Ryan Murphy's HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's seminal play about the early days of the AIDS crisis, opens with a series of joyful scenes on Fire Island. These scenes are the calm before the storm, representing the moments before the disease ravages the gay community. These scenes were not in Kramer's play, which opens in a doctor's office, but they do recall what was deemed by the New York Times the "first mainstream American film about AIDS," the drama Longtime Companion, which was released in 1990. Longtime Companion, which was written by playwright Craig Lucas, both starts and ends at the beach. In the final, iconic scene three of the movie's protagonists—one of the central couples and their female friend—envision being joined by their friends who were lost to the disease. It's a moment, scored by the song "Postmortem Bar," that is bound to provoke tears.
The Normal Heart came before Longtime Companion, originally premiering at the Public Theater in 1985, but when Longtime Companion was released it was considered a cinematic first. Consider an article in Newsday from 1990: "Features about AIDS have had roughly the popularity in Hollywood that the Vietnam war had before 'Platoon.' Outside of TV, there has been none. That's changing May 11, when the Samuel Goldwyn Co. starts a limited release of 'Longtime Companion' in New York." The movie, as one might have expected, wasn't an easy sell. A 1990 article by Elaine Dutka in the Los Angeles Times explained that the budget of the film was cut in half because there was no one to co-finance it along with Lindsay Law of PBS's American Playhouse. "The film, which took six weeks to shoot, required twice as long to line up a distributor," Dutka wrote. "All of the majors took a look ('No one wanted to miss the next 'Crocodile Dundee,'' says [producer Stan] Wlodkowski, "but 10 minutes into the film, they knew there was no danger of that.'). All turned it down. The independents, despite lower overhead and greater experience in nurturing smaller films, also proved resistant." The movie got distribution from the Samuel Goldwyn Company and played at both Sundance, where it won the Audience Award, and Cannes, where it screened in the Un Certain Regard section.
Being the first didn't ensure rave reviews. "'Longtime Companion,' directed by Norman Rene from a screenplay by playwright Craig Lucas, isn't much more than a moderately competent melodrama," Dave Kehr wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "Yet as the first mainstream fiction film to openly solicit an emotional response to the AIDS crisis, it fills an important social role."
The New York Times' Vincent Canby savaged the film, taking aim at the fact that the gay couples it mostly depicts are privileged and white. (In the same review he also called The Normal Heart "rudely angry.")
While there are parts of each work that resemble one another—including, unfortunately, the lack of attention paid to minorities—Longtime Companion never bristles with the same anger that define Kramer's writing and activism. Though protest and the Gay Men's Health Crisis both work their way into the film by its end, it focuses less on mobilization and more on how the crisis affected the interpersonal relationships of gay men in the era. It begins with the characters reading and reacting to the New York Times' famous 1981 report on the "rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals," and ends with that heartbreaking beach scene in 1989, with characters speculating on what it would be like if a cure was ever found. It would be "like the end of World War II," Mary-Louise Parker's Lisa says. (Parker is just one of the people in the movie who would go on to become bigger stars. Dermot Mulroney is another.)
Longtime Companion is best when depicting mourning and loss. It's anchored by an Oscar-nominated performance by Bruce Davison, who delivers a heartbreaking monologue to his dying lover. And while the movie does show how the disease was responsible for physically and mentally deteriorating people, it doesn't come close to showing the full extent of the medical horrors it inflicted.
So what place does Longtime Companion have in the narrative of the AIDS crisis, nearly 25 years after its initial release. I first saw the movie in college as part of a United States gay and lesbian history course taught by George Chauncey, a preeminent scholar of the subject. In a recent phone conversation in which we discussed the release of The Normal Heart Chauncey explained that he has replaced Longtime Companion on the syllabus with the 2012 documentary United in Anger: The History of ACT UP. "I'm struck by the fact that there have been several films in just the last couple of years about the early AIDS epidemic and the social and political mobilization in response to it," he told me, referencing United and How to Survive a Plague, another documentary released in 2012. "I now show United in Anger in my class instead of Longtime Companion because I think it does a good job of giving people a sense of the horrors of the early years at the personal level but it also does give a really effective portrayal of how people mobilized to fight AIDS and to save their lives." The movie of The Normal Heart, Chauncey explained, combines the melodrama of Longtime Companion with the depiction of activism of the two other films he mentioned.
Though it was made when the crisis was still ongoing, Longtime Companion now doesn't have the urgency as HBO's The Normal Heart, which has the power to galvanize a viewer thanks to Kramer's unrelenting will to fight. But Longtime Companion accomplishes what it set out to do: show what it's like when a community of friends is forced to face widespread, persistent death. It's also an important piece of history, as a movie that was made about AIDS when no one was making movies about AIDS.