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MOVIES : GUEST FILM COMMENTATOR : The AIDS Metaphor in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

<i> Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News," and anchor of "48 Hours."</i>

I am not generally known for being a movie critic. Quite the contrary, although just the other day Roger Ebert took me to task for my reviews of Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” (This was a little puzzling, since I hadn’t written any reviews of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” but perhaps Mr. Ebert had me mistaken for Gene Siskel, who works the morning shift at CBS News. Gene and I have both been known to wear sweaters; the confusion was bound to arise eventually.)

But I do enjoy movies (“JFK” included), and like anybody else who plunks down his money for a ticket and a tub of popcorn, I’ve got my opinions and my interpretations.

Opinions: I like Kathleen Turner and I think Sissy Spacek is one of Texas’ most valuable exports.

Interpretations: The news colors every picture ever made in Hollywood. You know that already. If Ginger Rogers is up to her permanent wave in sequins and feathers, it’s only because America doesn’t want to look at more bread lines. If Michael J. Pollard nearly becomes a matinee idol, it’s because America is rebelling against the Official Line, even the Official Definition of Matinee Idols. If Kevin Costner says that John Kennedy was shot to keep us in Vietnam, it’s because America wants a way to make sense out of two painful episodes of the ‘60s.

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I was thinking about this the other evening when I saw Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a great show: funny, sentimental, great songs and a multitalented cast of voices and drawings. The heroine, Belle, is spunky enough that I’m pretty sure she’s got Texas roots, no matter what they tell me about her being French. (I do want to know why she’s so much smaller when she’s riding her horse, Philippe, than when she’s standing next to him.)

But I kept thinking about the Beast.

The Beast is--just in case you’ve been in Frontierland and haven’t heard the story yet--a prince who has a limited amount of time (the life span of a single flower) to find true love and break the spell that’s made him into a gruesome monster. He’s cast out by society, even tracked down and attacked by an angry mob, and his only companions are also under the same spell. He’s so desperate to break the spell, to rescue himself and his friends, that he can’t control his temper--he smashes things, frightens people--and winds up even harder to love. He can’t help himself.

You really feel for the guy. He reminds you of the hopeless klutz you were the first time you fell in love, always saying the wrong things, stepping on toes, trampling the flowers. And he reminded me of somebody else, somebody I’ve seen over and over as I’ve covered the news in the last decade: a Person With AIDS.

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The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Think of the spell as AIDS, with the same arbitrary and harshly abbreviated limitations on time, and you feel the Beast’s loneliness and desperation a little more deeply. He’s just a guy trying as hard as he can to find a little meaning--a little love, a little beauty-- while he’s still got a little life left.

After all, if the curse is just a curse, do the fundamental things apply? Why be so worried about breaking the spell when the Beast and his buddies can stay forever in that terrific castle, with nobody to bother them (the bully Gaston wouldn’t ever have found them had it not been for the Beast’s carelessness). Since Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, Cogsworth and Chip are handy household items, they don’t need to worry about jobs--or about dying, for that matter, as long as they don’t get broken. They’re already together, so this isn’t like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” who really must get back to her family.

What’s the problem?

The folks at Disney tell me that “Beauty and the Beast” was well under way before lyricist and executive producer Howard Ashman tested HIV positive, and long before Ashman died of AIDS. They say this isn’t autobiographical. Instead, it’s a part of Ashman’s living legacy--one that also includes wonderful words in shows like “The Little Mermaid” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” and some of the lyrics in the forthcoming “Aladdin.”

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But think what that legacy means if my interpretation is valid.

Susan Sontag has said that every society picks an illness and assigns it meaning--people force diseases to say something about themselves. “Illness as Metaphor” is the title of her book, and it’s a tidy phrase, too. In the 19th Century, we were obsessed by tuberculosis (think of Greta Garbo in “Camille”), and for most of the 20th Century, we were fascinated by cancer (think of Ali MacGraw in “Love Story”). So far, there hasn’t been a drama about AIDS with that kind of mainstream success. Writers and producers try, but so far we’ve seen only some movies-of-the-week and some art-house films: “An Early Frost” or “A Virus Knows No Morals.” “Longtime Companion” is as close to the mainstream as anybody’s gotten without getting commercial.

Say that the AIDS metaphor is just one way, a valid way, of looking at “Beauty and the Beast.” That means that millions of Americans, most of them children, are looking at a Person With AIDS with a new kind of compassion. We’re crying when he’s sad, cheering for him when he wins. You can hope that huge audiences would feel the same way about a real Person With AIDS, Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions and all the most visible symptoms of the full-blown illness. You can expect that we’d feel pity. But can you possibly imagine that we’d identify with him?

Actually, now that we know how to identify with the Beast, maybe we can identify with people with AIDS.

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That’s the kind of achievement that makes something like a nomination for the best picture Academy Award look insignificant.

Because it means a new kind of hope, too. The People With AIDS that I’ve met, the folks I’ve talked with, all say that other people’s attitudes are the biggest problems. Those are the attitudes that slow up the approval (or jack up the prices) for medications that might help, that immobilize political action, that impede education and prevention, that retract a helping hand, that deny a kind word.

Can you honestly say you’d turn down the Beast if he came to you for help?

If people’s attitudes about People With AIDS can change, then living with AIDS will change. For the better.

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Maybe I’m more wrong in trying to find social significance in a Disney cartoon than I am in trying to write movie criticism. But “Beauty and the Beast” has given me a lot to think about--about love, about loneliness, about compassion and fear. And about hope.

I give it two thumbs up.


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