Angels in America (2003)

Angels in America (2003) – For a while, the premium cable network Home Box Office had the slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” This mainly reflected the artistically challenging shows they aired like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and The Wire (of course they also ran Sex and the City, so I guess it wasn’t all about the art). Without being constrained by the regulations of the FCC or overdependence on sponsor input, they were allowed a creative freedom not seen elsewhere on TV (except other premium cable networks but HBO more or less beat them to the punch, success-wise anyway). They also have some major advantages in the realm of cinema though. While an R-rated movie can do pretty much anything they can do on HBO content-wise, there are other considerations of structure that HBO has the upper hand on… like, say, if one were inclined to adapt a six hour pair of plays described as “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Someone probably could have got up the money to film Tony Kushner’s modern classic Angels in America in a pair of films, but it’s not exactly the easiest sell at the Cineplex. HBO was able to devote the time and focus to the project, and attract top-notch talent in the process.

I usually dedicate the second paragraph to summary but that’s a pretty epic task as far as Angels in America is concerned. Hell, I’ll give it a shot. Louis (Ben Shenkmen) is a man who discovers his lover Prior (Justin Kirk) has AIDS and does not handle it well. Prior meanwhile is having visions of dead ancestors (Michael Gambon & Simon Callow) and an angel (Emma Thompson). Joe (Patrick Wilson) is a closeted gay Mormon Republican working for the unfortunately-not-fictional Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), who is himself a closeted gay Republican dying of AIDS. Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) is Joe’s agoraphobic wife who talks to an imaginary travel agent (Jeffrey Wright). Hannah (Meryl Streep) is Joe’s concerned mother who comes to New York from Utah. Most actors occupy multiple roles. Thompson also plays Prior’s nurse and a homeless person. Wright has a much larger role as gay male nurse Belize, who is both Prior’s former lover and Cohn’s nurse. Streep also plays executed traitor Ethel Rosenberg and, under heavy prosthetic makeup, an elderly male rabbi. Some of the smaller roles that were occupied by the same core group of actors get cast are instead occupied by actors like Gambon, Callow, Brian Markinson, James Cromwell, and Robin Weigart (in roles that, if following the play’s instructions would otherwise have been played by Wilson, Pacino, Parker, Streep and Streep again, respectively).

The transition from stage to screen can often be a bit clunky, but with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Biloxi Blues, Wit, and Closer under his belt director Mike Nichols has proven himself somewhat adept at making it (though Closer was made after this miniseries). The performances are all top notch (it’s odd that Pacino has been phoning in most recent big screen roles but still doing quality work on HBO) and the direction makes the miniseries feel BIGGER than other film adaptations of plays. The special effects may not be quite to the same level as a major studio could have done, but the right element of theatricality is still present. Tony Kushner adapted his own script and his words still have all the power they did before (indeed most of them are unchanged). Angels in America is a perfect example of the potential for the miniseries as a method of visual storytelling. I’ve yet to see its equal.

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