Angels in America

HBO Video, 2003

Mike Nichols

Tony Kushner,
from his play

Al Pacino,
Meryl Streep,
Emma Thompson,
Justin Kirk,
Jeffrey Wright,
Mary-Louise Parker,
Ben Shenkman,
Patrick Wilson
James Cromwell

Unrated, 352 minutes

Love In the Time
Of Reagan

by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, December, 2007


Tony Kushner's mighty 2 part, 6 hour play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes, is, quite simply, one of the most important dramas of the late 20th century. Like Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Angels in America is a sweeping work of literature. Epic in scope, reality and dreams are woven throughout its fabric while juggling multiple characters and storylines. Angels may be the pinnacle of gay theatre. The importance of its Broadway success in the early 90s can not be overstated.

It is also a very difficult play to adapt to film. Paring it down to 2 hours is impossible. A 3 hour version once proposed by Robert Altman was abandoned. While flawed, the HBO series (presented in 2 three hour installments as it was on stage - Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika) proved to be the only feasible format that would do justice to Kushner's sprawling masterpiece.

Angels in America begins in New York City, 1985, as AIDS was devastating the gay community. The crisis is contextualized within the politics of the era. At the play's center is Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a young man with AIDS. His partner, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman) is unable to deal with Prior's illness and abandons him. To parallel their story, we meet Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), the valium-addicted and disturbed wife of Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), an ambitious young Republican - and deeply closeted - lawyer. Both are Mormons who re-located from Salt Lake City to Manhattan.

Dominating both the play and the film is the historical figure of Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), a man whom Louis calls "the polestar of human evil." A corrupt lawyer, Cohn sat at the right hand of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the House Unamerican Activities hearings in the 1950s. A closeted queer, he assisted the witch hunt of gay men on the government payroll and claimed as his proudest accomplishment his role in sending convicted "spy" Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair. But what goes around comes around, as they say, and Cohn also has AIDS - though he insists that it's really "liver cancer."

As their lives intertwine, the story gains in momentum. Joe Pitt is Cohn's hand-picked protege to go to the Justice Department in Washington - where he can insure that Cohn's disbarment hearings never get to court. As Harper grows more and more unstable, Joe leaves her and winds up in a toxic relationship with Louis. Harper and Prior meet in a shared hallucination/dream sequence. Prior's best friend, the nurse Belize (Jeffrey Wright), becomes Roy Cohn's caregiver when he is admitted to the hospital. Prior is visited by an angel, who crashes through his ceiling, at the climax of Part One.

Angels is a very political play. Kushner uses words as sharpened swords. Amongst his targets is the Reagan administration; its politics, its materialism, and its indifference to the AIDS pandemic. But his canvas is broad; ineffectual gays like Louis get their comeuppance along with monsters like Roy Cohn. Belize, who is both gay and black, is given this remarkable speech that stands as Kushner's vision of the 1980s:

I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It's just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word "free" to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with to me to Room 1013 [Roy Cohn's room] at the hospital, I'll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean.

Kushner is food for the brain. But fear not, despite its complexity, the basic storyline is easy to follow. For those who might think that Angels is a 6 hour downer, they couldn't be more wrong. Angels is often hysterically funny, the laughs co-existing with intense drama. How can anyone not relish the irony of Roy Cohn dying from AIDS or not be amused by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg sitting in his hospital room, rejoicing in his misery?

HBO omits the subtitle to Kushner's epic: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes - perhaps to increase its viewership - but the secondary title is important. The "national themes" are examined through a queer lens that isn't always a pair of rose colored glasses.

Kushner's ironic gaze spares no one, especially exposing enemies from within. The two biggest gay "villians" in the play both embrace the Ronald Reagan White House and remain in the closet in order to bask in the system. As Justice Theodore Wilson's chief cherk, Joe Pitt has ghostwritten his opinions - including what Louis calls a "legal piece of fag-bashing" - yet speaks of the need to "pass" as he struggles with his true nature. Roy Cohn flaunts his clout and claims that "homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council" and that he is "a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys."

I mentioned War and Peace earlier. Besides a large cast of characters, Angels in America shares something else with Tolstoy's epic: the theme of movement, migration, progress, change. Louis' Jewish grandparents came to America from Russia. Joe and Harper migrate across America to NY, as does Joe's mother, Hannah. Their Mormon faith also began with a journey across the country in the other direction. (The fall of the Soviet Union is referenced, though the HBO film regrettably cuts the "oldest living Bolshevisk's" important monologue from the beginning of Part Two rendering the title Perestroika a mystery to first time audiences unfamiliar with the play.) A rabbi references the journey within us all. Finally there is the angel demanding that mankind stop moving so that God will return to heaven.

Law and justice are also important in Kushner's universe - a world of chaos which Roy Cohn eagerly embraces. Louis breaks the worst law by abandoning Prior, Joe does the same while trying to remain a good Mormon even as Cohn goads him to "transgress." To Cohn, there are those who make the law and those who are subject to it. The law is the new religion. "Lawyers are the high priests of America," Cohn tells Belize. "Sue somebody, it's good for the soul."

Weaving throughout is also the theme of abandonment. Louis and Joe leave their sick spouses, Harper drops out of reality by taking pills ("in wee fistfuls!"), winding up in an imagined Antarctica - and God has abandoned his angels in Heaven. Figuring prominently are blessings and forgiveness. Roy Cohn gives Joe the blessing he never received from his father and Prior demands a blessing from Heaven. Most of the characters learn to forgive. Belize absolves even Cohn, saying that "maybe a queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn't easy. It doesn't count if it's easy" Finally there is the beautiful blessing Prior bestows on the audience in the last minutes.

Those who have never seen Angels on stage have been denied a rare treat. In 1997, I saw Millennium Approaches fully staged here in Buffalo at Studio Arena, and Perestroika as a powerful staged reading by Part One's cast during the last week of the play's run. Angels is also one of the most readable plays in print. Kushner beautifully juggles the large cast of characters. His staging is a marvel, two opposing scenes often play in a "split-screen" technique on opposite ends of the stage.(The HBO film replicates this by cutting the two scenes together.) What is most admirable about the HBO version is the way that it was able to retain most of the elements that made the play so unique.

Because length is not a factor in an HBO series, as it would be in a feature film, Kushner's epic is able to make it to the screen almost intact. To HBO's credit, they allowed Kushner to adapt the script himself. For the most part, Angels is realized beautifully but the adaptation isn't completely problem free.

Director Mike Nichols has worked both on stage and on film and so he was an ideal choice to helm the production.But even he has trouble visualizing all of the fantastic elements that are so important to the play. A fine line often has to be tread when trying to film a play that celebrates its theatricality to this degree. Very few films bring this off (one of the only ones that come to mind is John Greyson's Lilies). On stage, the actors played multiple roles and happily this is also true in the HBO film. Meryl Streep plays Joe's mother, Hannah, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and the old rabbi whose sermon opens the film. Emma Thompson plays the angel, Prior's doctor, and a homeless woman. Jeffrey Wright plays Belize and he also plays Mr. Lies, Harper's imaginary travel agent friend. Most of the leads reappear as the angels in Heaven. This was a nice homage to the way Angels was presented onstage and it works well in the film.

Not quite as successful are the fantasy sequences; some of them work and others do not. One of the play's most memorable moments involves Prior appearing in Harper's hallucination and Harper being in Prior's dream. Nichols accomplishes the jump to fantasy by showing Prior asleep with a book about gay director Jean Cocteau on his lap. As the dream begins, Prior walks down a hallway, lined with arms holding candles, that is straight out of Cocteau's 1946 Beauty and the Beast. The music is a bit overwrought but the homage to Cocteau works. But the same is not true for all of the other fantasy sequences. The first entrance of Ethel Rosenberg's ghost would have been more effective is she wasn't seen walking through a wall. The scenes with the angel, while spectacular, are often just too over-the-top; there was no reason, for example, for her to scream like a bird of prey when she returns in the last act. Ditto for the dream(?) of Prior in Heaven which is the weakest part of the entire production. And I have to admit that, on multiple screenings, the clumsier parts stick out more and more each time.

Still, the acting throughout is excellent; you couldn't ask for a better cast. Al Pacino often chews the scenery as Roy Cohn but his interpretation is no more "larger-than-life" than it was in the original play. However, he underplays more scenes than you would expect and he gets the best lines... like when he barks at Belize: "Suck my dick, Mother Theresa!" and "Touch that phone and I'll bite. And I have rabies." Both Mary-Louise Parker and Justin Kirk (who play together so brilliantly on Showtime's Weeds now) each find the right balance of comedy and dignity in their characters.

In fact, I find most of the more traditional scenes (which make up at least 2/3 of the film) to be almost flawless. Almost. There was no need for footage of outer space when Prior first hears the angel's voice, or the microscopic blood photography that is shown when Cohn is diagnosed with AIDS; these interruptions are too intrusive and take the viewer out of the film. The incidental music also leaves much to be desired and sometimes ruins a scene that was playing much better in silence. But, all nitpicking aside, the pluses overwhelm the minuses and the HBO version is probably the best realized film of Angels in America that we can ever hope for.

Notes on the cast. Jeffrey Wright also played the role of Belize on stage. Justin Kirk (Prior) played the blind Bobby in Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997) onstage and onscreen. Al Pacino played a gay(?) bankrobber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and, of course, starred in 1980's Cruising. Mary Louise Parker appeared in Longtime Companion (1990). Out British Actor Simon Callow (Two Weddings and a Funeral, Bedrooms & Hallways) appears as one of the ghosts who appear to Prior to herald the angel's arrival. Meryl Streep played Woody Allen's lesbian ex-wife in Manhattan (1979). Emma Thompson also starred in Mike Nichol's earlier HBO film of another stage triumph, Margaret Edison's Wit (2001). Finally, Tony Kushner has a cameo as one of the old rabbi's colleagues.

The DVD looks beautiful but it would have been nice to have a few extras like an interview with the playwright, or perhaps - like the Hedwig DVD - show its evolution from stage to screen. But, my criticisms aside, the HBO production is pretty amazing and certainly preferable to a 2 hour Cliff Notes theatrical film version. Watch the HBO film, read the original play and, if the opportunity ever presents itself, see it onstage.


Al Pacino also appears in:

Mary-Louise Parker also appears in:
Longtime Companion

Simon Callow also appears in:
Bedrooms & Hallways
Surveillance 24/7