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COVER STORY : After the Brad Davis Letter : How Much Does Hollywood Really Care About AIDS? : It's been nearly two weeks since the late Brad Davis' indictment of Hollywood's hypocrisy and bias toward AIDS patients was made public. Is it true? Here's a look at the debate within the industry.

September 22, 1991|DAVID J. FOX | Reporting for this story was done by Times staff writers Elaine Dutka, Fox, Judith Michaelson and Victor F. Zonana.

W e do give money to AIDS and the homeless and the blind. But we're not obligated to hire the victims of the various diseases or causes we support. It all boils down to business . . . dollars and cents . . . and those with an illness or the potential for becoming ill are an economic risk.

These words come from a well-known Hollywood producer who felt it wise not to have his name mentioned. His thoughts came in the aftermath of a scathing indictment of the entertainment industry by actor Brad Davis.

The 41-year-old actor died of complications from AIDS two weeks ago today. Two days after his death his widow, Susan Bluestein, made public a book proposal that her late husband had written about his life as a secret AIDS patient. After its publication in The Times, the proposal became an open letter to Hollywood and subsequently the world. Davis charged the entertainment industry with hypocrisy and bias toward AIDS patients. He said that while Hollywood lends support through benefits and high-profile fund-raising, there remains an atmosphere in which a person commits career suicide if he or she might be ill, or has tested positive for the AIDS virus.

Davis, the star of the film "Midnight Express," said he had to keep his medical condition secret for six years just to be able to work and support his wife and child.

Not since the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in October, 1985, has Hollywood been forced to face up to the AIDS crisis in such a dramatic way. Then it was the shocking disclosure that the actor who had played the red-blooded American leading man could be stricken with the disease. Hudson's illness had come to public attention that summer, and Hollywood's elite gathered for the first show business fund-raiser just before his death. All the money raised at the benefit, organized by Elizabeth Taylor, was donated to AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Now, with Davis' death, the industry was shocked by a public indictment by one of its own and has had to deal with the debate that the letter set off. By coincidence, Davis' words came just days before this year's APLA fund-raiser.

The crux of the debate centers on the precarious balance between the realities of business and the images and illusion that Hollywood depends upon. In addition, Brad Davis' death seems to have reignited a fire under Hollywood about the AIDS epidemic and homophobia.

In the 10 years since the death toll from AIDS began mounting, it's been customary to pick up the daily entertainment trade newspapers, read the front page stories, check the price of your company's stock and turn to the obituaries. There, you can learn how many more AIDS deaths there have been, or try to figure out the code phrases that in some cases attempt to disguise the cause of death.

Ten years of this can numb you.

Or it can make you angry. As actress Bette Midler told the audience honoring her at last Sunday's star-studded AIDS Project Los Angeles benefit: "I didn't head for the hills when this thing hit . . . ," referring to some in show business who pretended the disease didn't exist. "For the last 10 years I have worked on behalf of people with AIDS because I could not stand idly by, just wringing my hands while my friends shriveled up and died."

"Brad Davis' remarks are indicative of a problem that is not confined to Hollywood," said Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber, as he recalled that Davis was a part of his earliest success--Guber produced the Oscar-nominated "Midnight Express," in which Davis starred.

"Davis was right when he said that Hollywood is scared or anxious of people who have HIV or AIDS. But I think that it's no more prevalent in the movie or TV business than it is in the world at large.

"The real question is, can (show business) become more enlightened? It's not easy, because (show business) is people. And they have concerns like the rest of society. They can give all the benefits in the world, but when the people go home at night and find out their neighbor has AIDS, their first thought is 'What is that going to mean for me?' "

In the case of the movie business, Guber said the industry has to wonder, "If an actor or director has HIV, how does it affect the other actors, or the cast insurance? These are real pragmatic considerations."

"You have to make the assessment yourself about illness, drug abusers or alcoholism," said director-producer Oliver Stone. Stone believes each instance must be considered separately and casting remain the prerogative of the director. "The director's relationship with actors is a very ad-hoc one that you can't make rules about," Stone said. "If there were rules, the artistic license could be threatened."

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