This past fall marked the 10th anniversary of Rock Hudson's death
from AIDS and the true beginning of Hollywood's AIDS activism. It is
a milestone of sorts for the entertainment community and an
appropriate moment to pause and measure what has been accomplished,
as well as what still needs to be done.
On the plus side is the tireless work performed by certain
industry leaders: From the more visible like Elizabeth Taylor and
Judith Light, to the no-less-dogged efforts of behind-the-scenes
leaders such as Sidney Sheinberg, David Geffen, Steve Tisch and
The AIDS organizational infrastructure in Los Angeles, while not
without its growing pains or down periods, now spans an impressive
range of essential services. They range from the broader-based
organizations such as AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) and the Gay
and Lesbian Community Services Center to the more specific Project
Angel Food, Shanti, Hollywood Supports, the AIDS Healthcare
Foundation, Aid for AIDS, to the even more narrowly targeted
services like PAWS (pet care for PWAs) and Aunt Bee's (laundry).
Hollywood's support has been crucial to the survival of these
organizations, not only via the hundreds of star-studded fundraisers
but literally as the conscience of many of these organizations. So
much so that the rest of Los Angeles seems to be lagging seriously
"There's been internal criticism that we don't do enough to reach
the downtown and business community, that we concentrate too much on
the entertainment business," says Dana Miller, executive director of
APLA. "That's bunk. The industry has been the hardest hit, and from
day one, they're the ones who've been writing the checks. I'm proud
to say that 80 percent of our funding comes primarily from people in
the entertainment industry."
All this energy and effort has been played against a background
of devastating loss. A roll call of talent that has succumbed to the
epidemic cuts a wide swath across the industry. The resulting grief
has served both to galvanize and obstruct the continuing efforts to
keep Hollywood focused on AIDS.
It has helped, because with each passing year, more and more
people in the industry are personally affected by HIV. That's one of
the reasons that this year's AIDS Walk in September was APLA's most
successful ever, raising $3.2 million, according to Forrest Gump
producer Steve Tisch, former board chair for the organization.
But it has also manifested itself in bouts of extreme burnout.
"There's only so much mourning you can do," says Neil Tadken,
founder and coordinating director of Day of Compassion, the
organization which encourages daytime TV shows to include AIDS in
their storylines or segments one day in June each year. "Then you go
away for a while, refocus and come back."
Another facet of the burnout has less to do with Hollywood than a
general sense of pessimism because the prayed-for magic bullet for
AIDS has not materialized. "It's the American way of wanting
something cleared up quickly," says openly gay Frasier actor Dan
Butler. "It's been 15 years since the epidemic began and people
don't want to be reminded it's still there."
Disappointment over an elusive cure, however,
has obscured significant inroads that have been made in HIV
treatment, says Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood
Supports, the entertainment industry's activist conscience on AIDS
and lesbian and gay issues. And part of the blame for that falls on
the industry itself. As one of the nation's two major media
capitals, Hollywood has a responsibility to inform the public of the
many fronts on which the battle against AIDS is being successfully
waged -- but too often does not.
"There are treatments that are helping people live demonstrably
longer," says Jennings. "We have many more long-term survivors and
non-progressors volunteering with us all the time. But the media
just reports a discouraging blurb from the International AIDS
Conference and think that's indicative of the real state of things."
While all these reactions are understandable, says openly gay
DreamWorks principal David Geffen, they fly in the face of an
epidemic that shows no signs of peaking. "I know some people are
burned out," says Geffen, who in August donated $4 million to Gay
Men's Health Crisis and God's Love We Deliver (the largest-ever
single gift for AIDS services). "But I don't know that burnout is
permissible. It's precisely burnout that leads to things like unsafe
sex. And therein lies a great tragedy."
According to Tisch, however, the burnout factor has abated
somewhat. "[APLA] experienced a downward trend [in fundraising] over
the past two years, which obviously made us nervous. There was a
natural cycle of ‘we've had enough and we're on to other issues,'
especially in the Hollywood community."
But John Gile, executive director of Project Angel Food, which
delivers hot meals to Los Angeles PWAs and opened a new kitchen in
October, 1994, says it has leveled off in 1995, in part because "the
old guard has been joined by a younger group of volunteers, some
openly HIV positive."
The mid-term elections and the conservative swing in the country
have also helped Hollywood AIDS leaders remarshal their forces.
"We've been renewed since the November elections," says actor Judith
Light, an indefatigable AIDS activist. "It stepped up people's
consciousness. Since then there's been a refocusing in Hollywood.
And Hollywood often leads the way for the rest of America."
The conservative swing, however, has made the media more gun-shy
about controversy, according to KNBC entertainment reporter Garrett
Glaser, especially subjects like AIDS and safer sex.
But overall, AIDS activism in Hollywood is no longer a fledgling
movement, and -- hand-in-hand with lesbian and gay activism -- has
moved on to a more mature phase. After Hollywood Supports co-founder
Sidney Sheinberg added sexual orientation to the antidiscrimination
policy and extended health benefits to the domestic partners of
lesbian and gay employees at MCA/Universal, the studio he headed,
the floodgates seemed to open. Many of the major studios, networks,
unions and production companies followed suit. At present every
major studio except MGM/United Artists and 20th Century Fox provides
domestic partner benefits. And, Jennings adds, "MGM is on the
verge." Legal recognition has visibly improved the lives of gays and
lesbians in the industry, especially those with HIV.
Christopher Laabs, assistant director for script clearance at
Sony Pictures, has known he's HIV positive for 11 years and has
found his work environment "very supportive." Since the studio
extended benefits to gay and lesbian employees' domestic partners,
he says, two of the three gay employees who applied have HIV
positive partners. "It hasn't been a problem. Our human resources
department has some of the best benefits in the industry," he says.
Steve Smith, former editorial director at KNX Newsradio, was out
as an HIV positive gay man at work for several years before going on
disability in late 1994. "I told people at work as early as 1988,"
says Smith. Officially he received a great deal of support. In fact,
when his initial claim for disability was denied, CBS (which owns
KNX) intervened and the decision was overturned.
The reaction of co-workers, however, "was all over the map," he
says. "Some were cool, some awkward and others uncomfortable." He
found it particularly interesting that journalists who report on the
AIDS epidemic displayed the same discomfort as employees of any
Being in an executive position afforded Smith the opportunity to
be an educator over the past seven years. "At the margins, I think I
made a difference both in the way AIDS is covered by KNX and how the
company became involved on a corporate level."
And even when he went on disability, he continued to broaden his
colleagues' perspective by explaining that "just because I couldn't
work 9 to 5 anymore didn't mean I was going to die soon. Instead, it
was that I was taking care of myself and putting my health issues
first. There was a great sense of closure when I left. I wasn't
slinking away into the night with a big, dark secret."
Unfortunately, on the more visible level, even though several
working actors have come out as HIV positive in the past several
years -- Michael Kearns, Lee Mathis, Keith Christopher -- none who
are household names have done so. The legacy of actor Brad Davis'
sad, posthumous disclosure remains. And Davis' fear of never being
cast again -- or of being typecast -- if he revealed his HIV status
has proven in some ways to have been well-founded. "Why do HIV
positive actors have to play HIV positive characters?" asks KNBC
reporter Glaser. "Is it just so the show can trot him out for the
press as a way of meeting diversity guidelines?"
Michael Kearns, one of the TV and film industry's first actors to
publicly announce his status, has played several such roles. But he
says, "My days in a wheelchair on TV are over." He thanks those who
hired him to play those roles, even if they only did it because it
was hip. But if Hollywood has truly made it safer for gays and
lesbians to come out or reveal their HIV status, he asks, "why can
we cite so many people who remain in the closet?"
The answer seems obvious, but it goes to the heart of Hollywood's
more ingrained attitudes towards homosexuality and AIDS. Progress in
the areas of civil rights and empathy have not erased persistent
opinions about gays and the epidemic.
"Strides toward the cure for AIDS are directly proportional to
the degree of homophobia that exists," says Kearns. One of his
targets is agents and managers, who while wearing red ribbons in
public, encourage their HIV positive, lesbian or gay actor clients
to remain hidden. "Their actions belie what Hollywood is saying."
Butler concurs. "Being out and visible is interlinked to fighting
AIDS." Since he officially came out last year when his one-man show
The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me... debuted in Los
Angeles, he has continued to play a rabidly heterosexual chraracter
on Frasier. "The real difference has been in how I feel about
myself," he says. "I have more energy to put elsewhere. If that
helps other people, I'm grateful."
And while Hollywood pats itself on the back for Philadelphia, the
fact remains that, in 15 years, it has been the only major studio
film about AIDS. Two more, Boys On the Side and The Cure, floundered
at the box office. The fourth, It's My Party, was independently
financed but will be released early next year by MGM/United Artists.
The drama, which stars Eric Roberts, Gregory Harrison, Margaret
Cho and Olivia Newton-John among others, has taken director/writer
Randal Kleiser (Grease, The Blue Lagoon, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure)
three years to get made, despite its bare-bones $3 million budget
(only $1 million more than the independently produced and released
groundbreaker Longtime Companion). No studio would touch Party, even
with a bevy of stars (all working for scale) attached and with a
soundtrack donated by songwriters and performers. But, sighs Kleiser
philosophically, "there haven't been many movies about cancer
either. The premise [of Party] sounds like a downer and Hollywood is
in business to entertain."
Screenwriter Ramsey Fadiman is currently waiting for the green
light on the long-in-gestation The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's 1985
AIDS play for which he's written several drafts over the past two
years. To date, two other projects with AIDS themes on which he's
worked have never reached the screen, he says. Unfortunately, this
has less to do with "the quality of the script than with the
elements: Who's producing, who's starring, etc. All I can say is
that Barbra [Streisand] has committed to getting this film made, and
I believe she will do that."
But first Streisand will film The Mirror Has Two Faces, which
went into production this fall. The earliest start date on Normal is
At Hollywood Supports, Richard Jennings is sent most of the AIDS
scripts in development and says there's been no significant increase
in their number, though there has been a more dramatic rise in the
number of projects which deal with gay issues. "They've gone from
zero to 60 in the past couple of years."
Adam Shulman, literary agent for Agency for the Performing Arts,
says, "there's a real gay chic happening. Studios and financing
entities are interested in gay projects -- but outside the AIDS
arena. In terms of HIV-related projects, even with independents it's
a hard sell. Executives and financiers don't believe people will buy
tickets to an AIDS movie. It's sad that that's true because there
are some great stories concerning HIV that should be told."
Even within the narrower scope of gay independent cinema, at this
year's Outfest in Los Angeles most films did not deal with the issue
of AIDS. "People are tired of dealing with AIDS," says Out on
Screen's executive director Morgan Rumpf, "and the films reflect
that." Or perhaps, he suggests, filmmakers may be in transition,
moving into a another phase. "Maybe we're on the cusp of new kinds
of films that deal with AIDS, not as an issue but as a continuing
part of our lives."
Changes in Hollywood's attitudes toward gays and lesbians in
general, and HIV in particular, are likely to continue to require
patience and perseverence.
Events such as June's Day of Compassion and World AIDS Day
provide the industry with platforms around which to build original
programming and public service announcements to focus on HIV. Neil
Tadken, who founded the Day of Compassion, made a quantum leap this
year with the backing of Hollywood Supports.
In its first two years, Day of Compassion was limited largely to
daytime soaps and talk shows. This year more than 45 cable networks
participated, says Molly Padian, executive director of Cable
Positive, that industry's AIDS organization. The cable industry's
commitment has broadened, which led to Padian being brought on this
year in a full-time position to better "match the cable industry's
resources to groups that need their help."
A crying need for more effective education is perhaps the most
repeated demand made of the entertainment industry by members of
LA's AIDS activist community. With AIDS spreading rapidly among
African-Americans, Latinos, teens and women, as well as with the
younger gay population, there is a sense of discouragement about how
effective the HIV prevention messages have been so far.
Through his volunteer work, Sony's Christopher Laabs has found
that the hardest areas in the entertainment industry to crack have
been the rank and file -- particularly film and TV crews. For
instance, as a facilitator Laabs has encountered problems with
wardrobe personnel who are afraid of being infected through safety
pins or straight pins. "They don't know that HIV doesn't work that
way. Non-hollow needles can't spread the virus."
One solution would be for industry leaders to take an hour out of
the production day to reach these neglected pockets -- with
mandatory attendance. "It would be more cost-effective in the long
run," Laabs says, "Because it's precisely the people who resist
these meetings the most who wind up asking the most questions."
Some have even come out as HIV positive in the seminars, but
Laabs estimates that there are still six times as many people in the
industry who are infected than will admit to it -- or may even be
aware. Far too many new AIDS cases are still detected only after the onset of a major opportunistic infection, he says.
Beyond that, Hollywood Supports' Jennings would like to see the institution of friends and family seminars in the industry to spread the worth farther into the general L.A. population.
After a brief flurry of condom ads on TV last year, they've suddenly vanished. Jennings says this reflects the conservative swing after the November election. The Centers for Disesase Control and Prevention (CDC), which had cajoled the networks into carrying spots, has recently backed off.
An alternative means of getting condom ads back on the air would be through consumer activism, Jennings suggests, by approaching the condom companies and urging them to advertise. "Condom companies could be putting more ad dollars into TV advertising. Fox Broadcasting, for instance, is supposedly open to showing them. I think they would see results, both in awareness and in sales."
The more immediate battle is in the everpresent need to raise funds for AIDS organizations. If a cure for AIDS were found today, says APLA's Miller, his organization would still need to keep its doors open another 20 years, serving the needs of people who are already infected.
Today APLA is a $22 million corporation serving 5,300 men and women -- adding 7 new clients each day -- the largest AIDS organization west of the Mississippi. "It's not cool being No. 1," says Miller. "We're always thinking of new ways to make more money because if we make the same as last year we have to cut our client load. That's part of the growing pains of a corporation and an epidemic."
Their attempts at streamlining services by not duplicating those available elsewhere (food delivery, legal assistance, etc.) only goes so far toward saving money. The problems of constantly returning to the same well of supporters has been complicated by the fact that other causes -- breast cancer, for instance -- have adopted the rhetoric and style of AIDS fundraising. Another problem is that the larger AIDS organizations are more organized, but the smaller, yet equally important, groups operate on a narrower margin.
"It's harder to give more to AIDS charities," admits literary agent Shulman. "Some people aren't even aware of worth-while organizations such as Shanti, Aid for AIDS and Project Angel Food."
That reality doesn't cow David Geffen. "The fact that we have to go back to the same people and they're tired of hearing from us, whether it be for AIDS or for Democratic candidates, well, it's just too bad."
For all the encouraging news about renewed vigor in the AIDS fundraising community, however, there is little ease or comfort about the year ahead. In particular, the current political climate is not propitious, and Steve Tisch doesn't expect it to get better.
"The Republicans have made AIDS an issue, not because they're interested in doing anything about it, but because it scores votes," Tisch says. "It's likely to be a big issue in the 1996 campaign -- as a negative, not as a positive."