Tulsa TV Memories

“Angels in America”
Reviewed by Gary Chew

Emma Thompson

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Since I’ve not seen Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, ”Angels in America,” you can imagine how surprised I am to find, after having lived in Sacramento for fifteen years, that Heaven is only ninety miles away. Yes! Another name it’s known by is San Francisco.

That’s where the new HBO film, “Angels in America” begins: above the clouds, just over the Golden Gate Bridge. The camera, as if attached to some silent rocket ship, streaks inland over Salt Lake City, St. Louis and Chicago to New York City’s Central Park---stopping then just in front of the statue of The Angel of Bethesda. After a moment, the statue looks up.

With accompanying music composed by Thomas Newman (“American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under”), it is a visually moving way to begin Kushner’s iconoclastic and operatic take on some recent and excruciating American history.

Justin Kirk and Ben Shenkman

Justin Kirk and Ben Shenkman

It’s 1985. Ronald Reagan is president and AIDS has begun decimating gay populations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. Two of the film’s principals are thirtyish gay men (Justin Kirk and Ben Shenkman) whose relationship disintegrates when one of them is diagnosed with AIDS. A second husband/wife couple (Patrick Wilson and Mary Louise Parker), is struggling with a different kind of problem: her obvious depression and his latent homosexuality. Both are Utah Mormons who’ve come to New York for him to pursue a career in law. Each time they greet each other, they say, “Hey, Buddy.”

Mary Louise Parker

Mary Louise Parker and Patrick Wilson

The stories of each couple run in parallel throughout this nearly six hour film (but shown in varying lengths on HBO) and ultimately connect through two other characters. One is the controversial figure of a recent political era, Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), an aide to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. The other character is a fictional, gay, black man (Jeffrey Wright) who becomes Cohn’s nurse after Cohn is covertly hospitalized for AIDS. The young Mormon lawyer is a protégé of Cohn’s and the black nurse is a friend of the gay couple.

As you’ve probably heard, Meryl Streep is in the cast. But I’ve left mention of her role or, I should say, roles for this later paragraph because, as important and incredibly well done as they are, all of them are peripheral. Streep plays an old rabbi, the Mormon husband’s mother, and the Ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. (You may wish to read the preceding sentence again.) No one has ever stretched themselves acting as Meryl Streep does for “Angels in America.”

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

If you’ve forgotten or are too young to know, Ethel Rosenberg and her husband, Julius were executed for treason in June of 1953. Roy Cohn was part of the Cold War effort that took part in the demise of the Rosenbergs. I’m sure, when writing Cohn’s death scenes for “Angels in America” with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg sitting quietly as the foot of Cohn’s bed, Tony Kushner was praying that Ethel was watching him put pen to paper. For all of “Angels’” scorch, the Cohn/Rosenberg dialogues are when one can genuinely sense the nearly unfathomable depth of Kushner’s rage.

Tony Kushner

With these scenes, in particular, Kushner is doing precisely what theatre (and, hopefully, film) is supposed to do. It is compelling art---which just happened, thanks to HBO, to have been disseminated by cable television. It will play powerfully long after those of us who are fortunate enough to see this film are gone.

But what of the angel and Emma Thompson, who plays her?

With this character, “Angels in America” takes away a little of the vastness of the wasteland that defines so much of television. The angel is gentle, lovely, proud, pushy and bi-sexual. In one of her several hallucinated appearances, she makes a prophet of the young man with AIDS. As you might imagine, the angel is quite amazing. And the special cinematic effects to make her so are part of why television is so much the better after having given wing to “Angels in America.” (As the angel, Emma’s got some great eyebrows.) I don’t believe any of us will ever forget her with her wings and beautiful mezzo voice that speaks in an American accent.

Al Pacino as Roy Cohn comes last, but is the best in this superb, "as-good-as-it-gets" cast. Of all the good and great performances Pacino has given through the years, this one’s it. It’s as if everything he’s done till now has been preparation for portraying a real-life person who might be called The High Priest of Villains. Scarface, Godfather, get out of the way of Roy Cohn.

Al Pacino
Al Pacino

Another facet of “Angels in America” that’s so stimulating is the way Tony Kushner weaves in arguments for different political and religious ways of thinking. Even though Mr. Kushner has been described elsewhere as a radical, socialist, pragmatist, viewers with conflicting views about how “Angels in America” is saying what, will be surprised to know that they can get a clearer understanding about how those guys think “on the other side of the aisle.” My, such good stuff for democracy.

Mike Nichols has directed this film. He’s one of a very few in the movie business that I always think of when sorting out the directors who do the best of the intimate, important motion pictures. Looks like Nichols is still up to his old tricks.

The young man whose relationship suffers after he’s diagnosed with AIDS is the character who is made into a prophet by the angel. In one of his hallucinatory dreams, he goes to Heaven. It’s a scene you must see cold. However, way back in the distance in the Heaven scene, there, spanning San Francisco Bay, sits the Golden Gate Bridge. It is so totally outrageous and yet so poetic; something that’s bound to start a vigorous conversation, and not just in the Bay Area.

It’s probably best that “Angels in America” has been made for cable television, for if this big Hollywood production had been distributed to cinemas around the country, it would be winning more Oscars than tickets sold.

I would like to see Emma Thompson’s eyebrows on a big, wide screen someday, though.

Emma Thompson More about ”Angels in America” (including a trailer) at HBO Films.

"Angels in America" now on DVD.

Gary Chew can be reached via email at garychew@comcast.net

Copyright © 2003, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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