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The next life

'Angels in America' comes to HBO with big stars and renewed relevance.

November 30, 2003|Richard Stayton | Special to The Times

"Souls were rising, from the earth far below," she said, peering out the plane's window, "souls of the dead, of people who had perished from famine, from war, from the plague ... " The camera closed in as if beckoned by the heavenly voice. Director Mike Nichols watched closely. These crucial exit lines must transport a static scene into poetry. Otherwise -- after six hours of hypnotic visions such as an angel blasting through a bedroom ceiling -- mere words would have the audience reaching for the remote.

"They floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning." Nichols could relax. Mary-Louise Parker was positively beatific: "In this world, there is a kind of painful progress, longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."

"That's a wrap!"

The usual end-of-shoot commotion had barely begun when Nichols heard a heartbreaking sob. He turned to see Parker still seated, tears flooding her face. Nichols was alarmed: "What?! What is it?" Parker sat weeping, a heartbroken figure of mourning. Gradually, she managed a whisper: "I'll never get to say those words again."

Not a typical reaction to "that's a wrap," but then Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" has inspired extreme passions everywhere it's been produced. Although the story line is undeniably grim -- portraits from the AIDS plague in New York during the mid-1980s -- those touched by "Angels" speak emotionally, as if of a miraculous love affair.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Meryl Streep and Oskar Eustis -- A caption on a photo accompanying an article about the HBO movie "Angels in America" in Sunday's Calendar incorrectly said Meryl Streep was playing the mother of an AIDS patient in a scene with Al Pacino. In that scene, she is playing the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. The caption on another photo mistakenly described Oskar Eustis as the co-director of the 1992 production of "Angels in America" at the Mark Taper Forum. He was the director.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 07, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Meryl Streep and Oskar Eustis -- A caption in last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly said Streep was playing the mother of an AIDS patient in a scene with Al Pacino in the HBO movie "Angels in America." In that scene she is playing the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Another caption said Eustis co-directed the 1992 production of "Angels in America" at the Mark Taper Forum. He actually was the director.

There were countless stories of heroic self-sacrifice during its metamorphosis from a provocative theatrical experiment -- scenes of full nudity, graphic illness, drug addiction and a running time worthy of Charles Dickens -- into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. And now that a 6 1/2-hour film adaptation is premiering next week on HBO, there's even more testimony that the work continues to inspire nothing less than true love, even among a luminous cast whose collective body of work ranges from Shakespeare to David Mamet.

Still, some might say it's crazy love when a cable network -- even risk-taking HBO -- commits $62 million, the most its film division has ever spent on a single movie, to a project that's far more extreme politically than the doomed Ronald Reagan bio-miniseries. This is a lesion-baring play based on the AIDS epidemic, filled with characters who curse then-President Reagan, a play in which the closet still looms large and deadly, and hypocrisy drives people to the point of insanity.

As an artistic theme, AIDS has lost the cachet it briefly enjoyed; for some it is a tragic time now too distant, for others still too near. How will a film so unrelenting in focus and form be received in 2003 by a country torn between another Republican president's conservative policies and nascent "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" social politics, where metaphor, extended or otherwise, has little foothold in reality-dominated television?

Those involved in the making of the film believe that the characters and themes are as trenchant and moving as they were a decade ago. Perhaps more so.

"This is a frightening patch of time," says Emma Thompson, who plays three roles, including the Angel that currently levitates on billboards and bus stops around Los Angeles. "You do have to, therefore, embrace with open arms and hearts something that examines the processes of being human in an honest way like 'Angels in America.' "

When Al Pacino first heard of the HBO project, his reaction was illumination. "I realized that everything in a sense that's in 'Angels' is the province of television. The medium would bring audiences into a certain intimacy." He also knew from the first time he saw the stage production in 1993 that he wanted the role of Roy M. Cohn, aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s. "I'm going into an aspect of a character I haven't expressed before," Pacino said. "The whole idea of deteriorating that way [to AIDS], and the feeling of being in that kind of isolation, and that almost anarchic defiance of Roy Cohn."

For Nichols, "Angels" was the first time he'd ever devoted two years to a project. "I complained all the way," he says. "I knew it would take almost a year to shoot, but I didn't know that it would take another year to complete. The idea is a nightmare -- to be stuck doing something for two years -- but the experience of it, the process, was joy."

What is it about "Angels in America" that inspires such extreme devotion? And why has it always done so? Only one constant can be traced from its beginnings in the mid-1980s to the HBO epic of 2003: the writer and his play.

"Angels in America" is about more than AIDS or the dangers of denial. It is a play about love and betrayal, commitment and fear of the unknown. But mostly it is about politics. Sexual politics. The body politic and the politics of the body. Above all, it is about what Kushner calls "the liberation of the democratic citizen."

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