In “Dallas Buyers Club,” opening on Friday at the Nickelodeon (www.patriotcinemas.com), Matthew McConaughey plays real-life HIV victim Ron Woodroof, a hard-drinking, homophobic heterosexual who became an unlikely AIDS activist, fighting the 1980s medical establishment and the FDA in a quest to obtain experimental drugs that might prolong his life and those of others afflicted with the disease.
From all accounts, it’s inspirational Oscar bait, especially since McConaughey and costar Jared Leto pulled a collective De Niro and lost a scary amount of weight for their roles. Which is fine – but for the fact that, in the long tradition of Hollywood depictions of “minority issues,” the film feels the need to filter its well-intentioned message through a character (in this case a straight one) who will be more palatable to paying audiences.
As Emmy-winning TV writer Patrick Mulcahey points out in a recent Huffington Post article, there were a half dozen gay-led organizations doing what Woodroof’s character is lauded for, and yet none of them exist in the film, leaving McConaughey’s “bigot who learns that gays are people too” the lone (hetero) savior of the gay community. Even after three decades, Hollywood’s still making the same compromises.
Take 1993’s “Philadelphia.” A commendable effort from director Jonathan Demme to confront the public’s AIDS hysteria (still in full, ignorant, freak-out mode at the time), the film nonetheless succumbs to obviousness in its prosaic courtroom scenes (increasingly, Demme has come to understand that “full-on truth telling” calls for “full-face closeup speech delivered directly to camera”), and in making its gay characters as nonthreatening as possible.
I remember approximately 426 articles praising the courage of Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas for daring to play a gay couple. You know, despite the fact that their characters aren’t allowed a single moment of sexual intimacy through the entire movie (see: “Family, Modern”). It’s a standard (meaning “true and accurate”) complaint against even the most well-intentioned Hollywood depictions of gay characters – no matter how meticulously crafted, most such films approach their subjects as “others.” You can practically hear the sound of filmmakers patting themselves on the back for being so tolerant and inclusive.
For a truly furious film about the AIDS crisis that approaches it from the inside, I suggest “The Living End” (1992) from director Greg Araki. When a bookish movie critic and a hustler both discover they’re HIV-positive, they decide to become lovers and embark on a nihilistic, “Thelma and Louise”-style road trip, occasionally shooting all-American homophobes along the way. Coming from the indie fringe, the film, emerging from the burgeoning “queer cinema” movement, is a cinematic scream of rage against a society still in deliberate denial of the AIDS epidemic, and a powerful statement that gay filmmakers have a voice separate from studios’ patronizing depictions of them.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.