Reassessing the Critical Legacy of Early “AIDS Movies”: Longtime Companion, Philadelphia and Boys on the Side

From its beginning and for nearly a decade, the AIDS crisis in the United States was characterised by inaction. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was founded in 1987 with its famous slogan “Silence = Death” directed at the White House and the Reagan administration’s lethally inadequate response to the crisis. [1] But a similar silence fell upon another quintessentially American institution from which more was expected. Hollywood was notoriously mute on the subject for over a decade: it was not until 1993 that the first big-budget studio-backed film featuring a lead character with AIDS was released. Philadelphia was ostensibly a success, turning a sizeable profit at the box office and garnering four Academy Award nominations. However, the critical discourse that amassed around the film tells a different story. The accusations levied at the film – that it “dequeers” and “sanitises” AIDS and reinforces the homophobic equation of gayness with disease – are not unique to Philadelphia but represent a broader tenor of critique aimed at so-called “AIDS movies”. Such criticisms omit important historical contextualisation even as they point out shortcomings of the texts. We should no longer consider these early attempts at representing AIDS to a mainstream audience in an ahistorical vacuum, nor should we ignore the role they played in expanding the possibilities and constructions of a collective cultural consciousness.

Alongside Philadelphia, the critical legacies of Longtime Companion (1990) and Boys on the Side (1995) are ahistorically tainted, and all three films risk being remembered as failures in depicting the communities and individuals they represent. But by counterposing the critiques with contextual understandings of the sociopolitical circumstances under which they came to be, these films can be resurrected as important cultural touchstones in the broad unfolding of the AIDS crisis as an “epidemic of signification”. [2] To examine these films chronologically emphasises the changing cultural norms and epidemiological reality of the AIDS crisis in the United States. As such, it is possible to place these films in a historical narrative that builds upon itself: the pioneering Longtime Companion broke new ground by showing AIDS on the big screen in 1990, which made possible and broadened the scope of the box-office hit Philadelphia in 1993, which itself paved the way for the diverse representational demographics of Boys on the Side in 1995. By considering each text as a conflux of historical influences, rather than a hermetic cultural product, it is possible to see that these films exist not as manifestations of the heteronormative and homophobic structures that kept Hollywood silent for 10 years, but in spite of them.

A Decade of Silence
What was it about AIDS that made it so hard to depict on the big screen? Addressing an American audience in 1994, Moshe Sluhovsky posited an answer: “AIDS forces America to deal with death and homosexuality, two major denials in our culture”. [3] More particularly, AIDS appeared to disproportionately affect people whose lifestyles were either completely foreign or repellent to mainstream society; people with whom the average cinema audience was unlikely to identify or sympathise. In 1982, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) constructed its ‘4-H’ list of categories of people at high risk of ‘AIDS’: homosexuals, haemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and Haitians. [4] This focus on categories of people rather than modes of transmission would set the trend for much of the coming discourse surrounding HIV/AIDS – and indeed the legacy of the CDC’s branding rears its head even today. [5] The synchronised emergence of AIDS and identity politics challenged the idea of a homogenous American public, and, as Marita Sturken points out, Hollywood struggled to depict these ‘categories’ of people whose “relationship to the mainstream is tenuous and fraught with conflicting agendas of inclusion and exclusion”. [6]

This relegation of AIDS to marginalised communities lent itself to a discourse of moralising. In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag notes that:

In contrast to cancer, understood in a modern way as a disease incurred by (and revealing of) individuals, AIDS is understood in a premodern way, as a disease incurred by people both as individuals and as members of a ‘risk group’… which revives the archaic idea of a tainted community that illness has judged. [7]

This premodern reflex of illness-as-judgement joined forces with mainstream homophobia and patriarchal social order, creating social norms that permeated cultural and political discourse. In 1987, the US Congress “gave in to homophobic hysteria” when Senator Jesse Helms declared that “we have got to call a spade a spade, and a perverted human being a perverted human being”. [8] He made this comment when submitting an amendment to a fiscal appropriations bill, which, once passed (by a majority of 96 to 2), prohibited federal funding for AIDS prevention initiatives that were construed to “promote, encourage, or condone homosexual activities”. The same forces that compelled politicians to pander to social norms rendered cinematic depictions of AIDS a no go zone. Driven by pure economic necessity, the film industry was and still is compelled to “appeal to the largest possible audience [which] discourages writers from violating social norms”. [9] Activist organisations such as ACT UP could, and did, define themselves in opposition to such politics, and Helms became a bogeyman of the public health response to the AIDS crisis. But mainstream cinema is not afforded the same liberties as activism: the same people who voted Helms into office were queuing for movie tickets.

Hollywood’s hesitancy in representing HIV/AIDS in films echoed the very practical sense in which the industry silenced and stigmatised people with the disease. Actor Brad Davis, who rose to fame after his lead role in Midnight Express (1978) and who self-identified as bisexual, [10] discovered that he was HIV-positive in 1985 but kept this a secret until his death in 1991. Davis feared the impact that his HIV status would have on his career, to the extent that he used medication leftover from the deaths of other people rather than get his own prescription and risk being discovered. [11] He left behind a scathing letter attacking the film industry and claiming that “if an actor is even rumoured to have HIV, he gets no support on an individual basis. He does not work.” [12] Similarly aware of these repercussions was Norman René, director of Longtime Companion, who found out that he was HIV-positive shortly before shooting the film. He, too, concealed this status in order to secure insurance for the shoot, which he was only able to do by convincing a doctor to lie on medical forms. [13]

Critical Responses to AIDS Movies
It is against this backdrop of an industry geared against empathetic considerations of people with AIDS that the films Longtime Companion, Philadelphia and Boys on the Side eventually emerged. The critical discourse surrounding these texts focuses on the ways in which they reinforce dominant and homophobic cultural constructions of people with AIDS, the same constructions which rendered AIDS “the syndrome that Hollywood refuses to speak” in the preceding years. [14] This critique is most clearly articulated by Kylo-Patrick Hart, who has written the only book-length discussion of “AIDS movies”, in addition to numerous academic articles. [15] As his ideas have been echoed by a number of critics of films about AIDS, and his assumptions shared, they are worth considering before proceeding to re-examine, in the light of historical context, three of the films that he dismisses.

Hart’s study purportedly “combines the empirical advantages of social-scientific content analysis with the theoretical flexibility of humanistic textual analysis and criticism, within a cultural-studies framework”. [16] He analyses 32 AIDS movies as forms of “social action” that create cultural meanings that ultimately have “real” effects. [17] By comparing AIDS movies as a genre to that of melodrama, Hart argues that they are “repressive films” designed to perpetuate the homophobia and heterosexism of a “patriarchal social order”. He sees a pattern of “representation of gay men as the primary other who must be sacrificed to restore patriarchal social order that existed prior to the discovery of HIV/AIDS; they are sexually promiscuous ‘enemies’ of both the family and the larger society”. [18]

Hart is correct in his assertion that films have enormous power to tangibly influence real life relationships and attitudes through their cultural constructions. But his conclusions are problematic for a number of reasons. First, he employs a very limiting model of audience reception that fails to meaningfully engage with theories of ‘active’ and ‘resistive’ audiences. He evokes Stephen Hall’s ‘encoding-decoding’ model that suggests the ways in which producers and writers ‘encode’ messages into texts that are then ‘decoded’ by their audiences. Hart argues that the use of “culturally shared codes and conventions” serves to limit the range of interpretations “making it unlikely that the majority of receivers will be able to interpret most mediated texts significantly differently from the way they are intended by their senders”. [19] While hinting here that some ‘receivers’ may misunderstand or resist the messages, throughout his analysis of AIDS movies Hart assumes an impossibly hegemonic and passive audience, one which uncritically accepts the representations before it as true reflections of reality. This model ignores more complex understandings of active audiences, which, as Lawrence Grossberg notes, “are not made up of cultural dupes; people are often quite aware of their own implication in structures of power and domination, and of the ways in which cultural messages (can) manipulate them”. [20]

This limiting view of audience agency sees Hart lament the disproportionate number of films that depict gay people with AIDS, which, he believes, lead audiences to view homosexuality as the cause of the disease or its exclusive domain. He further bemoans the inevitable deaths of gay characters by the end of the films, which reinforces the equation of AIDS with death and might be perceived by some viewers as the deserved fate of transgressive individuals. Hart ignores the fact that audiences bring their own understandings of AIDS to the cinema, through which they filter what is being represented, and that these understandings changed over time as more became known about AIDS and the epidemiology of the epidemic. These understandings included the fact that, in the first decade of the crisis, gay men in western countries were dying of AIDS in disproportionate numbers – for filmmakers to deny this would be false – but also that, by the end of the 1980s, women, heterosexual men, and people of colour were also clearly implicated in the epidemic and becoming infected with HIV in large numbers. For instance, it would have been virtually impossible to attend a 1993 screening of Philadelphia – a film about a white gay man who dies of AIDS – without also being aware that a black heterosexual male basketballer named Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson had contracted HIV and was very much living with the virus. News of Johnson’s diagnosis in November 1991 became prime time news and featured on the front and back pages of national newspapers, [21] and his story became even more remarkable and remarked upon once he won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1992 as part of the US team.

Hart’s methodology reinforces the ahistorical view. He judges the films, irrespective of when they were produced, accordingly to four main features: the demographic characteristics and infection status of characters, explanation of how they contracted HIV/AIDS, evidence of victim blaming, and the status of each character at the movie’s end. [22] He goes looking for problems and to tally the offences, ignoring the larger social, economic and epidemiological contexts of the films and thus what might have been possible to depict at the time of their production. He thus effectively holds movies shown in the mid-1980s to the same standards as those released a decade later. He makes the mistake, as others have done, of seeing these films as constructions of culture but not also as reflections of it, as producers of meaning but not products of socio-political and economic influences.

Longtime Companion
The death of Hollywood actor Rock Hudson in 1985 was a watershed moment for mainstream visibility of AIDS in the United States. Tall, dark and handsome, Hudson was well known for starring as the romantic lead in a series of popular films from the 1950s onwards. News of his death signified the spread of the disease to the ‘general population’, [23] as large swathes of the unaffected public were suddenly able to put a face to the crisis, rather than dismiss it as the realm of “shadowy homosexuals and drug users”. [24] (Hudson’s homosexuality remained a secret at this point.) Soon after, the NBC-produced made-for-television movie An Early Frost (1985) became the first major televisual confrontation of the topic of AIDS. The movie tells the story of lawyer Michael Pierson (played by Aiden Quinn) who returns home to his family where he simultaneously comes out as gay and reveals that he is dying of AIDS. Although largely received as a critical success and praised for its portrayal of the disease, [25] the movie focused on the feelings and reactions of the man’s family members and was thus admonished for the way it “chose to deal with gayness and death by focusing instead on heterosexuality and the living”. [26] It nonetheless was an important step in bringing representations of AIDS into the living rooms of mainstream America via prime-time television. The script underwent thirteen re-writes before it was deemed palatable, and producer Perry Lafferty claimed that NBC lost $500,000 in revenue because clients were afraid to have their advertisements shown during the broadcast. [27]

Setting aside a few small, independent productions, such as Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), and science fiction horror movies such as The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) in which the fear and ravages of AIDS appears to be subtext, [28] the film industry was slower in confronting the topic; Longtime Companion, which achieved a limited release in US theatres in 1990, was indeed a long time coming. [29] The difficulty the film faced in being produced and distributed, and the critical backlash thereafter, provides an example of the ways in which the contexts of production have been overlooked by critics and the achievements of AIDS films minimised.

Longtime Companion was written by Craig Lucas and directed by Norman René, who had previously worked together for a decade producing plays. After the success of one such play, The Blue Window in 1984, Lucas was approached by a number of major studios in LA and asked what he wanted to make next. When, in a self-proclaimed moment of naivety, he suggested a film about people with AIDS, the “studio smiles froze in place” and he was sent packing. [30] It was not until January 1987 that Lindsay Law, executive producer for American Playhouse, commissioned the film. By September 1988, Lucas had a script that focused on the effect of AIDS on the lives of those who were among the first affected by the epidemic, specifically the gay communities of Manhattan and Fire Island. Law, however, struggled to find co-financing for the estimated $3 million production costs and was rejected by big studios such as Miramax, New Line and Avenue. According to Lucas, even Arthur Krim, chief of the Orion Classics label and husband of a prominent AIDS crusader, rejected the film as he was “dedicating his time to convincing people that AIDS is not a gay disease”. [31] Eventually, the filmmakers were forced to settle for American Playhouse’s limited budget of $1.5 million and set about organising the shoot.

The production process faced its own set of hurdles. The film was partially set at the Pines on Fire Island, an exclusive gay beach town. At first the property association refused to let them film there, and it was only when Lucas threatened them with adverse publicity that they relented. [32] While the limited budget restricted René to a 34-day shoot and a less star-studded cast than he would have liked, some companies stepped forward to donate money, refreshments and props. Many made it clear, however, that they did not want their product shown on screen and thereby associated with images of gay men and AIDS. [33] This concern was shared by major distributers after the film was completed. Despite constant assurances that the film had merit and would have no trouble finding a distributer, Law could not find a studio willing to take it on. [34] It was only after twelve weeks of searching, and several screenings generating positive word of mouth in Los Angeles and New York, that Tom Rothman of the Samuel Goldwyn Company signed on. [35] Two weeks later, Longtime Companion won the audience award at Sundance Film Festival before it was finally shown in cinemas in May and early June 1990. [36]

The film traces the experiences of a group of gay white men in and around New York City from 1981 to 1989. In the opening scene, Willy, a young personal trainer played by Campbell Scott, jogs along the beach and runs into the water to the upbeat backdrop of Blondie’s ‘The Tide is High’. The date is 3 July 1981, midsummer in the gay idyll of Fire Island, and the day that The New York Times published the now famous article ‘Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals’. The sequence progresses with a sense of dramatic irony that belies the carefree setting, as the loosely connected protagonists shrug off this early herald of the forthcoming crisis or dismiss it as “the CIA trying to scare us out of having sex”. Along with Willy, the film centres around his friends Sean and David (Mark Lamos and Bruce Davison), a middle-aged wealthy couple with a house on Fire Island; John (Dermot Mulroney), who is Willy’s best friend and the first character to succumb to AIDS; Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey), a single lawyer who becomes Willy’s partner; and Paul and Howard, a semi closeted New York couple who live next door to Fuzzy’s best friend Liza (Mary-Louise Parker).

Lucas initially attempted to set the film in Vermont, seeking to dispel the misconception that AIDS is a city problem. [37] However, after writing a 70-page draft, he realised he “knew nothing about Vermont” and chose instead to focus on the people and the communities he did know. [38] The film progresses in a series of candid vignettes, showing one day each year from 1981 to 1989. Some critics mistook this format as an attempt to canvass the total impact of “the entire AIDS decade”. [39] However, Lucas said he felt paralysed by the prospect of reducing the impact of the crisis to a single narrative, and he was unable to proceed until René suggested he focus on the small details of how each character got through a particular day. [40] This episodic structure nonetheless allows a macroscopic view of the characters’ developmental arc; from the initial fall from the edenic Fire Island, to the chaos and confusion of the early AIDS crisis, and finally the galvanisation of the community into politicised groups such as ACT UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The structure also provides reprieve from emotional exhaustion without denying the extensiveness of the tragedy: although four of the eight protagonists die from AIDS, only one death is shown on screen.

It was important to Lucas and René that the film did not overdramatise the crisis with hyperemotional representations of people with AIDS. They wanted the film to look “almost as if it were a documentary” and rejected the “beautiful, lush, heartbreaking music” offered by composers. [41] In one early scene, set in 1982, John is admitted to the emergency room with opportunistic pneumocystis. Filmed from above, he is covered in a tangle of wires and his face is obscured by an oxygen mask. The camera lingers for over 30 seconds and the only sound is the mechanical drone of the medical ventilator: the image is unadorned and sparse, more terrifying than it is sad. Despite these efforts, Longtime Companion was slammed by critics for being “insipid” and “self-absorbed”, [42] and described as a “weepy in which the girls happen to be guys”. [43]

In a New Statesman review, Suzanne Moore criticised the film’s use of a melodramatic “soap format”, a genre which pushes a “closed community in crisis” towards sentimentality and death. [44] For Moore, the limits of the format most egregiously manifest in the ending of the film, in which three of the surviving protagonists return to Fire Island and imagine a fantasy sequence where the dead and the living are reunited to celebrate the end of AIDS. She argues that this “insulting” scene is a result of the “demand for the happy ending” and the restoration of a prior social order imposed by melodrama. However, this use of the melodramatic mode, which evolved out of “women’s films” featuring distinct but overlapping domestic dramas, [45] can be read as subversive and liberating. From its onset, the narrative is located in the familiar format of private, quotidian lifestyles, a strategy usually reserved for heteronormative images of nuclear families. The ending thus does not reinforce repressive patriarchal norms, but elicits a nostalgia for gay life before AIDS that left some viewers “incredibly moved”. [46] By framing the narrative around domestic scenes of, for example, two men eating breakfast in their underwear, the film appropriates the soap genre to examine how the dynamics of private lives were affected by AIDS, even as the crisis played out in public and political spheres. As such, the audience sees the epidemic unfold in kitchens and living rooms rather than on news reports; they are angled from within, rather than looking on as outsiders.

The soap structure is also important to the film’s self-reflexive preoccupation with representation. One of the protagonists, closeted actor Howard, auditions for and is given a part in the TV soap Other People. Several years later, Howard is dismayed to learn that his character has been rewritten as gay, as he is anxious that he will be pigeonholed and unable to play “serious” (read: straight) lead roles. Lucas recalls similar concerns displayed by the many actors who were offered roles in Longtime Companion, one of whom was advised by his agent to avoid “making [his] name playing a gay character”. [47] To the other characters, however, the revelation that Howard’s character is gay is a welcome development and they gather at Sean and David’s beach house to witness the first kiss between two gay characters on the show. David Román writes that, at the time, such gatherings were common whenever a gay representation found its way into mainstream television, [48] and the semi-ironic howls and cheers in the film highlight the importance and paucity of such representations. The scene also emphasises the significance of Longtime Companion itself by juxtaposing its unapologetic portrayal of gay characters comfortable with their sexuality with the soap’s histrionic introduction of a gay character purely for shock value and viewer numbers. In the film, Liza and Sean debate the benefit of such representations; Liza argues that “it’s important for people to be seeing it”, while Sean quips that “it doesn’t stop them from hating us”. This discussion is reflective of the ambivalence felt by many critics and viewers, highlighting the fine line between reinforcing reductive stereotypes and representing diversity.

Despite its self-awareness of the problems in representation, the most common criticism of Longtime Companion is that it failed to portray the diversity of the gay community and the range of people with AIDS. Critics took umbrage with the film’s focus on the lives of middle-class, gay white men over those of intravenous drug users, women, and people of colour. Indeed, the only depiction of a non-white person with AIDS occurs in a highly ambiguous scene in which Willy visits Alberto as part of a ‘buddy’ program to help him with his domestic chores. It is unclear whether Alberto is gay, and Willy confronts him for not being more proactive about his AIDS diagnosis. The scene is incidental to the central arc of the film, and its inclusion is at best a mere gesture to the impact of the pandemic on racial minorities. However, to say that Longtime Companion unrealistically limits its characters to “parochial stereotypes” of middle-class gay men would be disingenuous. [49] As Vito Russo points out, most of the characters are white, handsome and upscale professionals because “this is exactly the population first identified with the disease” (first identification being quite different from the actual diversity of people afflicted by AIDS at the time). [50]  Although public understanding and the epidemiological reality of AIDS had become far more nuanced by 1990, Lucas always intended to make a film about the “early years of AIDS” and the delays in production and distribution obscure the much earlier completion of the script. [51]

The more positive reviews of Longtime Companion praised its powerful realism. In one scene, David (Bruce Davison in a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination) takes care of his very ill lover Sean, changing his diaper and easing him gently into death. Film critic Don Shewey recalled how the small details in the domestic, unscored scene, such as the pillow that David places between Sean’s legs before rolling him over, brought back an almost unbearable flood of memories of looking after his own dying lover. [52] Nevertheless, Sarah Schulman found the experience of watching the film “jarring” and “false”, and could not reconcile it with what she had seen in her years of working as an activist. [53] Both responses, however divergent, hinge on the same premise of what Hart terms “homophily”, defined as the degree of similarity between the characters and the viewers. It is on this basis that Hart advocates fewer representations of gay men with AIDS if filmmakers seek to provoke the consciousness and conscience on mainstream cinema audiences, and praises films with heterosexual (and white) men with AIDS for their degree of homophily with an implicitly straight, white and male audience. [54] This somewhat bleak approach in film criticism assumes that audiences cannot empathise across representational boundaries, despite the fact that gay men, women, people of colour, and other minorities have been doing so for decades. [55]

Longtime Companion was also criticised for its sanitised and desexualised representation of gay men. [56] In a Spectator review entitled ‘Curiously Unshocking’, Hilary Mantel bewilderingly criticises the film for being so palatable that she sat through it “without a qualm” and so inoffensive that she could “bring the Pope”. [57] Her disappointment seems to stem less from the film’s failings than from the lost opportunity to wax lyrical about ‘promiscuous’ gays. The truth is that the film was sanitised: the only character with sexually explicit scenes was cut, and any sexualised language was ultimately eradicated from the script. [58] But these alterations were not made in the furtherance of a conservative, homophobic agenda; they were necessary, albeit lamentable, compromises that ensured a wide release and accessibility. For much of the mainstream media, these concessions were not enough; even today, despite the fact that the film hardly contains a gay kiss, it can only be watched on YouTube once the viewer verifies their age as over 18. [59] Lucas and René were all too aware that a mainstream audience necessitated desexualisation. Even the title of Longtime Companion refers to the euphemism used in obituaries for the surviving partner of a gay person, in a self-reflexive gesture toward the censoring mainstreaming process.

After the film was released and the negative reviews started piling up, Lucas remembers “wanting to die”. It was René, however, who died of AIDS in 1996 and Lucas recalls “thinking that I was not going to let anybody ever forget any of it”. [60] But now Longtime Companion risks being forgotten, or at least misremembered as two things it was not: a bad film and a disingenuous representation. Rather, it told a set of stories that were authentic and moving, if not all the stories that could have been told at the time, and initiated a dialogue with the American public. It also implicitly issued a challenge to Hollywood to step up to the plate.

Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, and production and distribution companies Clinica Estetico and TriStar Pictures, accepted the invitation, and Philadelphia became the first wide-release studio-backed film to tackle the topic of AIDS and homosexuality. The film is a mediation on prejudice, tolerance, fear, and – befitting a courtroom drama – justice. It stars Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer who is dismissed from his Philadelphian firm on fabricated charges after it becomes apparent that he has AIDS. Rejected by nine lawyers on first approach, Andrew eventually wins a wrongful-termination suit with the help of a homo- and AIDS-phobic attorney, Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington. Joe is initially afraid to shake hands with Andrew and candidly admits that homosexuals make him sick, but accepts that the law sees differently.

For many gay and lesbian critics, the premise of the film was false. It is inconceivable that Andrew could not have found a sympathetic gay lawyer or gay-rights organisation to take his case. The film is “not only absurd but grossly ahistorical”, argued Sarah Schulman, since “gay people built a world of services, advocacy organisations, and personal relationships in response to the epidemic that later became the foundation of support for HIV-infected heterosexuals. Gay lawyers were among the first professional sectors to respond”. [61] The love and encouragement extended by Andrew’s parents, siblings and in-laws, was also at odds with the rejection that many homosexuals and people with HIV/AIDS experienced in real life. [62] Worse, according to some critics, was the conflation, yet again, of homosexuality and disease. The gay man whose lifestyle saw him infected with HIV and who eventually dies was the staple of television drama and made-for-TV movies in the first decade of the epidemic, and Philadelphia did little to change this perception. [63] The depiction of a well-to-do gay white man with AIDS obscured the fact that by 1993 AIDS had become a disease of the poor, heterosexual women of colour, and drug users. [64] Had a Hollywood studio made the film five years earlier, instead of pretending that AIDS did not exist, its focus might have been warranted.

These objections can be dismissed easily enough. It was important that Andrew was a gay man because Philadelphia is as much about exposing homophobia as it is about AIDS. The attitudes of the firm’s partners who stand trial are exposed as repugnant and Joe’s preconceptions of gay men do not stand the test of engaging with Andrew and witnessing his enormous capacity to give and receive love. And the inclusion of an adoring and supportive extended family, if not the experience of the majority of homosexuals and people with AIDS, was supposed to provide a model for audience members to begin caring for them once they left the cinema.

More difficult to justify is the film’s sanitised portrayal of Andrew’s relationship with his lover, Miguel, played by Antonio Banderas. The two are not afforded a kiss and are never shown sleeping in the same bed (a staple of celluloid depictions of romantic relationships). [65] Critics noted that while Joe is shown doing both with his wife, Miguel might well be Andrew’s roommate or nurse, or at best his brother. [66] In a film with ambition to improve the public’s acceptance of homosexuality, this rankled many. As Scott Thompson, of the Canadian cross-dressing quintet The Kids in the Hall, told Time magazine’s Richard Corliss: “If Hollywood is using this movie to make America love us, they are making them love a false image. I don’t want that kind of acceptance.” [67]

Director and co-producer Jonathan Demme was unrepentant: “I made this movie for people like me: people who aren’t activists, people who are afraid of AIDS, people who have been raised to look down on gays. I feel we’ve connected with those people.” [68] He continued: “When we see two men kissing, we’re the products of our brainwashing – it knocks us back twenty feet … I didn’t want to risk knocking our audience back twenty feet with images they’re not prepared to see.” [69] For the sake of communicating important messages about HIV-transmission, discrimination and tolerance, Andrew and Miguel’s private life needed to remain relatively private. In scathing reviews of the film, Larry Kramer, Roy Grundmann and Peter Sacks accused Demme of underestimating the American public’s tolerance for the depiction of gay life on TV and film. [70] The commotion surrounding the modest love scene in Brokeback Mountain, released some twelve years later, suggests that their optimism was misplaced. Demme’s own research revealed that he was already pushing the boundary. One man who attended a pre-release screening of the film in a working-class neighbourhood near Baltimore told the director that the sight of Andrew and Miguel dancing check-to-shoulder made him physically ill. [71] Truth is in the eye of the beholder, but it is possible that this scene of exquisite tenderness was more honest and – because of its poignancy – more confronting for heterosexual audiences, than any number of scenes of entwined tongues and bare flesh that featured in some earlier and later films about gay men.

Writing ten years after the film first screened, Robert Corber remained concerned about the sanitised portrayal of Andrew and Miguel’s relationship, and the way in which the spirit of the militant AIDS activist movement was suppressed by telling a story about AIDS and gays through a courtroom drama: “a discourse of civil rights that is less threatening to the liberal pluralistic framework of American political culture”. [72] This ideological project, he asserts, requires a “dequeering” or “normalising” of gay identity suggesting that “the only way for gay men to assert their claims on the nation is by repudiating the very practices that are the basis of their identities”. [73] Redress can only be sought by them behaving like good citizens and working within the existing political and legal system, and by conceptualising AIDS as an issue of human rights rather than gay rights. This strategy “divert[s] attention from the need for structural changes and promote[s] as an alternative the desire for national recognition of personal suffering”. [74]

Corber takes the filmmakers to task for including a scene outside the courthouse in which Andrew’s supporters face off against protesters carrying signs that assert “AIDS cures homosexuality”. Of Andrew’s side, Corber writes, “one might expect their posters to evoke the sophisticated graphics created by ACT UP and other militant AIDS activist groups … But their posters make reference neither to AIDS nor to homosexuality”. [75] On this point he is mistaken. There are at least four prominently positioned placards that display the graphics of Gran Fury, an artist collective aligned with ACT UP, including the pink triangle with the words “Silence = Death” and red handprints that symbolise ‘blood on the government’s hands’. And while Miguel is derided by Corber and other critics for being seemingly asexual and banal, they overlook that he delivers one of the film’s most angry speeches and is occupied in activism. Corber’s assumption that recognition of personal suffering does not go hand-in-hand with, and even precludes the possibility of, structural change is also rather odd. Personal homophobia has had a very real impact on the broader AIDS crisis, and in 1993 warranted the kind of exposure afforded by Philadelphia if the situation was to be improved; evidence suggests that viewers’ “parasocial” interactions in entertainment programming powerfully affects their perceptions of people with AIDS. [76]  Mainstream film necessarily traffics in sentimentalised images of personal suffering, operating in the business of producing affect. The more militant tactics of AIDS activists certainly provoked and inspired many, and were probably effective in forcing governments to become more attentive to the needs of the communities most affected by AIDS. But they were also alienating, and even if they could be better translated to the big screen, they were unlikely to survive the economic pressure and ideological mainstreaming of the film industry.

Philadelphia achieved its aim and played in Wichita, Kansas, as well as the East Village. It took more than $120 million at the U.S. box office before being released to video, which suggests that significant numbers of straight people – perhaps previously lacking exposure to homosexuals or people with AIDS – came to care about their fate for the first time. President Bill Clinton and invited guests watched a private screening of the film at the White House; the same cannot be said for any other movie about AIDS that featured gay characters. [77] Who can tell the impact this may have had on his administration? (Clinton disappointed many with his handling of AIDS and gay and lesbian issues, but he might have been much worse.) Philadelphia was not the movie for which everyone hoped, but in terms of raising awareness and tolerance outside of queer circles, it became the most important film produced in the time of AIDS. It deserves to be remembered more fondly.

Boys on the Side
The 1995 film Boys on the Side (dir. Herbert Ross) was not preceded by the same drumroll as Longtime Companion and Philadelphia. It was not heralded by the media as a momentous ‘first’ nor heaped with the burden of representing the AIDS crisis as the earlier films were. Released widely by Warner Bros., the film was not a smash hit at the box office, but it easily returned a profit on its estimated budget of $21 million. [78] Rather than detracting from its significance, this aura of mediocrity surrounding the film highlights the changed socio-political context of its production: by 1995, AIDS narratives were no longer commercially unviable and had become relatively common in Hollywood. The film was not perceived as an ‘event’ but as a run-of-the-mill, big-budget production. As such, the newfound marketability of AIDS evidenced by Boys on the Side is a debt owed to the efforts of its forerunners.

The film centres around three women: Jane (Whoopi Goldberg), a lesbian singer in New York City who wants to try her luck in LA; Robin (Mary-Louise Parker), a real estate agent who Jane describes as “the whitest person on the face of the earth” and who, we find out, is dying from AIDS; and Holly (Drew Barrymore), Jane’s somewhat clueless and free-spirited friend. Jane answers Robin’s newspaper advertisement seeking someone to accompany her on a drive to California, and the pair are joined by Holly after they help her escape from her abusive, drug-dealer boyfriend. The first half of the film explicitly rides on the coattails of Thelma & Louise’s popularity, [79] as Holly learns that she accidentally killed her violent ex-boyfriend and joins Jane and Robin on their road trip. After Robin is hospitalised due to an AIDS-related illness, the three settle down in Tucson, Arizona to begin new lives. Jane lives with Robin and cares for her until her eventual death, and Holly gives birth to an interracial baby and marries a dopey policeman (Matthew McConaughey).

Comparing Boys on the Side to Philadelphia and Longtime Companion demonstrates a shift in focus of the AIDS crisis, in terms of both the epidemiology and cultural awareness of the disease. It made sense that the earlier films focused on gay men, who constituted the majority of new AIDS cases in the US. But the number of women as a proportion of the total number of AIDS cases had increased from 5.3% in 1982 to 14.6% in 1995. Even in the two years between the releases of Philadelphia and Boys on the Side the number of women diagnosed with HIV in the United States had increased by more than 50%. [80] According to Paula Treichler, this growing rate of infection was a direct result of gendered bias in medical reports that persisted in viewing women as “inefficient” and “passive” transmitters of HIV. [81] As such, women were largely left out of scientific discourse and misinformed about their ability to contract HIV, even as they continued to make up growing proportions of new diagnoses. The attitude of medical ignorance towards women with AIDS was captured in the activist slogan: “Women don’t get AIDS – they just die of it.” [82]

Before Boys on the Side, depictions of women with AIDS were limited to auxiliary narrative elements, such as Robin Wright’s character in Forrest Gump (1994) or the unnamed paralegal in Philadelphia. While these representations gesture towards a wider demographic of people with AIDS, they are nonessential to the central plot and, in the case of Forrest Gump, risk reinforcing the cultural myth of AIDS as punishment for promiscuity. This popular stereotype meant that sex workers were more likely to consider themselves at risk, and evidence suggests that they were thus better protected and more aware of AIDS than other women. [83]

In Boys on the Side, it is not the sexually active drug-user nor the black lesbian woman who has AIDS, but the middle-class, prudish Robin, who contracted HIV during a one night stand with a bartender. The film was criticised for ignoring the reality of the disease by depicting AIDS in a character who is, demographically, the least at risk of the three. [84] But this decision can be read as an attempt to undo the cultural constructions of AIDS that fostered myths of immunity. The worst thing that a film about AIDS could do in 1995 was perpetuate the dominant view that “the major risk factor in acquiring AIDS is being a particular person rather than doing particular things”. [85] Audiences come to films with pre-existing sets of biases; if Jane had AIDS, it could be seen as a result of her blackness or sexuality, or in Holly’s case, as punishment for her promiscuity or working-class background. Robin, on the other hand, is pre-constructed as the ultimate tabula rasa as a white effeminate woman; the only reason she has AIDS is because she had unsafe sex.

The real issue with this argument is the structural norms that value different forms of personhood over others. There is no reason that Robin having AIDS should be more relatable than if Jane or Holly had it, but mainstream film operates on a representational minefield of audience bias and cultural stereotypes. While systemic overhaul of underlying prejudice is desirable, it is beyond the limits of a single feature film. Hollywood is in the business of providing entertainment, which necessitates mass cultural appeal. Boys on the Side was produced within the sharply defined limits of mainstream entertainment, but manages to incrementally destabilise constructs of AIDS as punishment of errant identity.

The decision to portray a ‘conventional’ woman as HIV-positive is also important to the film’s interrogation of safe sex. Longtime Companion and Philadelphia were both heavily criticised for their sanitised and largely platonic portrayal of gay relationships, which was a result of the mainstreaming forces of film production. Boys on the Side, in contrast, depicts a sexually explicit scene in which Robin almost has sex with a man who is seemingly indifferent to her HIV-positive status. In alluding to the dangers of unsafe sex and shifting the focus from dying of AIDS to living with it, the scene achieves more than the earlier films could. However, it is arguably only able to do this because it depicts palatable heterosexual sex, and it focalises on the most common sexual representation in the form of a straight white woman. The film thus plays into Hollywood’s long tradition of scopophilia and pandering to the male gaze, a price it pays for the progressive representations of AIDS on screen.

While some critics praised Boys on the Side for its long-awaited portrayal of a woman with AIDS, [86] it was, on the whole, reviewed negatively. The general tenor of this criticism was, somewhat ironically, steeped in gendered discourse: most critics viewed it as a weepy “women’s film” and “a load of typical Hollywood tear-jerking crap”. [87] This seems at odds with the fact that, unlike Philadelphia and Longtime Companion, the film produces very few opportunities to cry for or pity its characters, who are more defined by their sardonic humour. Robin, for example, who is dying of AIDS, sarcastically exclaims on the witness stand in Holly’s trial: “If I am lying, let me be struck down by a terrible disease.” In another scene, Holly tells Jane that she would never have an abortion because she would “feel like a murderer”, immediately after she has murdered her ex-boyfriend. This dialogue is exemplary of the tone of Boys on the Side, and seems a far cry from what Leslie Felperin described as a film “heav[ing] with emotionally-charged scenes of characters revealing their feelings”. [88]

The critical insistence upon defining Boys on the Side as a “women’s film” seemingly stems from the fact that the three central characters happen to be women. In a review in Entertainment Weekly, Liza Schwarzbaum chastised the film for its so-called “marketing segregation”, claiming that “If you’re a girl and you see this movie, you’ll probably cry. If you’re a boy and you don’t have to go, you probably won’t.” Like Amy Gamerman, who took umbrage at a brief shot depicting the three women painting each other’s toenails, [89]  Schwarzbaum reproduces patriarchal assumptions that women are not worthwhile subjects or audiences. Such criticisms are rarely levied at films focusing on men; indeed, the day after Boys on the Side came out in cinemas, the nearly all-male cast of Die Hard: With a Vengeance was released. The film was given a massive budget, and not a single critic called it a “men’s film” or accused it of “marketing segregation”.

The gendered critiques of Boys on the Side replicate the ways in which the medical discourse of AIDS ignored its impact on women for so long. Stanley Kauffman argues that the film’s inclusion of AIDS was seemingly a response to tests held to “determine which problems would have the most audience-grab”. [90] It appears that when a woman is shown dying of AIDS, it is no longer a brave confrontation of a deadly disease, but a “90s accessory” with which a director can “dress up his girls”. [91] This echoes the gender bias in early medical journals about AIDS, which argued that HIV cannot penetrate the “rugged vagina” that “is designed to withstand the trauma of intercourse as well as childbirth”. [92]  The idea that the suffering of women is expected and only men’s suffering is noteworthy permeates both the medical discourse and the critical minimisation of Robin’s AIDS in Boys on the Side. Even as these critics praise the film for breaking Hollywood’s silence on the topic of women with AIDS, they reproduce the gendered logic that led to the silence in the first place.

Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, and Boys on the Side are not perfect films. If any one of them were released today, it would no doubt appear regressive in its representational dialogism of people with AIDS. But the obverse of this would-be contemporary regression is contextual progression; it is only thanks to the efforts of these early films that we have come to expect more nuanced filmic interrogations of AIDS. The critical legacies of these films have been largely defined by cultural theorists who highlight the ways in which they conform to existing power structures and create meaning through representation. These criticisms are important in their normative vision for better representations, but such new representations build upon, rather than replace, the preceding texts. As such, these criticisms should go hand-in-hand with the counterweight of historical contextualisation, and the films should be remembered as neither radical reinventions of societal norms nor ideological projects of mainstream homophobia and heteronormativity. Instead, early AIDS movies provided a site of conflict between commercialised values and artistic visions, and incrementally expanded cinematic possibilities. The teleological progression of Longtime Companion to Philadelphia and then Boys on the Side demonstrates evolving narrative scope and bigger budgets, which contribute to broader and more complex constructions of AIDS in the mainstream social consciousness. The true extensiveness and tragedy of the ongoing AIDS crisis will never be adequately represented on screen, but more representation is better than less, just as speaking is better than silence. To forget the achievements of these films would only compound the tragedy.

[1] President Ronald Reagan did not give a speech about AIDS until 1987, when he called for mandatory testing of all immigrants and prisoners. Russo alleges that more federal funding was given in one week to investigating the Tylenol murders than devoted to combatting AIDS in the first three years of the crisis. See Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (revised ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 325.
[2] Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification”, Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (1987), pp. 263-305.
[3] Moshe Sluhovsky, “Philadelphia” [review of five films about AIDS], American Historical Review 99, no. 4 (1994), p. 1267.
[4] Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse”, p. 270. At the time, the acronym ‘AIDS’ had not yet been coined to describe the syndrome caused by exposure to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
[5] In a meeting in the White House in June 2017, President Donald Trump allegedly said Haitians “all have AIDS”. See Edwidge Danticat, “Trump Reopens an Old Wound for Haitians”, New Yorker, 29 December 2017,
[6] Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 145.
[7] Susan Sontag, AIDS and its Metaphors (London: Penguin, 1989), p. 46.
[8] Edward Koch, “Senator Helms’s Callousness Toward AIDS Victims”, The New York Times, 7 November 1987,
[9] Emile C. Netzhammer and Scott A. Shamp, “Guilt by Association: Homosexuality and AIDS on Prime-time Television”, in Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality, ed. R. Jeffrey Ringer (New York: New York University Press, 1994), p. 92.
[10] Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), p. 204.
[11] Alex Witchel, “For the Widow of Brad Davis, Time Cannot Heal All Wounds”, The New York Times, 16 April 1997,
[12] Ibid.
[13] Craig Lucas, “Justifying Our Love: Longtime Companion”, Advocate, November 12, 2002, p. 87.
[14] Manohla Dargis, “AIDS Against the Grain”, Village Voice, 24 May 1994, p. 22.
[15] Kylo-Patrick R. Hart, The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic in Film and Television (New York: The Haworth Press, 2000). Other books have been written about ‘AIDS videos’ produced by artists, activists and people with AIDS themselves. Video is a very different genre, produced for a different audience. See Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995); and Roger Hallas, Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009).
[16] Hart, The AIDS Movie, p. 11.
[17] Ibid., p. 13.
[18] Ibid., p. 31.
[19] Ibid., p. 7.
[20] Lawrence Grossberg, “Is There a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom”, in Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa Lewis (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 53.
[21] In a special report charting the history of dramatic moments in sport published in 2004, ESPN named Johnson’s HIV announcement as the seventh-most memorable moment of the past 25 years. See
[22] Hart, The AIDS Movie, p. 11.
[23] Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse”, p. 270.
[24] Benshoff and Griffin, Queer Images, pp. 202-3.
[25] The script sought to address many of the longstanding myths about AIDS, including its contagiousness and association with homosexuality. A doctor reassures Michael that “it’s not just a gay disease – it never was. The virus doesn’t know or care about your sexual preference.”
[26] Sluhovsky, “Philadelphia”, p. 1268.
[27] Internet Movie Database, “An Early Frost”, IMDb,
[28] For discussion about the sub-textual referencing of AIDS in horror movies, see Kenneth MacKinnon, The Politics of Popular Representation: Reagan, Thatcher, AIDS, and the Movies (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992), esp. pp. 177-80; and Ernest Mathijs, “AIDS References in the Critical Reception of David Cronenberg: ‘It may not be such a bad disease after all’”, Cinema Journal 42, no. 4 (2003), pp. 29-45.
[29] The film premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 1989 and was shown at other film festivals before being released in a limited number of US theatres in May 1990. It subsequently screened in fourteen other countries.
[30] David Román, “Remembering AIDS: A Reconsideration of the Film Longtime Companion”, Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 12, no. 2 (2006), p. 286; Margot Dougherty, “Longtime Companion Makes it to the Big Screen”, Entertainment Weekly, 18 May 1990,
[31] Dougherty, “Longtime Companion Makes it to the Big Screen”.
[32] Kerrie Mitchell, “Longtime Companion is 25: An Oral History of the Trailblazing, Heartbreaking First Major Movie About AIDS”, Yahoo! Movies, 25 August 2015,
[33] Dougherty, “Longtime Companion Makes it to the Big Screen”.
[34] Christopher Michaud, “Is There a Distributer Out There for this Film?”, The New York Times, 18 March 1990, p. 15. Don Romesburg claims the film was passed over by 20 distributors because it was feared that few people would watch it. See Romesburg, “Longtime Companion Fights to Break New Ground”, The Advocate, 8 May 1990, reprinted 6 June 2000, p. 20.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Román, “Remembering AIDS”, p. 287.
[37] Noel Taylor, “Longtime Companion: Facing AIDS”, Ottawa Citizen, 29 June 1990, p. 11.
[38] Dougherty, “Longtime Companion Makes it to the Big Screen”.
[39] Roy Grundmann, “Longtime Companion” [review], Cineaste 18, no.1 (1990), pp. 47-9.
[40] Mitchell, “Longtime Companion is 25”.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Vincent Canby, “Manhattan’s Privileged and the Plague of AIDS”, The New York Times, 11 May 1990,
[43] “Films and the Fear of AIDS”, The Economist, 28 May 1994, p. 87.
[44] Suzanne Moore, “The Struggle for Safe Endings”, New Statesman, 7 September 1990, p. 34.
[45] Michael Bronski, “The Queer 1990s: The Challenge and Failure of Radical Change”, in American Film History: Selected Readings, 1960 to Present, ed. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann and Art Simon (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), p. 332.
[46] Román, “Remembering AIDS”, p. 290.
[47] Mitchell, “Longtime Companion is 25”.
[48] Román, “Remembering AIDS”, p. 288.
[49] Vincent Canby, “Manhattan’s Privileged and the Plague of AIDS”, The New York Times, 11 May 1990, Canby’s review set the tone for much of the forthcoming criticism of the film.
[50] Vito Russo, “Russo on Film: The Loved and the Lost”, Advocate, 8 May 1990, p. 53.
[51] Mitchell, “Longtime Companion is 25”.
[52] Don Shewey, “In Memory of My Feelings”, Film Comment 26, no. 3 (1990), pp. 11-15.
[53] Mitchell, “Longtime Companion is 25”.
[54] Hart, The AIDS Movie, p. 87. Hart discusses this position in relation to the film Stealing Beauty.
[55] The Celluloid Closet, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Hollywood, CA: Reflective Image Inc and Telling Pictures, 1995.
[56] Grundmann, “Longtime Companion”, p. 51.
[57] Hilary Mantel, “Curiously Unshocking”, Spectator, 29 September 1990, p. 46.
[58] Farrah Anwar, “Longtime Companion”, Monthly Film Bulletin, 1 November 1990, pp. 326-7.
[59] YouTube is often criticised for unjustified restriction of LGBTQ+ themed content. See, for example,
[60] Lucas, “Justifying Our Love”, p. 86.
[61] Sarah Schulman, Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 49-50.
[62] Even the conservative critic John Simon quipped that the scenes shared by Beckett and his family “could have been painted by Norman Rockwell … [the family members] are all models of love, supportiveness and pride, as if Andrew had received some great but controversial award”. John Simon, “Romancing AIDS”, National Review, 7 February 2004, p. 68.
[63] The construction of AIDS as gay, and the enduring consequences of this, is discussed in Netzhammer and Shamp, “Guilt by Association”, pp. 91-106; Frank Pilipp and Charles Shull, “American Values and Images: TV Movies of the First Decade of AIDS”, Journal of Popular Film and Television 21, no. 1 (1993), pp. 19-26; and Kylo-Patrick R. Hart, “Representing Men with HIV/AIDS in American Movies”, Journal of Men’s Studies 11, no. 1 (2002), pp. 77-89.
[64] This point was made in a number of reviews of the film. See, for example, Jeffrey Schmalz, “From Visions of Paradise to Hell on Earth”, The New York Times, 28 February 1993, pp. H1, H26; and “Films and Fears about AIDS”, The Economist, 28 May 1994, pp. 87-8.
[65] A scene in which Andrew lay in bed with a shirtless Miguel was cut from the final version of the film. See William Grimes, “AIDS is the Subject, but who is the Audience?”, The New York Times, 19 December 1993, pp. H11, H26.
[66] Dargis, “AIDS Against the Grain”, pp. SS10, SS22; Roy Grundmann and Peter Sacks, “Philadelphia”, Cineaste 20, no. 3 (1993), pp. 51-4; Desson Howe, “Philadelphia” [review], Washington Post, 14 January 1994; and David NeNicolo, “Is ‘Philadelphia’ on Target in its Portrait of Gay Life”, The New York Times, 16 January 1994, p. A1.
[67] Richard Corliss, “The Gay Gauntlet”, Time, 7 February 1994, pp. 62-4,,9171,980088-1,00.html.
[68] Demme quoted in ibid.
[69] Anthony DeCurtis, “Interview: Jonathan Demme”, Rolling Stone, no. 678, 24 March 1994,
[70] Larry Kramer, “Lying About the Gay ’90s”, Washington Post, 9 January 1994, p. G1; Grundmann and Sacks, “Philadelphia”, pp. 51-4.
[71] Grimes, “AIDS is the Subject, but who is the Audience?”.
[72] Robert J. Corber, “Nationalising the Gay Body: AIDS and Sentimental Pedagogy in Philadelphia”, American Literary History 15, no. 1 (2003), pp. 107-33. The quote is from p. 108.
[73] Ibid., p. 127.
[74] Ibid., p. 115.
[75] Ibid., p. 107.
[76] Netzhammer and Shamp, “Guilt by Association”, p. 104.
[77] DeCurtis, “Interview: Jonathan Demme”.
[78] Internet Movie Database, “Boys on the Side”, IMDb,
[79] Jane states in the film “I am not going over a cliff for you two, so just forget it”.
[80] HIV/AIDS Surveillance Reports, Centre for Disease Control, US Department of Health and Human Services, 1989-1995.
[81] Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse”, p. 270.
[82] Paula Treichler, “Collectivity in Trouble: Writing on AIDS by Susan Sontag and Sarah Schulman”, American Studies 57, no. 2 (2012), p. 249.
[83] Nancy Shaw and Lyn Paleo, “Women and AIDS”, in What to do about AIDS, ed. Leon McKusick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 144; Paul Sendziuk, Learning to Trust: Australian Responses to AIDS (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003), pp. 177-98.
[84] Kathleen Waites, “Invisible Woman: Herbert Ross’ Boys on the Side Puts HIV/AIDS and Women in Their Place”, Journal of Popular Culture 39, no. 3 (2006), p. 485. On the other hand, Hart argues that the film somehow erred in even having a lesbian character and thereby failing “to make a clean break from associating AIDS with homosexuality”. Hart, The AIDS Movie, p. 61.
[85] Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse”, p. 270.
[86] Janet Maslin, “Boys on the Side” [review], The New York Times, 3 February 1995, p. C3.
[87] Peter Travers, “Boys on the Side” [review], Rolling Stone, 23 February 1995, p. 77.
[88] Leslie Felperin, “Boys on the Side” [review], Sight and Sound, 1 May 1995, p. 5.
[89] Amy Gamerman, “Boys on the Side” [review], Wall Street Journal, 16 February 1995, Leisure & Arts, p. A12.
[90] Stanley Kauffmann, “Boys on the Side” [review], New Republic, 6 March 1995, Books & the Arts, p. 30.
[91] Gamerman, “Boys on the Side”, p. A12.
[92] These quotes are from John Langone, “AIDS: the Latest Scientific Facts”, Discover, December 1985, pp. 27-52.

About the Author

Paul Sendziuk & Eva Squire

About the Authors

Paul Sendziuk

Paul Sendziuk is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at The University of Adelaide. He is the author of A History of South Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2018), Learning to Trust: Australian Responses to AIDS (UNSW Press, 2003), and The Art of AIDS Prevention: Cultural Responses to HIV/AIDS in Australia, the United States and South Africa (Palgrave, forthcoming). He is particularly interested in the history of cultural representations of the AIDS crisis.

Eva Squire

Eva Squire is an Arts/Law student at The University of Adelaide, majoring in English Literature. She has an interest in critical textual analysis and film studies. She has written for The Guardian, most recently a review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.View all posts by Paul Sendziuk & Eva Squire →