IN MEMORY OF MY FEELINGS: Longtime Companion

Why do we cry at movies? I cry easily, without shame, in fact with satisfaction, and I know that certain things push my buttons. It used to be that my number-one button-pusher was anything that stirred up my stormy, unresolved relationship with my father. Jack Nicholson's monologue out in the field to his wheelchair-bound father in Five Easy Pieces . . . Gene Hackman still trying to please crusty old Melvyn Douglas in I Never Sang for My Father. . . Robert Duvall bouncing a basketball off the back of Michael O'Keefe's head in The Great Santini. Often the tiniest details in movies -- a look, a pair of sunglasses -- can trigger waves of emotion, a reunion with feelings from the past. It's a profound version of nostalgia. The Greeks had a word for it, anagnorisis, recognition -- though I've also heard it appropriately described as the I-had-that-sweater-once syndrome.

I can understand why I cry at movies that touch things in my life about which I have volatile feelings. I know less about the mechanism that makes me cry at situations outside my experience, so I am both fascinated and resistant when that happens. My Left Foot had me almost continuously in tears -- especially the scene where young Christy Brown crawls from under the stairs and scratches out MOTHER on the floor with his toes. Even those of us whose biggest challenge is losing five pounds or getting out of bed in the morning -- well, maybe it's especially the lucky ones who identify heavily with the most extreme examples of human perseverance and fortitude. Impossible love is another theme that seems to cross all barriers, even if it's the love of an aged German woman for a young dark-skinned Turkish worker in Fassbinder's Ali—Fear Eats the Soul.

Bravery in the face of adversity, romantic loss, anything that arouses what my friend Bob would call "the country-and-western emotions" -- those things push everyone's buttons. But because those universal emotions are easily tapped, we've become suspicious about having them engaged and therefore less susceptible. The ending of Terrns of Endearment produced loud sniffling and noseblowing in the movie theater all around me, but the heavy-handed melodrama on the screen reminded me of Oscar Wilde's famous remark about the ending of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop: "It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell." Ditto E.T. When John Williams' manipulative get-out-your-handkerchiefs music started, all my sentiments flew away as I found myself conducting a semi-scientific survey of how many people around me were falling for Steven Spielberg's calculated heart-tugging. It seemed like everyone, but I guess it wasn't. I later heard Elaine May at a dinner party confess her emotional response to E.T.: "I kept thinking, 'When is this fucking puppet gonna die?'"

Death is the big one, sickness and death. I find my attitude toward death scenes in movies has changed a lot since AIDS came along like a guerrilla sniper and started picking off my friends, acquaintances, and culture heroes. I was in my 30s before someone I really cared about on a daily basis left this earth. When I started working as a volunteer with Gay Men's Health Crisis, I got a big dose of watching strong, healthy young men deteriorate into feeble, blind, incontinent infants. And nursing Bob through the last six months of his life, especially after a brain tumor robbed him of the ability to talk, walk, read, write, or feed himself, filled me with feelings of love, disgust, horror, fear. and anger that are almost as raw now as they were then.
Suddenly, deathbed scenes in movies didn't seem quite so calculated to me. The climax of Steel Magnolias is not so different from that of Terrns of Endearment, but now I had my own memories of holding someone's hand helplessly while a high-tech heart monitor displayed a grotesquely abnormal pulse. And I shocked myself bv lapsing into loud, uncontrollable sobbing at Born on the Fourth of July when Tom Cruise in the battlefield hospital received hasty last rites from the chaplain. The scene involuntarily transported me through a nauseating tunnel of memory-soaked electrons to the emergency room at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, where a kind priest from the church around the corner stood over mv friend's temporary bed and put in a good word for him with God.

Deeplv shaken and wondering why, I began enumerating the connections Born on the Fourth of July was making (intentionally? probably not) between AIDS and Vietnam. People who weren't personally, directly affected by losing someone could be remarkably callous and unconcerned about other people's losses, partly because the moral ambiguity of the war and the social stigma surrounding homosexuality and intravenous drug use create a distance that precludes automatic sympathy. Even Oliver Scone's underlying theme of Vietnam's dividing a country against itself applies to AIDS.
After projecting AIDS consciousness onto other movies (It's a Wonderful Life inevitablv devastates AIDS survivors with its bitter picture of a life unlived), I knew I wouldn't have to perform any mental transpositions to relate to Longtime Companion, director Norman Rene's and playwright Craig Lucas' film about a group of gay men and their friends dealing with AIDS from 1981 (when the first article about the disease appeared in The New York Times) to 1989. I knew Lucas' stage work very well, we had become friends, I knew American Plavhouse had commissioned his screenplay about AIDS, we had compared notes about being GMHC volunteers, I'd read an early version of the script, and we had commiserated when our mutual friend Peter Evans died before filming the role Lucas had written for him. So the only question facing me as I went into the first public screening of Longtime Companion was: when would I start crying?

The diaper scene did it. Have you ever changed a diaper on a grown man in a hospital bed? It usually takes two people. You have to crank the head of the bed down so the person is lying flat, raise the bed as high as it will go, lower the rails, tug the Velcro free on the diaper. Then you have to turn the person on his side to remove the diaper and replace it with a fresh one. Parents of newborns do this several times a day without much thought. With a grown man, everything is heavier -- emotionally fraught, disgusting, and sad. You can only do it with love. Hospital staff will teach you one of the tricks of the trade: when you're turning someone on his side, you want to prevent pain and chafing between the legs, so you stick a pillow there before rolling the person over.

I think it was the pillow that brought it all back for me. In Longtime Companion's most disturbing and truthful scene, David (Bruce Davison) and the campy black home-care nurse change Sean (Mark Lamos), a former soap-opera writer now skeletal, paralyzed, petrified, and near death. When they turn him, Sean groans; while they're changing him, he mutters with what little breath he's got left, "Let's go!"

"Let's go!" Bob used to say that to me; when he was hungry or needed to pee or was in pain, he'd growl, "Let's go!" Maybe it's an undocumented svmptom of AIDS -- all cries for help boil down to "Let's go!" Sean mutters it over and over to David. Clearly, he's not just talking about his diaper change now. He's exhausted. He's been through the denial and the fear and the bargaining. He doesn't want to do it anymore.

These actors are extraordinary. Mark Lamos is as thin as can be. He doesn't seem to be wearing much makeup, but he's sweating a greasy, putrid layer of sickness and his eyes practically bulge out of his emaciated skull. Storms wrack his mind, and God's mercy is nowhere in the picture. Bruce Davison is calm, loving, blond, chubby, rich, patient, kind. He's perfected his bedside voice, clear, direct, yes-baby-I-know, cheerful as he can be without sounding saccharine. He sends the nurse away, sits down and takes his lover's hand, looking into his ravaged face with the sweetness of an Italian madonna. "It's okay," he savs to Sean, "you can let go. Let go, my baby. It's all right." The camera doesn't move. Bruce Davison speaks, he cajoles, he instructs, he orders. "Let go. Let go. LET GO. Let go." My experience is that he says this about 300 times; the scene seems to last half an hour. My toes are curling and uncurling in my shoes. I think I'm going to start screaming. I'm going to have to leave the room. "Let go. Let go. Let go."

Longtime Companion is the first major motion picture about AIDS -- if a $1.5 million American Plavhouse production distributed by the Samuel Goldwyn Company can be called a major motion picture. Its predecessors in the AIDS feature film field are few: John Erman's An Early Frost, starring Aidan Quinn, whose AIDS diagnosis is the catalyst for a difficult rapprochement with his father, Ben Gazzara; Buddies by the late Arthur Bressan, Jr., a very low-budget, essentially two-character film diary of an AIDS volunteer's relationship with his client; Parting Glances by the late Bill Sherwood, an excellent gay romance in which a secondary character (a rock musician played by Steve Buscemi) has AIDS; New Zealand directors Stewart Main and Peter Wells' hourlong A Death in the Family, which (not unlike Longtime Companion) portrays a group of friends tending a sick man; and A Virus Knows No Morals, Rosa von Praunheim's savage German-language comedy. Made for TV, An Early Frost spares consumers every single detail of Aidan Quinn's love life and illness, concentrating entirely on the family drama (although John Glover gives a brilliant cameo performance as an angry, flippant bedridden PWA). The other, much more explicit films have been seen by small, almost exclusively gay audiences. The AIDS film genre also includes numerous documentaries (Common Threads, HBO's moving report on the Names Project's quilt; Hero of My Own Life, a portrait of cabaret singer and gay activist David Summers; Carl M. George's brief, bleak DHPG Mon Amour) and video adaptations of stage plays (William Hoffman's As Is, the San Francisco revue The AIDS Show).

Longtime Companion, which played at the Mill Valley and Park City film festivals and will be broadcast nationally sometime after it opens in May, will be one of the first dramas on American network television to have an almost entirely gay cast of characters (the ten-member ensemble of central characters includes one woman, plaved by Mary-Louise Parker). It features tiny scenes of domestic gay life never captured on film before: two guys padding around the house before breakfast in their underpants, brunch on Fire Island, mischievous matchmaking between best friends at tea dance, first-date confessions ("I like hairy men"), the hometown friendship between gay man and straight woman that survives the pilgrimage to the Big City, the gay actor agonizing over accepting a gay role lest he be pegged in the minds of casting agents ("He's that guy who played the homo -- he's a little light..."). And the movie incorporates dozens of details of living with AIDS that will provide a shock of recognition to those who share the experience and an education to those who don't: the denials ("I'm sure it's just bronchitis"), the speculation about friends' sex lives ("Maybe he went to the baths all the time"), the anxiety (one character surreptitiously pokes around at the glands in his neck until his boyfriend tells him to cut it out), the miracle-searching (a roomful of hopeful friends listen attentitely to one man's earnest dissertation on various crackpot therapies involving vitamins and self-improvement cassettes), and especially the main fact of life for people involved with AIDS -- the hospital.

Craig Lucas lives with a surgeon, who advised heavily on hospital atmosphere -- to brilliant effect. The nightmarish overcrowding in New York City emergency rooms, the plush private-room treatment those who can afford it enjoy, the huge laminated visitors' passes, the infuriating parade of doctor-trainees ("This is Dr. Fromer, another of the neurologists. . ."), the angry patient who rips out his IV and wants to go home, the flowers and the gifts (in his first hospital stay, Sean clutches an E.T. doll) -- these all contribute to making Longtime Companion an accurate dramatic snapshot of life in New York City during the first decade of the AIDS epidemic.

Aside from its content, Norman Rene's direction distinguishes Longtime Companion visually from disease-of-the-week TV movies. Departing from current trends in 125-cuts-a-minute editing, Rene lets many of the weighty, confusing emotions surrounding AIDS surface in long, silent takes. Sean's deterioration from witty writer to demented child to gasping skeleton is shown but never discussed. Likewise David's unswerving attendance. Elsewhere, the dying Paul (John Dossett) lies in bed watching his actor lover Howard (Patrick Cassidy) simply cry, his nose running under the paper hospital face-mask he's wearing.
But most of the long takes, and fewest of the lines, go to Willy (Campbell Scott), who more or less turns into the film's central character. In some ways, he is the movie's version of the strong silent type of man Gary Cooper personified in Westerns -- he works at a gym, he leads the way in facing up to calamity when his best pal John (Dermot Mulroney) is the first casualty among his circle of friends, and he's one of the few survivors at the end of the movie. Longtime Companion is finally his journey through AIDS, through the valley of fear. We learn so much just by watching this guy with his handsome face, his jughandle ears, his wide crooked grin (Scott is truly a composite of his great performer parents, George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst). Willy becomes, of course, the surrogate for the audience. Through him we try on the emotions we witness in the other characters.

While the houseful of sophisticated Fire Islanders discuss sexual promiscuity and recreational drugs as factors in AIDS, assuring themselves that "not everybody gets it," he searches their faces, comparing his own limited sexual experience to theirs, apparently vast. Visiting Sean in the hospital, he is terrified; he diverts his friend's kiss from his lips to his neck, then goes into the bathroom and scrubs down every bit of skin Sean has touched. We watch him for a long time, feeling the horror of Sean's diagnosis. Later, at Sean's deathbed, David departs so that Willy may say goodbye to Sean, and we watch him awkwardly dare himself to overcome his terror, take the dead man's hand in his own. And at David's memorial service he gets up to deliver a simple speech of few words with many long pauses. Scott's understated performance shines especially here. Nothing in particular is happening. He's not trying to make us feel anything, he's not going through anything cathartic or triumphant, but we are there with him, feeling his feelings, remembering his friend, without words, without tears.

Film Comment, 1990