Angels in America

Just as there was no real precedent for the achievement "Angels in America" represented in the legitimate theater, so are there few film adaptations of stage works comparable to what Mike Nichols has done with Tony Kushner's two-part epic. Project fully capturing the grandeur, urgency, poetry and humor of the produced play.

Just as there was no real precedent for the achievement “Angels in America” represented in the legitimate theater, so are there few film adaptations of stage works comparable to what Mike Nichols has done with Tony Kushner’s two-part epic. Fully capturing the grandeur, extravagance, urgency, poetry and humor of the produced play, the savvy veteran director has brought out an elemental dimension of emotional melodrama that makes the piece compulsive screen fare without subtracting one bit from its status as great theater. With its sensationally smart and provocative text, fabulous acting and immaculate presentation, HBO’s latest risky triumph represents the definition of a class act. A long and distinguished life is assured on the cable web, subsequently on video and DVD and, if desired, in prestige slots at select foreign film festivals.

Work-shopped initially in Berkeley and at the Taper Too in Los Angeles, “Millennium Approaches,” Part One of what Kushner subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” received its first full stagings in 1992 at London’s National Theater and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum; it was at the latter venue that it was joined for the first time by Part Two, “Perestroika,” creating the full seven-hour piece. The two halves opened on Broadway six months apart in 1993, setting records for ticket price ($60 top) and production cost for a non-musical (more than $3 million) and winning every award in sight. Robert Altman was aboard as director of a film version for years, during which time project languished on the vine as uncertainties over length, format, venue and other issues went unresolved.

This fully realized, arguably definitive rendition has shrewdly been trimmed down to six hours, and retains all the immediacy of Kushner’s passionate foot-stomping about AIDS, the Reagan years, political and personal hypocrisy, compassion, the Mormons, spirituality and so much more. But 10 years, later, “Angels in America” is also undeniably a period piece, a fact that cuts in some very interesting ways.

On the work’s most specific level of concern, AIDS and gay issues are not front-burner issues in the public consciousness quite the way they were a decade back, even if no cure has been found and the front lines are shifting from the West to the East and Africa. Secondarily, if Kushner thought liberal-left activists had their hands full with Ronald Reagan, what would they then have made of the political landscape today, President Bush’s African AIDS initiative notwithstanding?

But by far the biggest difference in experiencing “Angels in America” then and now is the fact that we have passed through the millennium, and the millennium was 9/11. In the early ’90s, the landmark loomed as enticing and ominous in equal measure, a sentiment reflected in the play. Now, with domestic political knives extra sharpened and a monumental, religiously freighted global conflict at an uncertain but more than likely early stage, the film ironically makes one look back on the period in question with longing for its peculiarly enraged form of innocence.

Once again proving, after 40 years at or near the forefront of the American performing arts scene, that he knows how to put a work of theater on the screen to maximum effect, Nichols has lifted “Angels in America” off the stage and into realistic settings while still leaving the stylistic door wide open to embrace Kushner’s wildest flight of fancy. Similarly, the performances retain the heightened brio of grand theatrical acting, something this text absolutely requires, while still maintaining a solid lifeline to naturalism.

Just as Kushner continued to shape, prune and refine his work, particularly in Part Two, as it progressed through various stage editions, so has he persisted in doing so to prepare it for the screen. Result is a succession of scenes that are uniformly tight, emotionally focused and dramatically sculpted in a way that frequently makes them surpass the impact they had on stage.

Structurally, “Angels in America,” which begins in New York City in October 1985, examines the disintegration of two couples, one gay and one straight, intertwined with a third major strain represented by one of the century’s icons of right-wing malevolence and sexual hypocrisy, Roy Cohn.

When good-looking, somewhat flamboyant WASP Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) shows his first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions to his lover of four years, the neurotic liberal Jew Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), the latter wastes little time before running in the opposite direction; his self-centered life plan contains no room for playing nursemaid to a dying boyfriend.

In a long-undecorated Brooklyn apartment, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), the clean-cut Mormon chief clerk to an appeals court judge, mouths empty encouraging platitudes to his aimless, Valium-popping wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) while being offered a big job with the attorney general’s office in Washington, D.C., by the ultra-connected Cohn (Al Pacino).

After Joe exhibits no enthusiasm for his wife’s sexual overtures, there are signs of things to come when Louis, a court word processor, unnerves the total stranger with a long forward pass in the courthouse restroom. At the same time, the men’s respective partners float off into criss-crossed fantasy worlds, Harper to the frigid and clean Antarctic and Prior into a black-and-white recreation of a Cocteau corridor of arm-held candelabra from “Beauty and the Beast.” “What are you doing in my hallucination?” Parker demands when Prior turns up in the frozen wastes, whereupon Prior retorts, “What are you doing in my dream?”

A vivid illustration of closeted states contrasts Joe’s fearful reluctance to admit the truth to Cohn’s ferocious denial. Informed by his doctor (James Cromwell) that he’s got AIDS, Cohn threatens to ruin the man if he as much as suggests that he, Cohn, is homosexual. After offering an elaborate explanation as to why only clout, not sexual orientation, matters, Cohn flatly announces to his physician that he’s dying of liver cancer, a fiction he sticks with to the bitter end.

It’s by paying close attention to the emotional dynamics suggested by these and other developments that Kushner and Nichols early on anchor viewer interest in their film; in a way that wasn’t quite so consistently the case onstage, you really become anxious to know what’s going to happen next with the slowly expanding roster of mutually involved characters. Paradoxically, this devotion to the quotidian serves to more intimately connect the fantastic elements to their human sources, creating less of a separation between them. Due to this tight-knittedness as well as to the seamless and quite wonderful special effects, “Angels of America” seems more completely coherent and all of a piece than it ever did before.

In his apartment, Prior has fever dreams involving his ceiling cracking open, while in hospital he is ministered to by a butch nurse (Emma Thompson) and visited by his friend Belize, a black queen and registered nurse (Jeffrey Wright, the sole member of the Broadway cast to repeat here, in a performance exquisite beyond words), who becomes a go-between for Prior and the absent Louis.

In a wonderfully mordant sequence, Prior is visited by the ghosts of two distant ancestors (Michael Gambon and Simon Callow), victims of a plague centuries earlier in England, who are appalled by “the spotty monster,” as they refer to Prior, and express relief that they don’t have to live in the world as they now find it. “The 20th century, oh dear,” one of them declares. “The world’s got so terribly, terribly old.”

As “Millennium” approaches its climax, Joe comes out over the phone to his mother Hannah (Meryl Streep), a stolid, no-nonsense woman from Utah who promptly travels to New York and instructs her confused son to “Make an effort. Pull yourself together and take a deep breath.” Descending into dementia, Cohn begins being visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Streep again, in pale whiteface and with pinched little red lips that make her a near-dead ringer for the actual woman), whom Cohn helped put in the electric chair. And to cap the first three hours off, Prior’s ceiling finally bursts to reveal the arrival of a life-sized angel with enormous wings (Thompson).

First three hours are divided into more or less equal-length sections entitled “Bad News,” “In Vitro” and “The Messenger.” Scattered among the intense emotions, caustic wit and transporting fantasies are lines that have specific meanings in context but are laden with post-millennium portent: “Maybe the troubles will come,” “The world’s coming to an end,” “In the new century, I think we will all be insane,” “History is about to crack open.”

“Perestroika,” which is similarly divided into three “chapters,” called “Stop Moving,” “Beyond Nelly” and “Heaven, I’m in Heaven,” gathers increased momentum as Kushner brilliantly brings the characters into surprising new configurations. At the outset, Louis finally overcomes Joe’s hesitations by seducing him, while in the most extraordinary development, Belize, who represents the kind of ultra-effeminate gay Cohn most despises, becomes night nurse to the man who stands for all he most detests about America. Nonetheless, the two develop a mutually beneficial uxorial relationship, exchanging insults and confidences as they pass the wee hours together and providing the equally powerhouse actors Pacino and Wright with some of their finest moments. Cohn’s final night, spent in dialogue with Ethel Rosenberg at his bedside, also counts among the picture’s galvanic highlights.

Then there is the equally unexpected friendship between Prior and Hannah, the straight-laced mother of Prior’s ex-lover’s new lover; he tracks her down working at the Mormon Visitor’s Center in Manhattan. Back on a dream plane, Prior ascends a ladder of fire, at the top of which he encounters a familiar looking ruling council of angels in Roman ruins (actually shot at Hadrian’s Villa) that are later felicitously revealed to lie in the hills above San Francisco. Designated The Prophet, Prior castigates God for walking out on the 20th century before defying expectations by insisting that he wants more life. He then reawakens in his hospital bed to a witty tableau straight out of “The Wizard of Oz.”

In addition to the spiritual interludes that are both ethereal and corrosive, Part Two features more overt political commentary coming from Belize and especially Louis, who chastises the less analytical, less conflicted Joe for what he views as his uninformed, hypocritical conservatism and takes potshots at Reagan administration policies top to bottom. A 1990-set coda features a gathering of four veterans of the foregoing wars — Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah — kibitzing about Gorbachev and Perestroika (no mention of Reagan’s role here) and hitting some AIDS-specific chords that come across as the only overly didactic notes in the entire piece. All the same, brief sequence allows the viewer a chance to finally exhale after six hours of tumult and exhilaration.

Ever the great director of actors, Nichols allows everyone — stars and newcomers alike — to shine. As Cohn, Pacino gets to percolate, steam and explode, and yet never gets mannered or goes over the top as he can easily do. He’s sensational, as are Streep as the Mormon mother, Rosenberg and, unrecognizably, an Old World male rabbi in the opening sequence; Wright as the deeply sensitive and profoundly extravagant Belize and, less flashily, as Harper’s travel agent to Antarctica, and, in a quieter vein, Parker as the spaced out abandoned wife. Thompson shifts gears at a frightening rate in the Angel’s multiple appearances and is detectable under plenty of makeup as a homeless type Hannah encounters upon arriving in New York, but is on less certain ground as Prior’s tough nurse.

Kirk makes for a vital, quicksilver, revelatory Prior in a performance that should put the young actor squarely on the map. Straight-jacketed slightly more by the “types” they are meant to represent (guilt-ridden Jew, uptight Mormon), Shenkman as Louis and Wilson as Joe ultimately connect with and forcefully convey the essences of their troubled characters.

Nichols has collaborated superbly with cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt to work out just how to keep the characters firmly in the foreground while enriching every frame with background-rich atmosphere. Stuart Wurtzel’s production design, the special effects supervised by Richard Edlund, Ann Roth’s costumes, the hair and makeup designs of J. Roy Helland, John Bloom’s editing, Thomas Newman’s subtle original score and the astute choices of source music are among the many smart elements orchestrated to produce this work of overflowing riches.

Angels in America

HBO, Part 1, "Millennium Approaches," Sun. Dec. 7, 8 p.m.; Part 2, "Perestroika," Sun. Dec. 14, 8 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in New York and Italy by Avenue Entertainment Group. Executive producers, Cary Brokaw, Mike Nichols; co-executive producer, Michael Haley; producer, Celia Costas; director, Nichols; writer, Tony Kushner, based on his play;
  • Crew: Camera, Stephen Goldblatt; editor, John Bloom; music, Thomas Newman; music supervisor, Evyen J. Klean; production designer, Stuart Wurtzel; art director, John Kasarda; set decorator, George DeTitta Jr.; costume designer, Ann Roth; sound, James J. Sabat; visual effects supervisor, Richard Edlund; visual effects, Riot; hair and makeup designer, J. Roy Helland; associate producer, Paul A. Levin; assistant director, Mike Haley; casting, Juliet Taylor, Ellen Lewis. 6 HOURS.
  • Cast: Roy Cohn - Al Pacino The Rabbi/Hannah Pitt /Ethel Rosenberg - Meryl Streep Nurse Emily/Homeless Woman/The Angel - Emma Thompson Harper Pitt - Mary-Louise Parker Mr. Lies/Belize - Jeffrey Wright Prior Walter/ Leatherman in Park - Justin Kirk Louis Ironson - Ben Shenkman Joe Pitt - Patrick Wilson Roy's Doctor - James Cromwell Prior 1 - Michael Gambon Prior 2 - Simon Callow Martin Heller - Brian Markinson Mormon Mother - Robin Weigert