The world of cinema, since the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, has played a prominent role in fostering and altering mainstream discourse surrounding HIV.
Bringing to life on the silver screen a plethora of diverse narratives experienced by those living with and affected by the virus, film has enabled – from the darkest days in 1994 when AIDS-related deaths reached their peak in the developed world, to today where highly effective treatments have made HIV for many, a manageable condition – the human experiences of HIV to be illustrated to the wider world.
Spanning from 1985 to 2017, here are nine must-see movies featuring people living with HIV and others affected by it.
Considered to be one of the most ground-breaking and first films to bring the AIDS epidemic to a mainstream audience (it eventually grossed over $206 million worldwide against a modest budget of $26 million), Philadelphia saw Tom Hanks take home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his starring role as Andrew Beckett, a senior associate at a law firm in Philadelphia who has acquired an AIDS-defining illness – Kaposi’s sarcoma. Beckett is dismissed for “incompetence” but suspects the true reason for his termination is his HIV status, as one of the partners previously noticed a lesion on Beckett’s forehead which he tried to pass off as the result of a racquetball injury. Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, represents Beckett in court and proceeds to sue the firm for discrimination and wrongful dismissal.
The power of this film lay in its ability to make the subject area more palatable to a wider and previously unexposed audience during some of the most deadly years of the AIDS epidemic, in part by casting household names Hanks and Washington as the lead characters, but also by casting 53 people living with HIV and AIDS in supporting roles.
As the acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert eloquently summed up in his review in 1993:
“Philadelphia is quite a good film, on its own terms. And for moviegoers with an antipathy to AIDS but an enthusiasm for stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, it may help to broaden understanding of the disease.
…Sooner or later, Hollywood had to address one of the most important subjects of our time, and with Philadelphia the ice has been broken.
In a year or two, it will be time for another film to consider the subject more unblinkingly. This is a righteous first step.”
The Normal Heart, 2014
Depicting the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984, The Normal Heart is centred on a group of gay men, as well as physician Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Julia Roberts), and the confusion and fear they face in the early days of the epidemic – a time in which the causes of HIV and how it is transmitted were still largely unknown, and also pre-1985 when the first HIV antibody test became available. Beautifully shot and with an ever-engaging plotline, this film was lauded by film critics.
Holding the Man, 2015
Adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir of the same name, Holding the Man is Australia’s most iconic work in the HIV/AIDS film canon. The heart-warming true story tells of students Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr) and John Caleo (Craig Stott) who meet and fall in love at a catholic school in Melbourne in 1976. Over the next decade their relationship blossoms, despite the homophobic tribulations born from their respective families, but in 1985 this tale of love takes a dramatic turn when both men are diagnosed as HIV positive. With beautiful cinematography shot mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as an all-star Australian supporting cast including Guy Pearce, Anthony LaPaglia, Sarah Snook and Geoffrey Rush, Holding the Man is a faithful adaptation of Conigrave’s bittersweet memoir and well worth a viewing.
Dallas Buyers Club, 2013
Earning Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively, Dallas Buyers Club was a critically acclaimed and commercial success – grossing just over $55 million worldwide against a relatively miniscule budget of $5 million.
The film’s protagonist is Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a straight man who acquires AIDS in 1985 – a time when HIV/AIDS treatments were hardly researched and the virus was still fairly enigmatic and extremely stigmatised. As part of an experimental and underground AIDS treatment movement, Woodroof smuggles unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas to treat his symptoms, and also distributes them to other AIDS patients by establishing the “Dallas Buyers Club” while facing hostility from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The depictions of adversity and isolation experienced by those living with AIDS at the time is staggering and the performances by McConaughey and Leto are supreme.
An Early Frost, 1985
A paving stone for the depiction of the AIDS epidemic on the screen, An Early Frost is the first major film – made-for-television or feature films – to address the topic of AIDS. Michael Pierson is a successful lawyer living a seemingly happy life with his boyfriend in Chicago. But after suffering a coughing fit at work and being taken to hospital, he discovers from a doctor that he most likely has AIDS – remember, in 1985 standard HIV antibody blood tests were still a few years away from becoming available to the public, so diagnoses were largely made based on symptoms.
Michael returns home to his waspish family in a picket fence cookie cutter rural locale to come out to them as both an AIDS patient and a gay man. While facing stigma and homophobia, he convalesces at the family home and successfully re-establishes his closeness with his parents and sister. The made-for-television film was impressively the most-watched program the night it aired on November 11, 1985 in the United States, and was subsequently nominated for 14 Emmy Awards, of which it won three, as well as a Golden Globe. Having broken the ice, An Early Frost paved the way for later TV and feature films focussing on HIV/AIDS including many featured in this very article.
Behind the Candelabra, 2013
Based on the memoir of Scott Thorson – one of Liberace’s long-time lovers – Behind the Candelabra is a glitzy gaudy feast for the eyes, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and Thorson respectively. The tackily gilded and rhinestone world of one of history’s most iconic yet closeted gay men is brought fabulously to the screen by director Steven Soderbergh and is truly entertaining. Aged just 18, Thorson meets Liberace and shortly after moves in with him, becomes his lover, and quickly begins to mirror Liberace’s excessive dress-sense, spending and lifestyle. If you’re not fully familiar with Thorson’s story, one scene involving a very dodgy plastic surgeon-cum-drug addiction enabler will leave you exclaiming “WTF?” upon verifying its veracity on Wikipedia. While the film only briefly touches on Liberace’s premature death, it is a wonderful portrait of one of the world’s first mainstream stars who succumbed to AIDS.
Longtime Companion, 1989
Paving on from the foundation set by An Early Frost, Longtime Companion, having been released in 1989, is the first wide-release theatrical film to address the subject of AIDS. The film is split into nine sections, with each depicting a different day between July 3, 1981 and July 19, 1989 – an eight year period which sees a group of gay men and their experiences in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. From initially dismissing the rise of “gay cancer” in 1981 as a rare disease, the film’s cast of gay men is gradually whittled down through the years, with many of them dying of AIDS-related illnesses. The deaths of the characters are rarely shown on screen or specifically mentioned, rather, they are implied by the characters’ absence – perhaps a softening strategy employed at a time when AIDS was still devastating the developed world and hadn’t even yet reached its peak. The final scene where those who have passed return for a reunion in a dream sequence scene on the beach at Fire Island Pines is a bittersweet tear-jerker finale to this fine film.
The Living End, 1992
Tantalisingly described by some critics as a “gay Thelma and Louise”, The Living End is a comedy-drama film focussed on Luke and Jon – two HIV positive gay men who, after killing a homophobic police officer, go on a road trip with the motto “Fuck everything”. While the film received a mixed reception from critics, Peter Travers from Rolling Stone had nothing but praise for the film, opening his review with: “Hollywood’s gutless fear of AIDS movies makes this savagely funny, sexy and grieving cry from the heart of writer, director, cinematographer and editor Gregg Araki even more rending.” Irrespective of the film’s directorial quality though, the onscreen chemistry between the two lead men during the sex scenes is hot!
Angels in America, 2003
In 2006, the Seattle Times listed Angels in America among the “best of the filmed AIDS portrayals” on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the start of the AIDS epidemic. The miniseries runs for six hours and revolves around six New Yorkers whose lives intersect in 1985. Its protagonist is Prior Walter, a gay man living with AIDS who is visited by an angel. A wide variety of themes from the day are explored in this fantastical series, including the spreading AIDS epidemic, Reagan era politics and the fast changing social and political climate of 1985. In 2004, Angels in America won 11 awards from 21 nominations at the Emmys – at the time, the most Emmys awarded to a program in a single year. On top of this, the miniseries maintains a 90 per cent ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 20 reviews, with an average rating of 10/10.
Rotten Tomatoes score
Fresh rating: 90 per cent of critics gave positive reviews
Three more HIV/AIDS films worth a view