The next life

Special to The Times

"Souls were rising, from the earth far below," she said, peering out the plane's window, "souls of the dead, of people who had perished from famine, from war, from the plague ... " The camera closed in as if beckoned by the heavenly voice. Director Mike Nichols watched closely. These crucial exit lines must transport a static scene into poetry. Otherwise -- after six hours of hypnotic visions such as an angel blasting through a bedroom ceiling -- mere words would have the audience reaching for the remote.

"They floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning." Nichols could relax. Mary-Louise Parker was positively beatific: "In this world, there is a kind of painful progress, longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."

"That's a wrap!"

The usual end-of-shoot commotion had barely begun when Nichols heard a heartbreaking sob. He turned to see Parker still seated, tears flooding her face. Nichols was alarmed: "What?! What is it?" Parker sat weeping, a heartbroken figure of mourning. Gradually, she managed a whisper: "I'll never get to say those words again."

Not a typical reaction to "that's a wrap," but then Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" has inspired extreme passions everywhere it's been produced. Although the story line is undeniably grim -- portraits from the AIDS plague in New York during the mid-1980s -- those touched by "Angels" speak emotionally, as if of a miraculous love affair.

There were countless stories of heroic self-sacrifice during its metamorphosis from a provocative theatrical experiment -- scenes of full nudity, graphic illness, drug addiction and a running time worthy of Charles Dickens -- into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. And now that a 6 1/2-hour film adaptation is premiering next week on HBO, there's even more testimony that the work continues to inspire nothing less than true love, even among a luminous cast whose collective body of work ranges from Shakespeare to David Mamet.

Still, some might say it's crazy love when a cable network -- even risk-taking HBO -- commits $62 million, the most its film division has ever spent on a single movie, to a project that's far more extreme politically than the doomed Ronald Reagan bio-miniseries. This is a lesion-baring play based on the AIDS epidemic, filled with characters who curse then-President Reagan, a play in which the closet still looms large and deadly, and hypocrisy drives people to the point of insanity.

As an artistic theme, AIDS has lost the cachet it briefly enjoyed; for some it is a tragic time now too distant, for others still too near. How will a film so unrelenting in focus and form be received in 2003 by a country torn between another Republican president's conservative policies and nascent "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" social politics, where metaphor, extended or otherwise, has little foothold in reality-dominated television?

Those involved in the making of the film believe that the characters and themes are as trenchant and moving as they were a decade ago. Perhaps more so.

"This is a frightening patch of time," says Emma Thompson, who plays three roles, including the Angel that currently levitates on billboards and bus stops around Los Angeles. "You do have to, therefore, embrace with open arms and hearts something that examines the processes of being human in an honest way like 'Angels in America.' "

When Al Pacino first heard of the HBO project, his reaction was illumination. "I realized that everything in a sense that's in 'Angels' is the province of television. The medium would bring audiences into a certain intimacy." He also knew from the first time he saw the stage production in 1993 that he wanted the role of Roy M. Cohn, aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s. "I'm going into an aspect of a character I haven't expressed before," Pacino said. "The whole idea of deteriorating that way [to AIDS], and the feeling of being in that kind of isolation, and that almost anarchic defiance of Roy Cohn."

For Nichols, "Angels" was the first time he'd ever devoted two years to a project. "I complained all the way," he says. "I knew it would take almost a year to shoot, but I didn't know that it would take another year to complete. The idea is a nightmare -- to be stuck doing something for two years -- but the experience of it, the process, was joy."

What is it about "Angels in America" that inspires such extreme devotion? And why has it always done so? Only one constant can be traced from its beginnings in the mid-1980s to the HBO epic of 2003: the writer and his play.

"Angels in America" is about more than AIDS or the dangers of denial. It is a play about love and betrayal, commitment and fear of the unknown. But mostly it is about politics. Sexual politics. The body politic and the politics of the body. Above all, it is about what Kushner calls "the liberation of the democratic citizen."

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NECESSARY VISIONS

While an undergraduate in the 1970s at Columbia University, Kushner immersed himself in psychoanalysis to "cure" his homosexuality. That painful period of self-loathing only ended with his coming out of the closet. His subsequent personal liberation was an awakening to the belief that every aspect of human experience -- from individual self-denial to the "iron curtain" separating communism from capitalism -- was damaged by repression. "The threshold of revelation," embodied by angelic and hallucinatory visions that his characters either flee, ignore, deny or accept, is a window into alternative realities.

In 1987, Oskar Eustis, then artistic director of the Eureka Theater Company in San Francisco, asked a novice playwright in New York if he might be interested in writing a play about the AIDS epidemic that was devastating the Bay Area's gay community. Eustis hoped the young dramatist with only a single serious credit, the modestly received "A Bright Room Called Day" (1985), might help the tiny, struggling Eureka obtain a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" (1985) had been the first major play about the AIDS epidemic, but Kushner hoped to go beyond Kramer's revelation that politics was denying medicine to the sick. He wanted to write a "hopeful" play about life with AIDS, a shocking perspective when some government and religious leaders believed AIDS was God's curse on homosexuality, and a national "gay scare" of homophobia loomed.

Kushner proposed what he called an "inchoate" story about five gay characters, including the closeted Cohn, who had died in 1986 of AIDS-related complications while claiming he had liver cancer. However, when the $57,000 NEA grant was awarded to the theater, Kushner discovered a stipulation: The Eureka's acting company -- meaning a cast of three straight women and one straight male, led by the heterosexual Eustis -- had to perform his play. Kushner improvised, creating a part for an older actress as Hannah Pitt, the widowed mother of a closeted homosexual Republican lawyer. Another actress was served the role of Harper, Hannah's daughter-in-law, driven to Valium by her husband's repressed sexuality.

Kushner's reconception expanded into a metaphysical twilight zone. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg haunts the dying Cohn. Another character ill with AIDS named Prior Walter becomes a visionary, either hallucinating visitations by an angel or actually encountering celestial beings.

Kushner keeps his plot grounded by focusing on three relationships: the AIDS-afflicted Prior and his disloyal lover, Louis; Harper and her closeted husband, Joe; and Cohn, while sick with AIDS and fighting disbarment, hoping to make Joe his Justice Department "Royboy." Doubling and tripling roles became necessary, and Kushner brilliantly integrated the necessity into the aesthetic. As in "The Wizard of Oz," where farmers were transformed into Dorothy's guides to Oz, Walter's visions may or may not be fevered fantasies.

As a massive text emerged out of Kushner's imagination, Eustis assisted like a proud father. "From the moment I first read this extraordinary writing," Eustis remembers, "I loved this play."

But their ambitions were far more than the cash-strapped Eureka could support. And after a year and a half of development, only a four-hour Part I was even remotely in shape for an audience. However, when Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson invited Eustis in September 1989 to join the Taper as a resident director, Eustis insisted Kushner's epic be part of his deal. "I don't know what I believe anymore," Eustis said to Davidson. "I don't know what I think is good. But I know I love this play."

Davidson agreed to include the raw first half in a festival of new works being held at the Taper's rental space. Kushner titled his work-in-progress "Millennium Approaches" but admitted at the time, to this writer, "I really don't know what it's all about yet. It's very impressionistic and not straightforward."

That 1989 public viewing of "Angels" was a rudimentary reading. No costumes. No sets. Just unknown actors on chairs with their scripts in hand. But in the audience were two friends of New York film producer Cary Brokaw. "They independently called me and raved about this play," Brokaw says. The producer of such films as "Drugstore Cowboy" and "The Player" tracked down the script. "I read the play and was knocked out. I felt strongly that it was not only the introduction of a remarkable new voice, one of the great literary minds of our generation, but also represented a great opportunity as a film. I started a campaign to obtain the rights to adapt it as a film."

At the time, Kushner was only interested in realizing the complete "Angels" for the stage. Under Eustis' direction, the staged reading evolved into a full Taper, Too production in May 1990, at the John Anson Ford Theater. Once again, Kushner knew it was far from finished. "It's only half there. But I decided it was OK that it didn't wind up delivering one or two clear points."

Almost unanimously, Los Angeles theater critics complained that the play lacked focus, but word-of-mouth praise by theater professionals led to an underground buzz. The Eureka demanded the "world premiere" of the complete "Angels," and in summer 1991, Kushner delivered to Eustis a 293-page first draft of "Perestroika," the play's second half.

"I was horrified," Kushner later admitted.

Theatrical suitors lined up to stage "Angels in America." First the Eureka, then Britain's Royal National Theatre. Davidson premiered the fully-staged Parts I and II in November 1992, and the record-breaking box-office hit on the main stage of the Mark Taper Forum led to a Pulitzer Prize.

Suddenly, Broadway's top producers competed with the off-Broadway New York Shakespeare Festival for the rights. Overnight, Kushner became a pop icon when Gap showcased him in a jeans ad. Rumors flew before the play even had a theater in Manhattan that "Angels" was a sure bet for the Tony as best Broadway play. But big money required a marquee name. After a six-year love affair with the play, Eustis was replaced by New York director George C. Wolfe.

The American theater had never seen anything quite like these public skirmishes in pursuit of a nonmusical gay-themed play. But it was perfectly timed: During the acclaimed 1993 Broadway production, medical beepers continuously alerted AIDS-afflicted attendees to take the death-defying medicine that had been unavailable when Kushner wrote Act I, Scene 1, in 1987.

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A MOVIE DEAL

Thanks to the stage success, "Tony started to weaken as far as my overture to work with him and realize 'Angels' as a film," remembers Brokaw, the executive producer of the HBO project. "I asked him if he could have any filmmaker in the world to work with, who would it be? He answered, 'Robert Altman,' with whom I was working on 'The Player' at New Line [in 1992-93]." Altman wanted to make two 2 1/2-hour movies, with Kushner scripting the stage-to-screen adaptation. But after numerous drafts, New Line passed.

Kushner was philosophical: "I felt that I was really lucky to have had time working with Robert Altman. When it fell apart, I thought, 'OK, that's as close as 'Angels' will get to a film.' "

Brokaw continued his unsuccessful courtship, passionately pursuing other filmmakers including P.J. Hogan ("Muriel's Wedding") and Neal LaBute. As the new millennium arrived, Kushner was ready to abandon all filmmaker overtures: "When I lectured at colleges, students had stopped asking, 'When is the film happening?' " Besides, Kushner the playwright had been prospering, most notably with the eerily prophetic "Homebody/Kabul" about Westerners in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, begun in 1998.

Brokaw, perhaps sensing defeat but still passionate about theater-to-screen work, produced another Pulitzer-winning play, Margaret Edson's "Wit," directed by Nichols and starring Thompson. Before their award-winning adaptation for HBO was seen in early 2001, Brokaw suggested that Nichols and Thompson consider working together on yet another play for HBO. Colin Callender, president of HBO Films, thought it was an idea whose time had finally arrived.

Bringing on Nichols dissolved Kushner's reservations about a film. The artists connected with an intensity similar to the young playwright's bond with Eustis. Nichols had success in both mediums. He'd begun his film-directing career in 1966 by successfully adapting Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" His triumphs on stage included stand-up comedy with Elaine May and developing many of Neil Simon's hit plays. Above all, at their first meeting, "[Nichols] got what I thought was the biggest challenge of making this: It needed to retain some aspect of the theatrical." By that Kushner meant the Angel's appearances -- usually a crash through a ceiling -- and the sequences of Prior ascending a ladder to heaven and confronting a host of celestial beings.

If these moments included animation or digitized computer graphics, then the human drama would be lost. Nichols opted for Thompson's Angel to be hoisted on wires, harnessed to huge wings, screaming her proclamations through blasting air from a wind machine. ("I absolutely castrated my voice," Thompson says.)

With Nichols and Thompson came the all-star cast, willing to act under his direction for a fraction of their film fees. Pacino still hungered for the role of Cohn and had never worked with Nichols. Streep, a Nichols devotee, would want in too. And in their distinguished careers, Pacino and Streep had never been on screen together.

But Streep found out about her role via an unusual medium. "Oh, you're doing 'Angels,' " her hairdresser informed her.

"What's that?" Streep asked, not realizing at first that it was the play she had been so impressed by on stage.

"Evidently Mike, my hairdresser/makeup man works with Emma Thompson too, and they'd been making 'Wit,' and I guess during 'Wit' they were putting together their ideas for 'Angels in America.' Anyway," Streep says, audibly marking her final words with ironic quotes marks, "it was what they call 'fait accompli.' "

This level of cast inspired Kushner to revisit the play with a new conviction for screenwriting. He cut scenes when Nichols asked and wrote additional scenes, including a spectacular funeral for a drag queen. One new scene occurs at the end of the filmed play, when the repressed homosexual Republican attorney, Joe Pitt, is the only main character left without an implied future. "You kind of know what's happened to everyone but him," Nichols told Kushner. "This is too hard in this film. We need an idea of where he's going at the end."

"I'm enormously proud of it," Kushner says of that added scene, shot at a subway station in Manhattan. It simply has the Mormon mother, exhausted after a night in the hospital witnessing Prior's climb to heaven and then being seduced by the Angel, arriving at a subway stop. Walking up the platform steps, she accidentally meets Joe, her estranged son. Nichols feels the scene now is among the film's most effective, partly because of Streep's performance.

"The experience of working with Meryl is to be astonished every day," Nichols says. "I told her, 'You might as well just be standing by the door of the subway car, it arrives, you look up and see it's your station and you get off.' So the subway car pulled in but she was asleep. She jerked awake and looked in panic to see if it was her station, then got off just in time. She is completely mysterious."

Streep's memory of that scene, however, is a little less mystery and much more common sense, like her Mormon character. "When I get depressed, I go to sleep," she explained. "If something big and terrifyingly scary is going to happen, I tend to find a couch and kind of lie down. I don't know why. This was an important scene, and so it made me go to sleep. Everybody was looking at it much too hard, so that was my reaction."

But then again, as Nichols points out, the character who falls asleep on the subway has just experienced, thanks to the Angel, "probably the first gigantic orgasm of her life."

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TRANSCENDENCE

Nichols found heaven just outside Rome, among the ruins of Hadrian's Villa. There, during a week in January 2002, the final days of a yearlong shoot were completed.

Prior, struggling to survive death, stands before the marble ruins. A burly figure ushers him forward, gesturing toward the waiting angels, urging Prior not to fear the future. The cameo role of the "Guardian to the Garden" is performed by Oskar Eustis, who almost two decades before had encouraged Kushner's first writing steps into the unknown. Kushner wished to honor their history by type-casting Eustis, now artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island.

That demonstrates another miracle of the play. "The year 1992 was very tumultuous," Eustis says of the period that led to his removal as director just before the Broadway run. "Most professional and most personal relationships couldn't survive the strain. But Tony's a very big man and a very big soul who absolutely refused to let our relationship die."

Eustis imagines his own death will produce a simple epitaph: "He helped develop 'Angels in America.' " And that, he concludes, will be enough for a lifetime's work because " 'Angels' is a classic."

"In some ways, it means even more now," Nichols believes. "As far as the apocalyptic is concerned, we're closer than we were 10 years ago." But it's also about "citizenship," he says: the moral responsibility of the individual to change, and to change society.

The performances given and directorial decisions made during the yearlong shoot of 2001-02 make it difficult to imagine that "Angels in America" was not written for television, and early reviews have been glowing. Even Kushner agrees now with Nichols and Pacino that the TV screen projects the immediate intimacy of the stage with far more poignancy than the giant screen. The overarching tableaux, the intertwined metaphors still stand stark and undeniable, but now they will inhabit America's dens and bedrooms. We'll see Prior's night-sweats, smell Cohn's fear, watch denial and horrified realization skitter across Harper's dazed countenance.

In the end, "Angels in America" is no more dated than "The Crucible," in no more danger of seeming stale than the endless and always wrenching performances of "The Diary of Anne Frank." Mercifully, the medical beepers that interrupted the performances 10 years ago have dimmed as more and better drugs prolong many lives, but to believe that the AIDS crisis has passed is to deny the reality of hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of world citizens.

"Angels in America" is a play and now a film about what happens when we deny what is really happening, about those mangled and left for dead by fear and ignorance and willful blindness. It is about our denial of what is happening to America as well. Artists have embraced it because it allows them to truly address the crisis of our age.

But it is also about courage and revelation, about the soul's ability to transcend this too solid flesh, even as it erupts in blood and feces, about the possibility of the miraculous. It is saying that there are angels in America, and they're available if we can overcome our fear.

Seen one way, HBO's adaptation is simply another Holocaust film; seen another it is an epic love story. While those who suffer and have suffered pray "never again," Tony Kushner's angel hovers above and speaks to the wind: "Yes," she says. "Again and again and again."

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'Angels in America'

Where: HBO

When: "Angels in America" airs on two consecutive Sundays. Part 1, "Millennium Approaches," airs Dec. 7 from 8 to 11 p.m.; Part 2, "Perestroika," airs Dec. 14 from 8 to 11:05 p.m. The six-hours-plus miniseries can be seen in various configurations in subsequent weeks.

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Richard Stayton is the editor of "Written By" magazine and the former theater critic of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He can be reached at calendar@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction Meryl Streep and Oskar Eustis -- A caption on a photo accompanying an article about the HBO movie "Angels in America" in Sunday's Calendar incorrectly said Meryl Streep was playing the mother of an AIDS patient in a scene with Al Pacino. In that scene, she is playing the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. The caption on another photo mistakenly described Oskar Eustis as the co-director of the 1992 production of "Angels in America" at the Mark Taper Forum. He was the director. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday December 07, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction Meryl Streep and Oskar Eustis -- A caption in last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly said Streep was playing the mother of an AIDS patient in a scene with Al Pacino in the HBO movie "Angels in America." In that scene she is playing the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Another caption said Eustis co-directed the 1992 production of "Angels in America" at the Mark Taper Forum. He actually was the director.
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