a grand soap opera
by Douglas Messerli
Craig Lucas (screenplay), Norman René (director) Longtime Companion / 1989
One of the seminal films of the 1980s, Norman René’s Longtime Companion, was released at the end of that decade in 1989, yet through its chronological structure narrates its action by embracing almost the entire 1980s, beginning on July 3, 1981.
That story begins almost where director Stan LaPresto left us a decade earlier, on Fire Island in 1970, or when René’s movie shifts back to Manhattan, the party with which William Friedkin’s cinematic rendition of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band closed. Yet so very much had changed since then. The ramifications of the Stonewall rebellion had percolated through the 1970s to give even the campiest of gay queens pause in their denigration of the world around them and in their hoots of self-abuse.
Fire Island was still celebrating its high “teas” with its mix of heavy alcohol, drugs, and dishy putdowns, but there was a newfound gravitas in gay relationships such as that between the affluent couple David (Bruce Davison) and Sean (Mark Lamos) celebrating the 4th of July with friends in their beach house. Sean is a screenwriter for a pop daytime soap opera into which, during the course of the nine years this film covers, will gradually introduce gay characters to the American housewives who sit at home and daily watch his melodramatic plots unravel. His lover David has inherited a great deal of money which he uses to busy himself with trust fund investments. Celebrating the holiday with them are their close friends—in the bond between them, often resulting in people mistaking them as a couple—John (Dermont Mulroney) and Willy (Campbell Scott).
Yet that morning on his way to the audition, Howard, having read the first report in The New York Times about a new “cancer” (Kaposi’s sarcoma) which has killed forty-one gay men, calls his lover to tell him to read the article, somewhat disturbed by the news. Meanwhile, their next door neighbor, Lisa (Mary-Louise Parker), who owns an antique shop, calls her best friend Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey) to insist that he too read the article.
Back on Fire Island, some are worried by
the news, others suggesting it must have something to do with drugs, another
thinking it is perhaps connected to the use of “poppers” (alkyl nitrites) that
are often inhaled by gay men for the rush and high of sex and because it helps
to increase the blood flow and relax the sphincter muscle which facilitates
anal sex. (I can recall some of my friends suggesting the same thing at the
time.) Some dismiss the entire situation, suggesting that it certainly has
little to do with their healthy
As critic Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone in 1990: “This group tries to laugh off the report that many of the cancer patients used drugs or had frequent sexual encounters. But the hot atmosphere on this July day has definitely been chilled.”
Meanwhile on the beach John and Willy again pass by a friendly but seemingly awkward newcomer to the Island, Fuzzy, who has apparently waved to them in a friendly manner for the days they’ve been there. Fuzzy, nicknamed for his hirsute appearance, shows up at the afternoon “tea,” and, despite the man’s rather clumsy naivete, Willy, who is attracted to hairy men, makes a pass, and he and Fuzzy begin a relationship.
Even given the context of those early celebratory few days, accordingly, we know that Longtime Companion is not going to be a film focusing on the dating and partnership patterns of these individuals.
By the film’s 1989 release everyone watching this film knew what that original “gay disease” really meant, and how it would radically effect the lives of thousands upon thousands of LGBTQ and heterosexual individuals. By that year 117,508 cases of AIDS had been reported, with 89,343 deaths. By 2016 that number of infected individuals had reached an estimated 1,140,400, with over half of the cases, 707,100, being caused by male-to-male sexual contact. 58,600 of those men combined with the injection of drugs.
Only ten months later in the film, April 30, 1982, John contracts pneumonia, which his friends, at first, attempt to downplay as something he will soon get over. But things have clearly already altered, not just in the increasing number of deaths reported but with regard to how the growing “gay plague” has begun to effect people’s lives who have not even showed any signs of being HIV positive.
Howard, for example, is presented with a new script written by Sean that reveals his soap opera character is about to become the first openly gay character on daytime TV. While it might be seen as a cause for celebration, he is nonetheless troubled that he will by typecast by playing a gay role which will delimit the other parts he may be offered in the future.* Willy and Fuzzy’s romance has grown into a committed relationship, and they move in together. John, diagnosed with AIDS soon after his being hospitalized, dies.
One of the few faults of Craig Lucas’ masterful script for Longtime Companion is that as we grow to know more and more about this group of eight close friends and get to like them as characters, we also begin to perceive them also a bit like we might perceive soap opera characters, watching their caring, loving, and sometimes hostile interchanges only to wonder who will be the next to suffer the effects of AIDS, either physically or mentally as the demands it puts upon on gay men, who are now often seen as outcasts in the society in general become almost unbearable. To have, after Stonewall, come out proudly, demanding the respect and equality with the heterosexual majority, only to be once more become shunned and ostracized for a mysterious disease that many feared might be spread by contact was absolutely devastating.
Just two years full years after the first
scene of the film, on July 17, 1983, Sean is constantly terrified at the
slightest changes of his body, a mole that he previously had not noticed, a
loss of appetite, etc., seemingly fantasy fears of possibly having contracted
the disease. Even personal relationships come under scrutiny, as David tries to
comprehend his companion’s fears. Since he himself is healthy, he has to wonder
has Sean had sex with someone outside of their relationship? Has he injected
drugs? He laughs at what appears to be his mate’s newly-developed nosophobia.
Yet both know of a sick neighbor on the island who has become a pariah, people
going out of their
Willy, Fuzzy, and Lisa, along with other friends Michael and Bob, gather with David and Sean to watch Howard’s character reveal his gay sexuality on the soap opera, Lisa revealing that the actor who Sean believes is heterosexual is her neighbor who she knows to be gay. It might be a meaningless aside in normal times, but we recognize in her observations that she has perhaps ended Howard’s acting career.
A little more than a year later, the film dating events as September 7, 1984, the writer of Howard’s script, Sean is hospitalized, Willy visiting him has become so terrified of contracting the disease that he not only wears a surgical mask and gown which in those days were available since medical science had still not determined precisely how AIDS was contracted, but after Sean kisses him on the cheek, quickly making his way to the bathroom to scrub the spot where his friend had planted the kiss. It is an almost surreal scene as René captures the absurdness of everyone’s, including gay men’s, often unfounded fears and terrors.
Howard’s lover Paul is also hospitalized, diagnosed as having toxoplasmosis, an infection associated with an infection through parasites. Surely this can have little to do with AIDS the two attempt to assure themselves, without perceiving that the disease most often occurs when the patient’s immune system in ineffectual. Almost like being gay without willing to openly admit it, the two lovers also subliminally realize the reality behind his illness, Howard breaks down into sobs, the victim attempting to comfort his seemingly healthy companion.
By this time, anyone in this film’s audience with even the smallest shred of empathy, let alone those many who lived through this era (and for some continue to still today in 2020) are in tears. I certainly was. The next scene, dated March 22, 1985, represents some of the most dramatically compelling events in this unforgettable movie. The previously witty and sometimes catty gay man, Sean has fallen into dementia, with his friend David helping to deceive Sean’s studio—they have conspired to escape the observation of his colleagues by creating the myth of Sean taking a temporary retreat to the Island in order to write—by his companion cluing him into what to say, reminding me a bit of the comic scene from the I Love Lucy series in which Lucy, meeting her husband Desi Arnez’s grandmother and relatives for the first time hires a translator hooked up to her hidden headphones to help her pretend to speak Spanish. Yet there is little humor about this film’s scene wherein David tries to get Sean to say simple words like “yes” or “no” in response to far more complex telephone comments from the studio exec. Later, back in Manhattan, David takes Sean for a walk, but when his lover, who has lost nearly all sense of the “real” world in which he loves, urinates in a park fountain, he must speedily whisk him away when an angry nanny caring for her young charge becomes outraged.
Fuzzy, Howard’s lawyer/agent, argues on
the phone with a producer who refuses to hire his client for a movie after
having heard that the actor has AIDS, the same rumor that has lost him his job
playing his gay role in Other People. Paul has been re-hospitalized
after a seizure. Without a
On that Friday evening, Willy observes his lover Fuzzy checking for swollen glands. The two briefly talk about their fears and possible deaths. Fuzzy asks “What do you think happens when we die.” to which Willy quips, “We get to have sex again.” Soon after Fuzzy will turn his skills as a lawyer into a force which will help to cope with the epidemic by offering his time in a local AIDS clinic trying to offer the little help available to the hundreds of dying men during this period.
René and Lucas do not use their film as a tool to openly criticize the society in general for ignoring the crises its characters are facing, often alone or with equally suffering friends. But in hindsight it is important to remind ourselves that as of the date of these scenes, then President Ronald Reagan had not yet even publicly mentioned the disease killing so many gay and bisexual American men. It wasn’t until September 17 of that year that Reagan finally uttered the acronym, in responding to a question from a reporter. He described it as a “top priority,” defending his administration’s response and funding of research (surely reminding us of another lying President still refusing as I write this to deal with another pandemic, COVID-19). It is perhaps no accident that on that same day Regan’s actor/friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS. A month later Congress allocated almost $190 million for AIDS research, $70 million higher than Regan’s administration had requested.
It is the January 4, 1986 episode of this moving drama that helped Davison to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominating, a Golden Globe Award, the Independent Spirit Award, a National Society of Film Critics Award, and the New York Film Critics Circle award for acting.
Now incontinent, in constant pain, immobile, and nearly stuporous, Sean attempts to cry out to David that he wants “to go,” his companion positively interrupting it that perhaps the patient wants to go for a walk, but inwardly knowing the truth. Sending the attending nurse on an errand for which he provides a handful of money in order to sit down alone with his lover. With utter calm and solemnity he tells his friend of so many years that it is all right to let go, and repeating the phrase over and over, soothes the troubled patient into allowing himself to die, holding his hand as Sean breathes his last breath. No tears are shed, no moans or regrets. David simply sits watching his “longtime companion,” as the newspapers will later describe a relationship that has not yet found the language of marriage, seems finally at peace. We know that there are been far too many days and nights of tears and regrets. Now is the time to accept the end that will come to us all sooner or later.
Willy and Lisa stop by to help out, but David, wanting to be alone just a little longer with Sean, sends them into the other room to select a suit the dead man might wear for his cremation. The ever useful Fuzzy calls the Gay Men’s Health Crisis line to find a suitable funeral home. And together the two attend to the large closet full of the writer’s clothing, discovering in the process an item that surely belonged in the closet, a beaded red dress, which they both grinningly determine would be perfect for the cremation except that it requires, they agree, a hat, “A big Bea Lillie thing!” which Sean evidently doesn’t own. This moment of levity in the midst of so much sorrow is a perfect closing to this character’s life.
A week shy of two years after Reagan finally spoke the word AIDS, September 10, 1988, friends Fuzzy and Lisa are busy with answering phones at the Gay Men’s Health Center for which they volunteer their time. Willy serves as a “buddy,” buying food and cleaning up for one of the Center’s clients, Alberto (Michael Carmine), who when Willy suggests that he get up and take some exercise is ready to “fire” him until he recognizes that his unpaid “buddy” is simply trying to pull him out of the depression from which he’s been suffering.
Paul has presumably died, and Howard has now been diagnosed with AIDS. What “public recognition” he has left he offers to an AIDS benefit he hosts in which we witness a loving formal chamber music version by The Finger Lakes Trio of the Village People’s song “YMCA.”
In an apparent Coda to the tragic events for which the film has asked us to be witnesses, the three remaining longtime friends of the original group of eight, Willy, Fuzzy, and Lisa are walking along the Fire Island beach, talking about an upcoming ACT UP demonstration and recalling—as many of us do today living under the restraints of COVID—a time before AIDS while expressing their hopes for a cure.
Suddenly in their fantasies of the past and future all those friends and others from their times at the Island reappear, laughing, cavorting, camping, dancing on the beach about them (a character montage that was stolen, I’d argue, by Terence Malick in The Tree of Life). Just a quickly they vanish, as the survivors hug one another in solace.
After the release of this film which took an almost Herculean effort to get made and produced, many criticized it for concentrating its focus on a small group of white and financially privileged individuals. And there is little question that the group portrayed in this work do not truly represent the broad diversity of those who suffered and continue to become infected and die. Obviously, an argument can be made that such a film would have been weakened had it attempted to show the far broader spectrum of individuals who died and lived through the worst years of the epidemic; the very charm of this particular perspective is that it focuses on only a few people who we come to know and do not simply stand as stock figures. But, perhaps, we might also perceive it as a way of demonstrating that even those who were fairly well-to-do, living what might be described as fortunate lives, were not spared the devastation of this leveling disease.
Fortunately, this work was only the beginning of a great number of films (along with earlier and contemporaneous plays such as Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart of 1985, which wouldn’t reach the screen until 2014, and William Finn’s March of the Falsettos  and Falsettoland ) which presented AIDS from numerous perspectives that revealed individuals and the societies in which they lived who were far less able to deal with the ravages of AIDS.
If the figures of Longtime Companion seem, in the end, able almost to gracefully accept the consequences of the scourge facing almost everyone in the LGBTQ community, many other artistic expressions argued a far more argumentative view of people unwilling “to go gentle into that good night.”
Finally, while seeing this film again, I was struck by my comments in My Queer Cinema: A Prelude: “[My husband Howard and my] early deep commitment to a basically monogamous relationship meant that we not only saved ourselves from the terrible scourge of AIDS, but we were somewhat isolated from the sufferings of the rest of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and gender unidentified friends.” Almost totally accepted by the heterosexual worlds of the university, art, and literary worlds, we seldom visited gay bars and had little time (or desire for that matter) to cloister ourselves in a gay-exclusive environment.
While many of my gay acquaintances such as Aaron Shurin, Vance George, Horácio Costa, Jeff Weinstein, and John Perreault—as well as straight friend living in major urban centers involved in music, dance, and theater—commonly expressed guilt for having survived the deaths of so very many of their friends, Howard and I knew hardly anyone who were HIV positive or died of AIDS. I heard rumor that one young student of Howard’s with whom I had once had sex had later died of AIDS, and one day my Sun & Moon Press shipper Mike (who had been a temporary lover of Allen Ginsberg) received an inappropriate and unthinking call from a nurse at Kaiser Permanente announcing that he had been diagnosed as being HIV. He left his position at Sun & Moon about a year later, and I never heard from him again. If I remember correctly a couple of Howard’s colleagues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art died of AIDS, but they were only acquaintances, not close friends. The only friends who died of AIDS were rather famous for their writings and gay activist activities, Roger Horwitz and Paul Monette.
In short, I did not precisely feel the “survivor’s guilt,” but perhaps an even more gnawing one, the guilt of being a gay man who was a kind of outsider even within my own community. I think that not only explains, as I previously suggested, my late-life commitment to reconstructing LGBTQ life as expressed through cinema, but my attempts to record, relying on the immense contributions of people like Vito Russo, Jenni Olson, and many others, the history of queer cinema. Maybe a totally sympathetic outsider looking back on what he and she missed can be of some significant value to those who have worked so hard all along from within.
If nothing else, I can admit to having no protective layers of insider cynicism with regard to this movie, shedding copious tears while I viewed it and even so when writing the words you read above. I think it may be appropriate to openly weep, since I’d argue Lucas’s work, in part, is itself a kind of grand “soap opera,” in the best sense of that genre—an ongoing saga that provides us with enough of the history of its characters and their meaningful interactions with one another that we both anticipate and dread each new episode in a purposeful transference of our own lives to those upon the screen, no matter how outrageous or unbelievable their behaviors or lives might seem to be. It’s more than a “willing suspension of disbelief”; it’s far more like an almost unwilling witnessing of what we must believe in order to atone for our societies’ previous refusal to accept the facts. AIDS didn’t need to have such devasting effects any more than COVID did, except that our government and a large swath of our populace allowed it to kill those so many felt were simply unimportant, even deserving, and surely expendable—lovers and sinners who received their just rewards.
*The same year, 1982, heterosexual actor Harry Hamlin played a gay man in Making Love (reviewed above.) As an article in The Hollywood Reporter from 2020 reported: “Harry Hamlin says playing a gay writer in the 1982 big-screen drama Making Love put his career on ice for several years.
The actor, looking back now, says the film ‘was too early. It was 10 years too early, I guess, and it completely ended my career. That was the last studio picture I ever did. The door shut with a resounding smash.’"
In the British paper The Daily Telegraph gay actor Rupert Everett commented that being gay stifled his acting career. "There’s only a certain amount of mileage you can make, as a young pretender, as a leading man, as a homosexual. There just isn’t very far you can go. You can only understand the disaster of your own case yourself. You can’t ever expect the world to see everything about yourself in the way that you do – certainly in terms of conducting a career as a homosexual in show business. Not so much now, maybe, because I’m older. It’s not such a threatening problem. But all through my career it was a huge issue.”
Oddly, one of his most notable on-screen gay roles was in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), in which he played opposite Dermont Mulroney who plays the gay man John in this film. Evidently even a decade after Lifetime Companion playing a gay man (let alone being a gay man) did clearly have an effect on an actor’s career.
A fascinating coincidence is that in that same year in which the character Howard is fearful for his role being transformed in a gay figure, the heterosexual outsider Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), unable to get an acting stint, put on a dress to become the transsexual actor Dorothy Michaels as the new star of a soap opera in Sydney Pollack’s film Tootsie (1982).
Los Angeles, December 18, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).