Although AIDS cut a devastating swath in the creative professions throughout the 80’s it is perhaps surprising that, released in 1989, Longtime Companion was the first wide-release film to relate what life was like in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in America. It was preceded only by the TV movie, “An Early Frost” and the excellent but obscure, “Parting Glances”.
Written by Craig Lucas and directed by Norman Rene, the film follows events over eight years in the lives of a group of well-off gay men and the straight neighbour of two of them. The script shows us one day per year as the carnage continues to rip through their lives.
Much of the film is centred on the relationship between David, who is independently wealthy and Sean, a writer for a popular daytime soap, “Other People”.
As the movie begins, it is July 3, 198. We’re at their beach house on Fire Island to celebrate the fourth of July and the hot topic of discussion among this circle of friends and acquaintances is an obscure story on page A20 of that day’s New York Times under the now-infamous headline, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”.
As the news percolates through the group it is met with concern, humor and disbelief. A gay cancer! How could it be? What next? They tease each other about it. Hey, is that a bruise there on your neck?
“It would be like suddenly all the brown-haired people in your world were getting an autoimmune disease that was crippling and killing them in a matter of weeks. It didn’t make any sense”, Craig Lucas has said.
But it’s still life as usual. Howard, an actor is about to audition for Sean’s soap. Willy, a personal trainer, meets lawyer Fuzzy at a tea dance later in the day and they begin a relationship. Howard gets the part.
The screen goes dark.
It lights up again on the events of April 30, 1982. Willy and Fuzzy move in together. Howard is about to become the first openly gay character on daytime TV. And John, Willy’s best friend, is hospitalized with pneumonia. For reasons as yet unknown, nothing seems to slow his deterioration. David and Willy are told that there may be “something wrong with his immune system”. So many shades of panic as the friends struggle to understand.
Willy goes home to Fuzzy and vents. One of the things that’s got him most upset is that though John’s been sick for weeks, he never called or picked up the phone. John is put on life support.
The screen goes dark.
By June 17, 1983 John’s life is long over. Howard’s character comes out on daytime TV and the group convene to watch it with delight. And Sean has begun to think he might be getting sick. He and David argue about it later that night.
The screen goes dark. And so it runs, a random sampling of eight ordinary days in eight years. It’s a powerful narrative structure and works beautifully to convey its characters’ sense of mounting dread. Each time the screen went dark I wondered who it would be this time.
"This is a movie about living while constantly faced with it. It’s about camaraderie, compassion and love."
But the movie is by no means all about dread and sadness. It’s much more about somehow finding the courage to meet all the dread and sadness full on, as if they had much choice. Death is a fact of life. This is a movie about living while constantly faced with it. It’s about camaraderie, compassion and love.
This is a very strong ensemble cast and they make their characters very believable. I felt as though I knew them. Several of the actors here, like Dermot Mulroney and Mary Louise Parker went on to become much bigger stars and Bruce Davison, previously best known for having starred in Willard, garnered an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of David as he cares for his ailing partner.
Sean is the love of David’s life but has now deteriorated to the point of dementia. In one incredible scene, after the caregiver leaves, Sean keeps repeating, “Let’s go”. David, from the depths of his love for Sean, tells him, “It’s OK. You can go… it’s OK… I’m here. Don’t be afraid. Just let go”.
If you are at all possessed of any human emotion this scene will get to you - so have some tissues handy.
The film ends in 1989 where it began, on the beach at Fire Island. Though it’s not specifically stated, the assumption is that David has died. Three survivors of the radiant, rather self-satisfied group we met at the start are now all working with GMHC. Howard, who has contracted AIDS and suffered discrimination because of it now uses what fame he has left as a former soap star to raise money for AIDS causes.
And then there’s the closing scene. Fuzzy, Willy and Lisa walk the sand. They discuss strategy for a forthcoming ACT UP demonstration and they speak of remembering a time before AIDS. They wonder if a cure will be found, what that would be like. And Lisa provides the answer. “It would be like the end of World War 2.”
A fantasy sequence ends the movie as we see all the departed, all the lost ones come pouring out onto the beach, laughing and full of joy, full of life, delighted to see each other again. Some have criticized this as overly sentimental but I don’t agree.
It doesn’t hurt (well actually it does hurt but in this case I don’t think that’s such a bad thing) to remember, to consider the people and the world we lost because of the epidemic. As long as we do it with an eye to the world we can make.
I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.