Judge Mike Pinsky is puzzled that in America, the Los Angeles Angels reside in Anaheim, while a powerful miniseries arrives on DVD with a paucity of supplements.
This is 1985. Meet Joe (Patrick Wilson) and Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) Pitt, loyal Mormons and citizens of America. Joe is a solid Reaganite and cheerful Mormon, more than willing to believe that "America has rediscovered itself" in the 1980s. He is all commitment and no direction. Joe works as a legal clerk on the Federal Appeals Court, but he really takes his orders from the sinister Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Joe does not realize it yet, but he is gay, and America does not approve of that. Harper does not realize it yet, but she is mad.
Meet Roy Cohn, "the polestar of human evil" (at least according to Louis Ironson). Once upon a time, he was a famous attorney, working alongside Joseph McCarthy to battle communism and sedition. He is dying, his body made vulnerable by AIDS. He will not be denied, however, and he still has lives to destroy before his career comes to an end. One life already destroyed belongs to Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep). Her ghost will stay with Roy until his final moments, taunting him about his betrayals.
Meet Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman). Speaking of betrayals, he is about to walk out on Prior Walter (Justin Kirk). Louis is an existentialist. He believes only in the cutthroat world of the political, that "there are no angels in America." He is all direction and no commitment. Louis is scared, and Prior has AIDS, and his mother is dead, and democracy is a sham, and…
Meet Prior Walter. He does not care about any of Louis's excuses. He only knows that he is dying, and even his friend Belize (Jeffrey Wright), a nurse and former drag queen, cannot help. Worse, Prior is having visions. His ancestors speak to him. Angels call him. He is a prophet, whether he wants the job or not.
Meet the Angel of America (Emma Thompson). She brings the end of the world.
According to history scholar Arthur H. Williamson, America was founded on apocalyptic prophecy. From the hellfire of the Puritan preachers to the new exodus of the Mormons, Americans have seen themselves as harbingers of the last days. How many of our leaders, from the promoters of Manifest Destiny to Reagan's crusade against the "evil empire," have seen themselves as standard bearers in a holy war? If it does not seem as blatant as, say, a medieval crusade, than that is only because we have cleverly concealed our apocalyptic rhetoric behind post-Enlightenment buzzwords like "liberty" and "civil rights." When Martin Luther King, Jr., uttered a line like, "The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges," he could only be thinking that the world was about to end—and that social revolution would mark the emergence of the new Eden.
But it might also be noted that every generation of Americans has assumed that it was living in the last days. Perhaps every generation in Western culture has, at least since the Jews marched home from Babylon with their Persian escorts whispering Zoroastrian tales of final battles and holy warriors (for more on this, check out my "Deep Focus" columns on the Apocalypse in film elsewhere on this site). I just checked the weather outside, and the world has not ended yet.
The key questions in any discussion of any sort of Apocalypse must be twofold: How is one judged in the final days? And who does the judging? After all, the Apocalypse is all about the Law. And only those within the bounds of the Law can be judged. Correction: Those within the law will be judged, somewhere down the line. Those outside the law have already been judged, because the law has no language to speak about them, except to label them Other.
Homosexuality has long been outside the law in American society. Sodomy laws. Don't ask, don't tell. Civil unions. Euphemisms mark the unspoken. For example, a "sodomy law" is not technically about gay sex (since not all homosexuals practice sodomy), but—wink wink—we all know the secret truth. We all know for whom the law was written, and against whom it will be deployed. Homosexuality in America is about concealment. Take Joe Harper, for instance. He is so well concealed, so wrapped up in his cheerfully uptight Mormon britches, that he has even concealed his sexuality from himself. When he finally does discover his hidden self, he must go undercover as an instrument of his mentor Roy Cohn to undermine gay rights.
Ah, we almost forgot about Roy Cohn, the master of concealment. A Jew who teased America's lingering anti-Semitism to turn public sentiment against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. A homosexual who publicly railed against gay rights. Cohn is the ultimate enemy in Reagan's America, and it is to Roy Cohn that we will ultimately make our most difficult ethical gesture in Tony Kushner's epic play, Angels in America.
I have taught Angels in America several times over the years. I could go on for several thousand words here, pulling from my discussion notes, about the themes of Kushner's play, which might be the most ambitious stage work since Wagner's Ring cycle. The tension between the vertical power structure of paternity (which requires an extant figurehead—but what do you do when your figurehead, whether God or Reagan, has abandoned you?) and the democratic potential of fraternity (in Angels, the gay community). The politics of infection. The pharmakon: the poison that offers the possibility of healing. Kushner's play is in his words, "a gay fantasia on national themes." And no national theme is bigger than democracy itself. How did the AIDS crisis of the 1980s test the limits of democracy? How does democracy mark its own potential for contamination, for dissent? How does any society, striving for coherence and stability, cope with catastrophic change?
You would think a play about AIDS in the 1980s, using the Apocalypse and the Soviet political thaw as metaphors (the two parts of the play are titled "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika"), would have lost its relevance, preaching about some unenlightened, almost medieval past. But just listen again to Cohn's rant about how "homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. They have zero clout." This is the current gay marriage debate in a nutshell: Like everything else in our social sphere, it is about power. So it is appropriate that HBO and accomplished director Mike Nichols chose now to finally bring Kushner's revelatory vision to the screen. I would have never pegged Nichols, adept as he is at character-driven films (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Birdcage), to tackle anything this ambitious—perhaps his most ambitious project since Catch-22. But at its heart, Angels in America is a play about wounded people trying to connect. And if it involves angels and apocalyptic visions, well, it turns out that ultimately, all the angels want to do is connect too.
The play is risky in any adaptation. It swings wildly, sometimes mid-scene, among delicate character moments, savagely witty camp, theatrical speeches, and spectacular apocalyptic visions. Performers turn up in multiple roles. For example, Meryl Streep draws from her pool of foreign accents once again to play Ethel Rosenberg, an aged rabbi, Joe's mother Hannah, and even one of the angels. The sprawling play (whose first half won a well-deserved Pulitzer) is usually staged over two nights, making it a serious commitment for audiences.
Tony Kushner's adaptation of his play for television restructures things a bit, particularly in the second half, streamlining the sprawl to a still-taxing six hours. Kushner has moved or cut several scenes and even changed the titles of the acts. For example, a scene in the play between Harper and Prior in the Mormon Visitors' Center is trimmed back and played instead between Harper and Hannah, replacing other cut scenes between those two characters. In some cases, entirely new scenes have been inserted. All the new material is well-suited to the play's transition to screen, as some of the whiz-bang antics of the play would conflict with the more serious tone Nichols wants to effect on television.
That is not to make Angels in America out to be an exercise in groaning liberal seriousness. As Kushner himself notes in the play, "Every moment will be played for its reality, the terms always life and death; only then will the comedy emerge." The frustration and desperation of these lost souls brings out their often sarcastic humor. For instance, Prior's bedside confrontation with a pretentious angel (Emma Thompson) is quite funny, as he struggles to hide his sexual arousal while refusing to acquiesce to the angel's vague demands.
In the stage version of Angels, Kushner periodically takes some of his theatrical cues from Brecht and Artaud, breaking the fourth wall and exposing the "wires" that make everything work. After all, one of the key themes is the questioning of authority, and bringing attention to the mechanisms of theater itself is part of the game. The screenplay, however, trims back some of the longer speeches and postmodern conceits, tightening up the pace in favor of something a little more naturalistic. I suppose Kushner and Nichols figured they were testing the audience's patience already by offering a six-hour spectacle about AIDS and angels, so they tone down some of the wilder moments from the stage version. Nichols handles the more hallucinatory sequences deftly. For example, a "shared dream" between Prior and Harper (who would otherwise have no contact in the real world) is staged as a Jean Cocteau parody with bits of Sunset Boulevard. Kushner's genius is his ability to overlap surrealism and naturalism, with touches of camp, into something fresh. It should collapse—or worse, come across as precious—but it balances.
Much of the success of the HBO miniseries can be credited to the marvelous cast. While Pacino and Streep offer their usual gravitas, the real surprise here is a scene-stealing performance from Jeffrey Wright, who played Belize on the New York stage during the play's original run. This is not to demean the rest of the cast, particularly Justin Kirk, who must balance camp and pathos as Prior. The only weak link is Mary-Louise Parker, who seems a bit lightweight as Harper, if only by comparison with the rest of the cast. This may be because, truth be told, Harper's part in the story, especially her magical journey with the Mephistophelian Mr. Lies (Jeffrey Wright), has always seemed a bit light (almost comedy relief) compared to the gloomy doings of the other characters.
But my only real criticism with this magnificent staging of Kushner's play is not with the cast or crew, all of whom manage to make it succeed far better than I would have expected from such a notoriously difficult play. My only criticism is with HBO, which—and you have all heard this one before—charges far too much without offering any supplementary content at all. If HBO could have known that Angels would sweep the Emmys, setting a new miniseries record, would they have offered more extras—or indeed, any extras? Probably not. They are notoriously stingy on that front. I am actually surprised they remembered to include subtitles.
Angels in America is the best American play of this generation. And Mike Nichols, Tony Kushner, and company take all its stage-bound borderline chaos and turn it touchingly cinematic. For that accomplishment alone, they deserve your attention. Yes, HBO deserves to get slapped for dumping this disc on the market with no extras. Still, watch Angels in America with as many people as you can. This is a play about people, social interaction, democracy. It is about individuals connecting. And as Tony Kushner himself says, "From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs. And plays."
HBO is charged with dereliction of duty and assigned Roy Cohn as its counsel. All other participants in this production are released. Court is adjourned.
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