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Angels on high
Tony Kushner's fantasia is still timely on HBO
Angels in America
Adapted by Tony Kushner from his plays Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika. Directed by Mike Nichols. With Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wilson, Patrick Wright, Justin Kirk, and Ben Shenkman. Airs this Sunday and next, December 7 and 14, at 8 p.m. on HBO.

Early on in Tony Kushner’s two-part, Pulitzer-winning Angels in America, which has made a heavenly transition to television, two characters — one a pill-popping young housewife, the other a handsome homosexual afflicted with AIDS — meet in an eerie doorway of conjoined hallucination dubbed the "threshold of revelation." That address, suitable to so apocalyptic a work, is as much where Angels takes place as Reagan-era New York City, where it’s ostensibly set, is.

Kushner’s much-lauded "gay fantasia on national themes" is a ferocious and fanciful look back at the plague-ridden, politically blindered 1980s, when a mastodon called Reagan roamed the White House while thousands died of AIDS, from the perspective of the early ’90s. (After West Coast and London incarnations, the plays hit Broadway in 1993.) But far from being tied to its time, Angels, with its millennial admonition that "history is about to crack wide open," seems in post–September 11 America as much prescient apprehension as blast from the past. Blast it is, though, complete with fire and brimstone and bi-worldly coupling, in this passionate pair of three-hour television movies airing for the first time on HBO this Sunday and next. The unstintingly produced film adaptations of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika are written by Kushner, directed by Mike Nichols, and acted by the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson, the last as a sexily hermaphroditic representative of Heaven who makes you not only want to fall down on your knees but also duck and cover.

Frank Rich has already called attention, in the New York Times, to the pungent irony of Angels’ coming to television, apparently without protest, in the wake of the hue and cry over The Reagans that caused CBS to lob the insufficiently hagiographic bio-pic to Showtime. Reagan is not the succubus of Angels; that honor goes to secretly AIDS-afflicted, soon-to-be-disbarred lawyer and Republican rampager Roy Cohn, who was best known for his contributions to the McCarthy witch hunt and the lynch fever that led to the execution of the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Still, for the right-wing pundits to bar the front door in outrage against The Reagans while allowing Angels to sneak in the back is further proof they couldn’t smell injury if it were a squirting skunk. In an early scene in Millennium, as Pacino’s Cohn barks over numerous phone lines while simultaneously gruff-sweet-talking the young Mormon lawyer he hopes to deposit in the Justice Department to thwart his disbarment hearings, the camera pans a framed photo of him sandwiched between a smiling Reagan and Dubya’s dad.

Cohn may be "the pole star of human evil" in the minds of the play’s liberal characters, but he does not go gentle into that good night in Angels in America. Both a strength and a fault of the work is that it makes its in-house devil, a moribund Vesuvius of unprincipled wrongmindedness, irresistible. The Tony-winning performance by Cohn’s Broadway incarnation, Ron Leibman, would be too large for celluloid. Pacino, sporting a Derek Jacobi–in–I Claudius haircut and an increasingly yellowing complexion, gives us a blunt, brooding man bubbling with conservative venom but clearly in the terrible, energy-depleting grip of his disease. There’s a spellbinding scene in which a hollow-eyed, morphine-stoned Cohn, in a state somewhere between second childhood and catatonia, listens as Jeffrey Wright’s gay male nurse, Belize, paints a poetic picture of Heaven as a wrecked city much like San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 ’quake but with "big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion." Wright is the only holdover from the Broadway cast, and he is silky beyond words, a one-time drag queen draped in a regal, compassionate hauteur stitched by Kushner out of language and sangfroid.

But neither Cohn nor his nurse is the pulsing center of Angels in America. That would be Prior Walter, either the 32nd or 34th to bear his WASP-y name (depending on whether you count the bastards). Battling AIDS and abandoned by his agonized but weak long-time boyfriend, Louis Ironson, Prior is chosen, in Kushner’s visionary soap opera, as a heavenly prophet; by the end of the first film, he’s been visited by Thompson’s powerful angel, who does cataclysmic harm to what looks like Upper West Side real estate before delivering the message that Mankind has got to "stop moving." Prior is also half of one of two couples coming apart: in the course of Angels, he’s painfully left by logorrheic Jewish liberal Louis, who can’t deal with the bodily ravages of the disease, just as troubled, agoraphobic Brooklyn housewife Harper Pitt is left by her conservative Mormon-lawyer husband, Joe, Cohn’s protégé and a gay man wrestling his orientation the way the Biblical Jacob does the angel.

Prior, too, gets his chance to wrestle an angel in Perestroika — though like several other supernatural encounters, this one, taking place over beeping New York traffic, is a bit over-the-top, conjuring King Kong more than the Old Testament. By and large, though, Kushner’s transcription of his epic two-part theater work, dense with imagination and politics, survives the sea change to film. Which is a bit of a surprise, not just because works tied to specific times and political agendas don’t usually age well but also because Kushner’s opus, with its daring collision of polemic and dream, seemed very much a beast of the stage, with that medium’s greater friendliness to heightened reality and language, not to mention camp sensibility.

The commitment here is admirable (and must be duplicated by the viewer, since the plays’ seven hours have been pared only to six, with Kushner doing more cutting and rearranging of Perestroika). Both pieces begin from the perspective of the descending angel, who sweeps from great distance through a cloud-studded sky to arrive at the Central Park fountain centered by the Bethesda angel (who sets the phantasmagoric mood by raising her stone head and looking right at us). Atmosphere is employed to excellent effect, with much of Perestroika taking place on a single dark and stormy night when Prior wrestles with the angel and cuts a deal with Heaven as Cohn shuffles off his mortal coil in the cooing death-watch company of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Harder to take seriously is some of the supernatural intercourse, with both Prior and Streep’s valiantly unglamorous Mormon widow levitating to achieve orgasm with the angel and the ghosts of prior Priors (cameos by British greats Michael Gambon and Simon Callow) shooting fire from their ectoplasmic fingertips.

But the human drama is unflinchingly acted, especially by the men: Justin Kirk as a gorgeous if caked-lipped Prior, furiously grasping at life; Patrick Wilson, beatific, chiseled, and immensely vulnerable as Joe Pitt; and Ben Shenkman, annoying as the annoyingly self-indulgent, self-justifying Louis but bringing a Woody Allen–ish reflectiveness to the character’s non-stop political emoting. The women’s roles involve more of the double and triple casting that’s a holdover from the play. Queen of quirk Mary-Louise Parker creates an impish but bravely unkempt and depressed Harper, wafting through her Brooklyn refrigerator into a polar fantasy that finds her felling a pine tree with her teeth. Thompson is fiery as the angel and doubles as the bordering-on-butch nurse who inspires the Heavenly vision. And in a notably self-effacing turn, Streep makes folksy-talking Mormon mom Hannah a likably light-handed, salt-of-the-earth frump. Bringing her celebrated facility with accents to bear, she’s almost unrecognizable as a history-touting rabbi with beard curling about bad teeth and has a dainty ghoulishness as the rosebud-lipped ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

I watched the second part of Angels in America on the day Massachusetts moved toward the legalization of gay marriage, and that news permeated my appreciation of Perestroika’s final scene, which is set on a sunny winter day in 1990. Prior, having coaxed "more life" (the literal meaning of "blessing") from a bureaucratic Heavenly Host reeling from the abandonment of the Deity, is still alive, though burdened by a cane and thick glasses. He and a trio of friends — Belize, Louis, and Hannah — have gathered at the Bethesda fountain, where they discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ascent of Gorbachev. Prior breaks free and, addressing the camera, wishes us too "more life." Speaking of a gay populace decimated in the apathetic ’80s by AIDS, he says, "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come." Then he returns to the political discussion as the group moves away. Its gay members aren’t yet allowed to marry. But they are, like Kushner himself, valorously engaged.

Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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