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Sunday, June 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An AIDS anniversary: 25 years in the arts

The Record (Hackensack N.J)

In the 25 years since America's first AIDS cases were reported, the disease and the entertainment community have been inextricably linked.

Hundreds of movies, plays, books and art exhibitions have focused on the disease. After the shocking death in 1985 of movie star Rock Hudson — from Kaposi's sarcoma and other AIDS-related complications — more famous names would succumb to AIDS-related illnesses, including flamboyant showman Liberace, "Psycho" actor Anthony Perkins, sci-fi author Isaac Asimov and rock star Freddie Mercury.

From the mid-1980s to the present, other celebrities — most notably, Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John and the late Princess Diana — would use their considerable media clout to keep the disease in the public eye and raise millions in research dollars.

Elizabeth Glaser, wife of "Starsky and Hutch" actor Paul Michael Glaser, became an outspoken AIDS activist during her battle with the disease. And the charity begun in her name, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, has continued to raise millions in research dollars since her death in 1994.

In a similar spirit of concern, film stars agreed to appear in AIDS-related films and TV projects, even when it meant taking on small supporting roles or working for a fraction of their usual salaries.

Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie and Mary-Louise Parker are among the stars who have portrayed AIDS patients on film. In back-to-back Oscar-winning roles, Tom Hanks played a gay attorney slowly losing his battle with AIDS in "Philadelphia" and a man whose childhood sweetheart (Robin Wright) contracts the AIDS virus and dies from it in "Forrest Gump."

A poet ravaged by AIDS was a pivotal character in Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Hours" — which was later made into a feature film starring Nicole Kidman; Meryl Streep; and Ed Harris, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the embittered poet.

In the theater, William Hoffman's "As Is" and Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" were produced in 1985 to critical acclaim.

And they would pave the way for dozens of other AIDS dramas, including Tony Kushner's two-part epic "Angels in America" (1992), which would win every award in sight during its years on Broadway (including the Pulitzer Prize) before being adapted into a landmark miniseries for HBO.

The first made-for-TV movie to tackle the disease, "An Early Frost" (1985), provided many Americans with their initial glimpse at AIDS and its effect on a traditional suburban family. In 1993, another AIDS milestone came to television when Pedro Zamora became the first man with AIDS to share the day-to-day details of his illness on a reality show, MTV's "The Real World." By the time that season's final episode aired in 1994, Zamora had died.

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As it altered the culture, AIDS became a popular metaphor in memorable works of fiction. Although the disease is never mentioned in the 1986 remake of the 1950s horror classic "The Fly," there is no missing the film's allusions to it, after a botched experiment transforms scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) into a man who has lost control over his body and his mind. AIDS paranoia also fueled the science-fiction plotlines of Todd Haynes' "Poison" in 1991 and, one year later, "Alien 3," which one critic described as "the best AIDS movie ever made."

Best of the filmed AIDS portrayals

Films dealing more directly with the health crisis — and there have been hundreds of them — have been met with mixed responses by critics and the AIDS community. The following films are among the best, either because of the unique viewpoints they provide or because — as is the case with "Philadelphia" — the cast transcends the material.

"An Early Frost" (1985) — Family members of a successful attorney cope with the news that he is gay and dying in this classy tear-jerker starring Aidan Quinn, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands and scene-stealer Sylvia Sydney.

"Common Threads, Stories From the Quilt" (1989) — This documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tells the moving story of the NAMES Project and the organization's AIDS Memorial Quilt. Oscar winner for best feature documentary.

"Tongues Untied" (1990) — Raw and riveting documentary by Marlon Riggs about the discrimination faced by gay black men in America, before and during the age of AIDS. The film features Riggs, who died of the disease in 1994.

"Longtime Companion" (1990) — Campbell Scott and Bruce Davison star in this involving drama about gay yuppies in the earliest days of the epidemic.

"Our Sons" (1991) — Predictable but effective soap about the very different mothers of gay lovers who come together after one of the men becomes sick. Ann-Margret and Julie Andrews are terrific.

"The Living End" (1992) — Edgy, low-budget film by Greg Araki about two gay HIV-positive men who hit the road a la "Thelma and Louise." An indie classic that doesn't have a single politically correct moment.

"Philadelphia" (1993 ) — Mawkish, manipulative drama about a lawyer with AIDS who hires a homophobic attorney to defend him after he loses his job. With Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards and, in a small part as Hanks' lover, Antonio Banderas. Oscars and Golden Globes went to Hanks and Bruce Springsteen (for the song "Streets of Philadelphia").

"And the Band Played On" (1993) — HBO's rambling adaptation of the Randy Shilts book, about the discovery of the virus and efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and community leaders to contain it, features strong performances by Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen and Richard Gere.

"Boys on the Side" (1995) — Perhaps the only movie about AIDS that also qualifies as a chick flick. Mary-Louise Parker plays a real-estate agent with the disease who embarks on a road trip with two supportive friends.

"Safe" (1995) — Absorbing AIDS allegory stars Julianne Moore as a well-to-do California housewife whose seemingly perfect life is shattered when her immune system collapses.

"Gia" (1998) — Angelina Jolie plays '70s supermodel Gia Carangi, who literally partied her life away, dying from AIDS-related complications at age 26.

"Angels in America" (2003) — Mike Nichols' spectacular six-hour adaptation of Tony Kushner's Broadway hit ties together real and fictional characters in a mind-blowing look at the 20th century as seen through the prism of the AIDS epidemic. With Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright in the role he created on Broadway. The HBO film won 11 Emmys.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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