The Making of Longtime Companion

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Published in: May-June 2024 issue.

 

IN THE LATE 1980s, getting a motion picture made about LGBT people that didn’t cast them as villains, psychos, or freaks was a momentous challenge. A mainstream feature film about a group of gay men dealing—and dying—in the midst of the AIDS epidemic was nearly impossible. While there had been a TV movie that dealt with the plague (Ron Cowen’s An Early Frost in 1985), as well as some stage plays—William F. Hoffman’s As Is in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart in 1985, and Harvey Fierstein’s Safe Sex in 1987 among them—there were no major films dealing with the epidemic from a gay point of view. Beyond the commercial risks, the times were fraught with fear-mongering, misinformation, and demonization of the LGBT community from conservative politicians and televangelists, and there was seemingly no end to the attacks in sight.

A scene set on Fire Island from Longtime Companion.

            However, a number of filmmakers and artists were determined to tell a compassionate story about a particular group of men that was dealing with the devastation of the epidemic with grace, grit, and love. Longtime Companion, which is now seen as a watershed in LGBT culture and one of the few films to deal directly with the AIDS epidemic from a gay perspective, began with an idea by Craig Lucas, a playwright known at the time for his award-winning Off-Broadway’s play Reckless, and his longtime director Norman René. Lucas would later go on to write the Broadway hit Prelude to a Kiss (which was made into a film starring Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin), the musicals An American in Paris, Amélie, and The Light in the Piazza, for which he received a Tony Award nomination.

            How this collaboration came about is a story that I investigated in 1989 in my capacity as a theater critic and freelance journalist, which included interviews with producers Stan Wlodkowski and Lindsay Law when the movie came out. To write this article, I reconnected with screenwriter Craig Lucas and actor Mark Lamos (who played Sean), who reflected upon the sequence of events leading up to Longtime Companion’s release. In what follows, quotations from these individuals refer to these interviews.

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Craig Lucas had attracted studio interest when his 1984 Off-Broadway drama Blue Window played in Los Angeles. “They asked what I wanted to do next,” Lucas told Entertainment Weekly at the time, “and, naïve me, said I wanted to make a movie about people with AIDS.” Lucas said the Hollywood welcome mats were quickly rolled up, and he returned to New York empty-handed. “[Norman] and I were trying to put on screen what we were not seeing: the lives of a certain group of gay men who were not particularly exotic or extreme who were not pathetic, self-pitying or self-loathing.”

     Lindsay Law was the executive producer of American Playhouse, public television’s drama anthology series, which produced the TV version of Blue Window in 1987. Law also asked Lucas what he would like to do next, and when Lucas brought up AIDS again, “the blood drained from his face,” Lucas recalled. But the producer called back and said: “Why not?” “It was a feat of astounding courage,” said Lucas.

     The writer’s first draft was set in Vermont and titled “Carolina Moon.” But halfway through, he realized it wasn’t the right setting—and started over, relocating the narrative to New York, at the gay summer enclave of Fire Island, for a particular group of white upper-middle-class men living in the city. Their happy everyday lives change dramatically in 1981 when, at the beginning of the film, they read the first account of a “gay cancer” in The New York Times. The film then follows these men—and three particular couples—over eight years. (The film’s title was a euphemism used by newspapers in obituaries for partners of gay men and lesbians.)

            To research the epidemic, Lucas became a counselor at New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He joined a support group for other counselors and consulted with them on the screenplay. Once Lucas had completed a draft of the script, he and Law sought funding for the film. Lucas remembered “one very well-known producer-distributor, and when we said we had a script about gay people with AIDS, he said: ‘Don’t say another word. Don’t go any further. I’m sure it’s very good. We’re not interested,’ and hung up the phone.”

            Despite repeatedly getting a similar response, Law and Lucas persevered. So did a core group of creators, including producer Stan Wlodkowski, who also worked on Blue Window, and director Norman René. (Wlodkowski would go on to produce films such as American Beauty; Eat, Pray, Love; The Singing Detective; Slums of Beverly Hills; and the recent TV series Expats. René would succumb to AIDS in 1996.) Helping to get the film off the ground at its earliest stages was Alec Baldwin, whose film career was taking off following hit roles in Married to the Mob, Beetlejuice and Working Girl. Baldwin agreed to play one of the main roles in Longtime Companion, but was then offered one of the most sought-after roles in Hollywood: that of Jack Ryan in a major studio film based on the best-seller The Hunt for Red October.

            With Baldwin out of the picture, the search was on for other actors to commit. But no other major, or even medium-level, box office name signed on. “Let us know when you get Tom Hanks, then we’ll talk,” said one Hollywood exec to Wlodkowski. (In 1993, Hanks would play a gay man with AIDS in the mainstream film Philadelphia—and win an Oscar.) Said Wlodkowski at the time: “The issue of AIDS made it harder because so many characters do get sick and are portrayed as sick. I remember hearing a story about [actor]John Glover who was in An Early Frost. He played a person with an advanced case of AIDS so convincingly that his agent told me that when she submits John’s name [for roles], she is still asked if he’s sick or not. It’s just a movie!”

            Eventually cast in Longtime Companion was a group of respected but lesser-known actors, predominantly straight ones: Bruce Davison, Dermot Mulroney, Mary-Louise Parker, Campbell Scott, Patrick Cassidy, John Dossett, and Stephen Caffrey. Mark Lamos, who was an actor and artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Hartford Stage at the time, was cast in his first film role. He was the only “out” actor in the ensemble cast.

            There were also challenges in filming. During the shooting on Fire Island in May 1989, “there were residents there who demonstrated and tried to disrupt the scenes with noisemakers and stuff,” reported Lamos. “They acted like they didn’t want people to know that there were gay people on Fire Island and that gay people who lived there were getting sick. It wasn’t a huge group but enough to make us very worried, because if Fire Island was going to be against us then we were going to be in real trouble.”

            No major stars meant no up-front money from either major Hollywood studios or, more disappointingly, smaller independent distributors such as Miramax, New Line, or Orion Classics. Without that advanced financial backing, the project’s original budget was halved, from a modest $3 million to a shoestring budget of $1.5 million. American Playhouse, which was originally committed to finance only a portion of the film, took on the entire financial responsibility in an unprecedented move, thanks to Law. (There were some other angels along the way. Panavision waived a $50,000 camera rental fee. Irving Young of DuArt Film Labs donated $40,000 worth of film processing. The Screen Actors Guild helped with extras. Actors worked with far less than they would have otherwise made.)

            But even when the film was finished in the fall of 1989, there was still the challenge of finding a distributor. In early 1990, the filmmakers held a screening for industry insiders, journalists, and leaders of the gay community to get “a buzz going,” said Law. “Larry Kramer came,” says Wlodkowski, “and the fact that he liked the film was important, because we knew we would have to have that kind of supporter behind us. It would have been a problem if there was antagonism [from the gay community].” Also in January of 1990, the film was presented at the (now renamed) Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award.

            At that point, calls began to come in from distributors. Law reported that with the increasing positive word-of-mouth, distributors were then afraid of missing out on the next Crocodile Dundee, which was an under-the-radar Australian indie that went on to become one of the biggest box office hits of 1987. Law approached Tom Rothman, with whom he had worked as an entertainment lawyer. Rothman was head of worldwide production at the Samuel Goldwyn Company. While the company had previously passed on financing the film, it was encouraged by the reaction from private screenings, one of which was paid for by Davison and actor Richard Dreyfuss. The Goldwyn Company eventually bought the worldwide distribution rights.

            People involved with the film knew that the project was “not just another movie,” said Lamos. “We were all aware of the film’s importance and worried it wouldn’t get a distributor, so when word came through that Samuel Goldwyn had signed on, everyone was cheering and crying.” But how to sell the film in a way that would attract an audience? Another question loomed: if the film were a critical and commercial failure, would that make it impossible for other films dealing with AIDS and the gay community get produced?

            “A movie like Longtime Companion has an uphill battle to get a mainstream audience,” said film historian Vito Russo at the time. Author of The Celluloid Closet, Russo called Longtime Companion “a landmark film. It is the first major movie to deal with gay men and AIDS; it doesn’t try to explain gay life for a mainstream audience; and it contains more affection and intimacy between men than virtually any other film in recent memory.”

            But just as worrisome was that the built-in gay audience, despite its verbal support, would not want to go out on a Saturday night and pay seven dollars to see something they live with on a daily basis. The marketing strategy that was developed to reach the broadest audience possible was to emphasize the life-affirming nature of the film. Despite the fact that it deals with personal tragedies as well as the horrors of AIDS, it also shows how the gay community came together to take care of itself. Another way the film was marketed was as a prestige event, as something important that would enrich people’s lives. René said at the time: “The issues in this movie aren’t about being gay, but dealing with death and friendship. At the initial screenings … we had people who said their mother died a few years ago and the movie spoke to them.”

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While it dealt with tragic circumstances, the film’s humor and life-loving characters kept it from being unbearably painful. The emotional wallop of its ending was both uplifting and heartbreaking, as it depicted a fantasy moment where scores of gay men who had died from the disease were reunited with their surviving friends and lovers on a Fire Island’s beach. (That ending—which had audiences sobbing—was echoed in the final scene of Matthew Lopez’ two-part play The Inheritance. The first part ends when a seemingly never-ending parade of men who have died from AIDS walk down the theater’s aisles and return on stage to the setting of a country home where they sought refuge and comfort in their dying days.)

            Compared to films about LGBT life today, Longtime Companion was not sexually explicit. Its aim was to depict gay life within the bounds of an R-rated film that would attract the largest possible audience. Observed René: “It’s probably more shocking to see intimacy between two men than to see sex between two men.”

            The primary gay characters in the film are attractive, upscale white professionals in their twenties or thirties. “Rightly so,” said Russo, “because this was the exact population first identified with the disease.” Russo told The Advocate at the time that the film would inevitably be criticized for not being all things to all people. “I’m tired of people who demand political correctness in art,” he said. “Not only isn’t it possible, it isn’t desirable. It’s insulting to tell these people that their experience is somehow not valid because they’re white.”

            Lamos said people responded to the film the way they responded to another emotionally wrenching film, Terms of Endearment, and other moving stories of families struggling with life-and-death issues. Lamos acted in one of the films’ most emotional scenes as his character Sean lay dying while his partner (played by Davison) lovingly tells him to “Let it all go.” Davison received an Oscar nomination for his performance and won the Golden Globe Award, among others.

            The film received mostly positive reviews, many quite enthusiastic. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called it the year’s best domestic movie. Variety called it “simply an excellent film.” David Patrick Stearns of USA Today opined: “Longtime Companion isn’t simply the most authoritative dramatization yet of the AIDS epidemic and its emotional impact. It’s also a rare combination of beguiling honesty and gripping storytelling.” But there were some harsh reviews, too, especially from People magazine and Vincent Canby in The New York Times, who called the film “insipid” and was critical that the film’s gay couples were privileged and white. In passing, he also called The Normal Heart “rudely angry” and An Early Frost “slick fiction.” “Those reviews were really harmful,” said Lucas.

            A TV movie based on Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On and the studio film Philadelphia followed the release of Longtime Companion. But it was primarily on stage that the stories from the epidemic in the LGBT community were being told. Terrence McNally in particular wrote about many aspects of the epidemic in plays such as Our Sons, André’s Mother, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lips Together, Teeth Apart. The most famous stage work is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which became the theatrical event of the ’90s.

            Lucas said he is proud of the film and the way it portrayed life among a particular group of gay men at that moment in time. He noted how rapidly that world has changed—and that his film is not particularly well-known by subsequent generations. As for the movie’s lasting impact, he simply said he’d let others decide its place in film history.

Frank Rizzo is a theater writer and critic for Variety and a freelance journalist based in New York City and New Haven.

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