I went with my longtime partner to see Dallas Buyers Club this weekend at the local movie theatre. This was not an easy feat. The mere image of a very gaunt Matthew McConaughey on the movie poster stabbed me in the gut with a generalized feeling of terror and nausea that brought me back to what I imagine will be the most horrible times of life I will ever barely live through. That would be AIDS in the 1980s
Posting a blog thirty years later on a date that also happens to be World AIDS Day is an odd proposition. Seared in my mind forever are the faces of living and dying people I knew well, knew slightly, or only knew of as I passed by them at a party or a business meeting – people who wasted away dead or killed themselves before the inevitable ravaged outcome of AIDS happened to them. That I survived at all is a matter of luck, timing and, well…luck. Not to degenerate into pop culture references, but to the gay community in particular this was a kind of real-life Hunger Games where many, many more than one person per district had to fight something quite insidious, evil and amorphous in order to survive. The primary culprit was a lethal and mysterious virus. The secondary enemies were ignorance, prejudice, our own government and, in some cases, our own friends, neighbors and loved ones.
But simply remembering one’s own story discounts the power and effect of something so massive. The story of AIDS, like the story of any worldwide plague, cannot be summed up through the experience of a single individual or even group. I might get cards and letters for this but it would be akin to saying that The Diary of Anne Frank told the story of the Holocaust better than Elie Wiesel’s Night or William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Or that somehow Gone With The Wind covered the Civil War era in a more realistic way than 12 Years a Slave or Glory or even vice-versa. The larger and more tragic the event, the more stories there are to tell. It all depends on where you were and who you were at the time– your perspective and your point of view.
There is a short remembrance in this week’s New Yorker by a reporter named Michael Specter. He writes about a photo that was given to him by a friend of two dying men in the Castro district in 1980s San Francisco – one confined to a wheelchair and another, tall and gaunt, bending down to help him – so he can be reminded of the actual story of those days as he wrote about the plague and gay history in the future. He references this photo as he tells us of the current skyrocketing rates of new HIV infection in the gay community due to resumed risky sexual practices on the part of young people who were not around to see the ravages that came from the disease at a time when there were no or few effective drugs to ensure long term survival. He also touches on the fact that by the end of this year AIDS will have killed FORTY MILLION people in total, many of them heterosexual and living in Africa.
Once again, who died and why and who lived and how is only part of a much larger story. This is a medical story, a sociological story, a political story and a human story of the world community and, in no less of a meaningful way, individual lives. That I know a few wonderful guys who continue to survive the plague 2-3 DECADES later is another story in the mix of all the others previously alluded to. Where we get into trouble is trying to compare, quantify and draw definitive conclusions as to what is most meaningful or even noteworthy. How do you qualify survival? Or quantify death? There is no way to do it and to truthfully bear witness to the actuality of the worst of what occurred. There is, only — what occurred.
Which brings us back to Dallas Buyers Club. This is the story of an admittedly racist, homophobic, white trash talkin’ Texas bull rider and electrician named Ron Woodruff who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and given one month to live. Mr. Woodruff was a real person and, by all accounts, not a particularly pleasant one. But like many unpleasant individuals, he is not without his charms. The latter qualities are brought out with the sort of bold verve and definitive eye twinkle that plays perfectly into the talents of an actor like Mr. McConaughey. He does a lot more than lose 50 pounds from his normally tan, muscular frame and paste on a bushy moustache to bring us back to the skin and bones Russian roulette days of the 1980s. He actually manages to bring to life the kind of guy that would repulse you if it weren’t for the fact that he was sick and dying. In all honesty, he might repulse you still.
At one point early on in Mr. Woodruff’s company I, a gay man, turned to my partner of 26 years and sarcastically whispered: Why can’t they just make a film about all of this for us? Not surprising on my part. For all the tragic dramatic stories about AIDS that could be tackled by major or mini-major studios in the last 30 years, the only one that comes to mind that had a gay protagonist was 1989’s Longtime Companion. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia but the protagonist in that movie was Denzel Washington, the straight African American lawyer who defended the dying gay man in a lawsuit. And The Band Played On was an HBO movie that chose, among all of its many characters, to star Matthew Modine as a straight white doctor fighting the good fight against the disease in San Francisco while numerous gay men stressed and played all around him. Several years ago I Love You, Phillip Morris treated AIDS as the punch line to a sociopathic joke of a con artist we presume to be a bisexual man in the body of Jim Carrey but are never quite sure of on any level.
Owning a story, even one that you have lived through, is a very slippery slope that I began to slowly tumble down into as Dallas Buyers Club continued. The character of Mr. Woodruff, who I do recall hearing about in real life, was bold enough to go against the accepted medical science at the time and travel down to Mexico where he found alternative drug treatments dispensed by a disbarred American doctor that, unbeknownst to him, would prolong his life for many years. He then chose to circumvent the laws at the time, illegally transport the drugs back to Texas, and open up his own “club” to dispense these medications to members who would pay a $400 per head, per month membership fee. Never mind that he was making out like a bandit – he was also temporarily enabling many other people to save their own lives for significant amounts of time using a model that he mentions in the film was really created by homos in New York, San Francisco and other big cities across the country.
Hmmm – in a normal movie this kind of talk would not redeem Mr. Woodruff’s character in my eyes. But those were not normal times. Somehow, as the movie progressed this asshole became a bit of a hero if only because he managed to take away the profound suffering of what stood in for the many young men that I knew personally at the time who would, in the end, have no such relief at all. Well, extreme circumstances do call for extreme reactions – both in life, movie fantasy and upon reflection. Never mind that Mr. Woodruff briefly made a personal fortune and the massive nationwide fight gay men were waging on every front, including the ones Mr. Woodruff trod in, were mostly ignored here. Despite my great reticence, as I watched the film, I found myself rooting for this egocentric ignoramus – a guy who wound up being far smarter and eventually, but not totally, a lot more enlightened than I had previously seen as being possible.
(Side note: The movie also co-stars Jared Leto as one of the few straight actors I’ve ever seen pull off a believable drag queen on film. Forget William Hurt’s best actor Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman. As most gay guys will tell you, that was mostly about a straight guy showing us drag and flamboyance in a film made in the early days of AIDS rather than a straight male actor being a real character in a movie that takes place during the early days of AIDS).
I’m assuming that like all real-life movie heroes and anti-heroes in recent years – from Johnny Cash to Richard Nixon – Mr. Woodruff’s true edges have been softened and hardened to meet the filmmakers’ dramatic needs. This is how it is and will always be in the creative arts. Even documentaries are not totally real depictions of what actually happens. They can’t help but be influenced, if only slightly, by the filmmaker’s own interpretation of the events. Ask D.A. Pennebaker. Or even that master of restraint – Michael Moore. (Note: I love MM and the latter is, um, a joke). (Note #2 – And yes, since memory is at the very least selective, even How to Survive a Plague probably missed a few things).
As for Dallas Buyers Club it might be at turns clunky, thinly developed, or lacking in an overall broad historical perspective. Most movies are, or do, in parts. But what it does extremely well is evoke an important era and tell yet another story about a human plague that seems to have no end for those of us lucky enough to have survived it. It will also do this for others new to the fight who will now, and in the foreseeable future, find themselves navigating the waters if the gasps I overheard from several young people around me in the movie theatre are any indication. And, additionally and in particular, it might slightly sway one or two or more of those others who don’t really care about this fight at all.
If Mr. McConaughey’s portrait of the sometimes off-putting Ron Woodruff enlightens even one small-minded jerk about all of this it will have been more than worth the effort. And even if it doesn’t, it has every right to stand along all of the stories of that time. No one owns The Plague Years – even those of us who were fortunate enough to live through them and bear witness to our own individual stories of hell from that time.