A reluctant film industry has finally turned its attention to AIDS


More than a decade into the AIDS crisis, relatively few American films have dealt substantially and dramatically with the reality of the disease.

Most have been small, independent films that garnered mainstream attention along the way, among them Bill Sherwood's 1986 "Parting Glances," Craig Lucas' and Norman Rene's 1990 "Longtime Companion" and Gregg Araki's recent "The Living End."

Sure, Hollywood celebrities show up at awards ceremonies wearing red ribbons in support of people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and during the '80s occasional "safer sex" scenes in movies might include condoms.

Some sort of AIDS awareness caused the makers of the 1988 Universal Pictures comedy "Casual Sex?" starring Lea Thompson, Victoria Jackson and Andrew Dice Clay to add that question mark to the title. (It was just called "Casual Sex" as a stage musical at the Groundling Theatre.)

But other than that, the film industry has virtually ignored the existence of the HIV virus -- except for a few tasteless jokes in cheap comedies such as last summer's "Mo' Money," starring Damon Wayans. For the most part, AIDS has remained locked in what the late gay film critic Vito Russo called "the celluloid closet."

Instead, television has led the way in screen treatments of the AIDS epidemic, from 1985's "An Early Frost" to 1989's "The Ryan White Story" to a long-planned coming HBO adaptation of journalist Randy Shilts's book, "And the Band Played On."

There are indications, however, that Hollywood is preparing to make up for lost time, and lost lives, with some high-profile movies about this global health crisis.

Oscar-winning filmmakers such as Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs") and Francis Ford Coppola ("Apocalypse Now," "The Godfather" movies), and major stars such as Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, are at last getting involved with movies about AIDS.

Among the AIDS-related movies in various stages of development:

* "People Like Us," Mr. Demme's first fictional feature since "The Silence of the Lambs," about a homophobic lawyer defending another attorney fired for having AIDS. It stars Mr. Washington, Mr. Hanks and Mary Steenburgen.

* "Cure," a behind-the-scenes look at AIDS research, written by novelist Diane Johnson for Mr. Coppola.

* "The Normal Heart," a screen adaptation of Larry Kramer's play about an AIDS patient's battle with an indifferent health system, which Barbra Streisand has expressed interest in directing.

* "Family Values," a story about a heterosexual journalist and his gay, HIV-positive brother, written by Barry Sandler ("Crimes of Passion," "Making Love").

* "Good Days," a courtroom drama written by novelist David Leavitt, whose books "The Lost Language of Cranes" (a television adaptation of which was recently shown on PBS) and "Family Dancing" have dealt with gay themes.

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