Set in New York at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, Angels in America is the story of several very different, but closely intertwined, lives. At the heart of the story is Prior (Justin Kirk), a young gay man who has just been diagnosed with AIDS. He reveals the news to his partner, Louis (Ben Shenkman), at a funeral, and confesses that he didn’t want to say anything for fear that Louis would leave him. How sad that he would think that! And, oh my God, how horrifyingly appropriate. Louis confirms almost immediately that Prior had every reason to worry. He really has no interest in caring for a dying partner when he’s at the prime of his life.
Wow, could Louis be any easier to despise? He’s always running off at the mouth about America and politics, pretending to be morally superior to everyone. In truth he’s not comfortable enough in his own skin to come out to his family or face the reality of the life he’s leading. As Prior struggles to care for himself while enduring violent and debilitating bouts of illness, Louis’s guilt and self-loathing festers. He distracts himself by pursuing pleasure, but it also seems that he wants to punish himself. Things look up momentarily when he meets up with another young man, Joe (Patrick Wilson), who’s just beginning to explore his homosexuality. They blindly embark upon an affair, and frankly, sort of deserve each other.
You see, Joe is a Mormon married to Harper (Mary Louise Parker), and she feels their marriage isn’t working because she’s weird. As it turns out, Joe hand-picked her because somehow her peculiarity makes him feel more normal, but he won’t let her know that. He’d sooner tell her he’s not interested in sex because she’s not pretty than admit to his own nature. Mary Louise Parker is excellent in the role, and I cried happy tears when she won the Golden Globe for her performance. I felt like she stuck it to that rat Billy Crudup by triumphing after he dumped her while she was pregnant.
What Louis doesn’t realize is that his new golden boy (who looks like a nasty Kewpie doll) works for the universally hated and thoroughly evil Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Roy is also a deeply closeted gay man who’s just been diagnosed with AIDS. Not wanting to jeopardize his status as a mover and a shaker, Roy believes he has kept his homosexuality under wraps. Even as he lies dying of AIDS, he insists that everyone call it liver cancer. In reality, he’s only lying to himself, and people freely make cracks about the mean “little fag” behind his back. In the end, there’s not a soul in the world who’s sorry to see him die.
All of this is clear to me, but I’m less certain about where the angels fit into all of this. Prior is visited regularly by an angel played by Emma Thompson, and she’s not exactly a comforting presence with her hyper-sexuality and booming voice. At least Prior has the good sense to tell her that she’s freaking him out. People hardly ever say that in movies, it’s always, “Gee whiz, an angel! That’s keen!”
In the meantime, Roy Cohn is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep), whose execution he ensured years ago. Their scenes together are memorable and funny, but I still don’t quite see the purpose. Was she forgiving him? Haunting him? Was he just hallucinating about the person he wronged the most in his life? All I know is that Al is on his game, and living it up as a complete S.O.B. dying a miserable death. My favorite scene in the whole movie is when Ethel holds his hand as he “dies”, only to have him sit bolt upright and get in one last dig. You go Roy, you amazing bastard, you!
The movie is sad, funny, and captivating, and features excellent performances by all involved. Jeffrey Wright very nearly steals the show in his role as Roy’s nurse and Prior’s friend. Brilliant! I may not understand everything the writer was trying to convey, but the movie illustrates just how destructive it is when people try to live a lie.
I was reminded of a dinner at which the biggest half-wit I know announced, “I don’t mind gay people, but why do they need, like, pride? Like I’m a heterosexual, and I don’t have pride.” For the moment I was rendered speechless, but I wish I could have told her that she most certainly does have hetero pride. Pride isn’t about flaunting one’s sexuality, but claiming your life and owning your identity. It’s about introducing your partner without fear of being judged, and simply telling the truth. Maybe that’s what the angels were trying to tell us.*
*Probably not, but that made for a great last line, didn’t it?