in Toronto, and Cynthia Roberts's The Last Supper (Hryhory Yulyan Motion Pictures, 1994) uses cinema verité to chronicle the last meal of a person with AIDS.

AIDS activism in various forms has long been the subject matter of documentaries. Cas Lester's A Plague on You (Lesbian and Gay Media Group, 1986) criticizes the ineptness of Britain's early AIDS-awareness campaigns. David Stuart's Family Values (Hands on Productions, 1988) celebrates the efforts of the gay community in San Francisco. German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim examines the AIDS activist community in New York in two complementary documentaries, Schweigen = Tod (Silence = Death) and Positiv (Positive; both from Rosa von Praunheim Productions, 1989), as does Robyn Hutt in Voices from the Front (Testing the Limits, 1990).

All, however, is not doom, gloom, and activism in other AIDS films. Ein Virus kennt keine Moral (A Virus Knows No Morals; Rosa von Praunheim Productions, 1986) uses outrageous gallows humor to disabuse audiences of any misconceptions they may have about origins or causes of the AIDS crisis. Richard Glatzer's Grief (Grief Productions, 1993) brings together a zany cast including a gay man mourning the death of his lover. John Greyson's Zero Patience (Zero Patience Productions, 1993) is an AIDS musical comedy intent upon debunking the myth that the spread of AIDS can be traced to a so-called Patient Zero. Eric Mueller's World and Time Enough (1 in 10 Films, 1994) suggests that one partner's HIV seropositivity is the least of the problems a gay male couple face in their relationship.

A recurring theme in these films is that an AIDS diagnosis is more than a death sentence and can instead be an impetus for someone to embrace life to the fullest. In Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances (Cinecom International, 1986), two lovers split up and are then reunited thanks in part to the influence of an optimistic friend with AIDS. In Norman René's Longtime Companion (American Playhouse for PBS, 1990), an ensemble cast shows how love and support have helped steel the gay community in a time of crisis. The three gay couples and their friends portrayed in the film stand by one another in life and in the face of death, despite widespread indifference to their plight.

Gregg Araki's The Living End (Strand Releasing, 1992) sends its two HIV-infected protagonists on a road trip to find out what is right about themselves and wrong with the United States. Cyril Collard's controversial and autobiographical Les nuits fauves (Savage Nights; Banfilm, 1993) shows how HIV seropositivity allows an admitted cad a final opportunity to become a responsible human being. Both Collard's film and his novel of the same name were among the first cultural responses to AIDS to challenge French complacency in the face of the epidemic.

Most films about HIV/AIDS focus either on children, who are considered by some the "innocent victims," or on gay men, who are for those same people, the "less-than-innocent victims" of the disease. There are, however, some notable exceptions -- films in which women with HIV or AIDS are the main characters. François Magolin's Mensonge (The Lie; Les Films Alains Sarde, 1993) presents the dilemma of a woman who is both pregnant and HIV-positive; her husband, a supposedly daring political reporter who infected her, turns out to be cowardly and dishonest in his dealings with her. Mike Hoolboom's futuristic vision of Canada, Valentine's Day (Cinema Esperança International, 1994), finds Prime Minister Wayne Gretzky declaring civil war on Quebec and examines the lives of two lesbians, one of whom is HIV-positive, in a moment of national and personal crisis.

When it was released, Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (Tristar Films, 1993), the first film about AIDS from Hollywood, received an extraordinary amount of press coverage and critical scrutiny. Some people in Hollywood and in the media thought that Tom Hanks, who won an Academy Award for best actor in Philadelphia, was taking a career risk in accepting the role of a young Philadelphia lawyer whose career is on the fast track until he is fired from his job because his employer discovers he has AIDS. The Hanks character does refuse to back down in the face of discrimination and wins his legal battle only to die in the film's last scene; but Philadelphia also received criticism, notably in the gay press, for denying the main character the intimacy and emotional complexity that it readily affords other characters who are straight.

More importantly, if Philadelphia had indeed been a breakthrough film for Hollywood, it would have been followed by notable additional films about AIDS. Instead, Hollywood's treatment of AIDS on the screen has remained fairly one-dimensional: people with AIDS, no matter what their backgrounds, die. In Herbert Ross's Boys on the Side (Warner Brothers, 1995), for instance, a heterosexual woman succumbs to the disease. In Peter Horton's The Cure (Universal, 1995), two boys, one with AIDS, embark on a Huck Finn-like river journey in the vain hope of finding a cure for the disease. They are, of course, unsuccessful, and the HIV-infected boy dies. In It's My Party (United Artists, 1996), inspired by the life and death of writer and director Randal Kleiser's lover, Harry Stein, a gay man commits suicide rather than face the final ravages of AIDS.

Having waited so long to treat HIV/AIDS seriously, Hollywood is still having to catch up with films made elsewhere in which people live with, rather than die from, AIDS. However, nonmainstream films have begun to present AIDS in terms other than of death and dying. Christopher Ashley's Jeffrey (Working Man Films, 1995), based on Paul Rudnick's play of the same title, tackles the issue of HIV seronegativity in a light-heartedly serious manner to drive home its message that gay men need to hate AIDS rather than their lives and their sexuality. Another controversial film with an AIDS plotline, Larry Clark's Kids (Excalibur Films, 1995), paints a disturbing portrait of the urban young for whom HIV seropositivity is at best a matter of indifference and at worst a badge of honor.

Finally, no survey of cinematic responses to AIDS would be complete without noting the devastating impact that AIDS has had on the artistic community. The number of people in the film industry, both in front of and behind the camera, who have died from AIDS-related complications continues to grow, as the obituary pages in the trade and major metropolitan newspapers continue to make abundantly clear. Those who have died from AIDS-related causes include Amanda Blake, Brad Davis, Rock Hudson, and Liberace, as well as Arthur J. Bressan Jr. and Stuart Marshall, who made the first two feature-length films about AIDS.

Related Entries:

Artists and Entertainers; Arts Community; Dance and Performance Art; Literature; Media Activism; Music; Pornography; Radio; Symbols; Television Programming; Theater; Visual Arts; World AIDS Day; Writers

Key Words:

cinema, documentaries, films, movies, [individual films by name]

Further Reading

Baker, R., The Art of AIDS, New York: Continuum, 1994

Harty, K. J., "'All the Elements of a Good Movie': Cinematic Responses to the AIDS Pandemic" and "Selected Filmography," in AIDS: The Literary Response, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, New York: Twayne, 1992

Murray, R., Images in the Dark, An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video, revised edition, New York: Plume, 1996

Olson, J., ed., The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, New York: Serpent's Tale, 1996

Pilipp, Frank, and Charles Shull, "American Values and Images: TV Movies of the First Decade of AIDS," Journal of Popular Film and Television 21 (1993), pp. 19-26

Treichler, Paula A., "AIDS Narratives on Television: Whose Story?," in Writing AIDS, edited by Timothy F. Murphy and Suzanne Poirier, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993

The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, Raymond A. Smith, Editor. Copyright © 1998, Raymond A. Smith. Carried by permission of Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

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