Longtime Companion Turns 25

by Larry Buhl

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MSDLOCO EC015[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ere’s the premise of Longtime Companion, which opened in theaters a quarter century ago: a group of gay friends in New York are changed over time as they confront deaths from AIDS. Who would want to see a movie about that?

Lots of people as it turned out, though the studio didn’t think so at the time. Writer Craig Lucas [A&U, November 1998] and director Norman René have recounted the hell and high water they crossed to get it made.

Almost a decade into the crisis only three other full-length films had dealt with the topic: the 1985 TV movie An Early Frost and little-seen indie films Buddies and Parting Glances (with a very young Steve Buscemi as a rock musician with AIDS). But none of those approached AIDS in such a visceral way, nor did they provide a punch to the gut that Longtime Companion delivered over and over.

Longtime Companion was the first wide-release fictional work to deal with AIDS. Its structure and interlocking storylines and character arcs made the crisis real and personal for those who considered AIDS to be an abstract concept.

It was a retrospective treatment, starting in the party scene of Fire Island in 1981 when someone noticing the short New York Times piece about “gay cancer” and ending with a beach scene in 1989 where survivors muse on what it will be like when AIDS is cured. It would be “like the end of World War II,” one character concludes.

Between those bookmarks we follow a small group of gay men—and a straight sister—as they are picked off like a sniper’s victim (Dermot Mulroney’s character, the first to fall ill), or degrade over time as their friends and doting partners suffer survivor guilt, anguish, terror, and exhaustion—sometimes all at the same time. By the time you reach the “let go” death scene between Bruce Davison’s character David and at the bedside of the panting, panicking partner, you may be whispering through tears with him as he gently urges the love of his life to move on: yes, let go.

Scenes like the let go climax made critic Dave Kehr in the Chicago Tribune dismiss the film as melodramatic, though even he recognized its importance as the “first mainstream fiction to openly solicit an emotional response to the AIDS crisis.”

Some criticism has been hurled at it, mainly due to focusing on upper middle-class urban gay white men. And though it garnered several awards, including a Golden Globe for co-star Bruce Davison, Longtime Companion is inexplicably hard to find. The DVD is out of print and it’s not available for streaming.

If you can find it, watch it not only for its historical significance but for its performances, fine writing, and stunning moments. Moments like watching Fire Island partiers gasp when a new untouchable, a lesion-covered man, approaches their beach house with begging eyes and the heart-wrenching beach coda where the dead come back to life. There are bits of unexpected humor too, even gallows humor like the time Mary-Louise Parker [A&U, October 1999] ridicules a surprising piece of apparel in the closet of a recently fallen friend. And the activism of surviving characters, once their shell-shock has worn off, leavens the narratives’ sadness.

The end of the AIDS crisis may not be like VJ day, but there is a détente for those able to access lifesaving new meds. The title of Longtime Companion was both a reference to the obituary term for surviving same-sex partners of the disease in the eighties and also an allusion that the disease had already been around for a long time and would stay around, as it has, for a long time. It’s not just an elegy for those killed in early days of AIDS, but a fine work of drama that can be seen as more than a milestone in the history of art spawned by the disease.


 

Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. His podcast on employment issues, “Labor Pains,” can be found at www.laborpainspodcast.com.