Unless I've missed a random nomination somewhere -- and you may correct me gently in the comments if I have -- it occurs to me that Dallas Buyers Club is the seventh non-documentary motion picture with a prominent HIV/AIDS story to receive Oscar nominations. (There have been more films with supporting characters who were living with HIV, but these are the major films that are more focused on it*).
Oscar's history with this feature topic stretches back 23 years through one Best Picture nominee, a pre-McConaughey Best Actor, two foreign films, and 1990's Longtime Companion after the jump
Dallas is heading into Oscar night looking strong for two wins but it's come under a small degree of outrage culture fire for political insensitivity during Leto & McConaughey's acceptance speeches (understandable even if you disagree) and even for its very existence (more difficult to understand unless you fully agree). The spotlight is bright as one of the first AIDS dramas with major stars in a decade.
How does it stack up against previous Oscar-honored movies with AIDS narratives?
Here are the films AMPAS has honored thus far, excluding documentaries which are a larger topic and a different beast though you should obviously seek out last year's amazing How To Survive a Plague which sadly lost its Oscar category.
1990 LONGTIME COMPANION
(1 nomination for acting)
The AIDS movie has been around since 85/86 when An Early Frost with Aidan Quinn hit television screens (and won Emmys and Golden Globes) and Buddies and Parting Glances, queer indies, kicked off the cinematic wing of this tradition. I haven't ever seen Buddies but Glances is a goodie, both a must-see for historical reasons and because it's warm, funny, and risque (Steve Buscemi holding a dildo holla). But it wasn't until 90/91 when AIDS dramas began to crossover artistically from gay audiences to the larger rapidly changing world. Longtime Companion, which opened in May 1990 (weirdly the internet has retroactively changed this to 1989 due to a screening at a non'-major festival in October the previous year) which was, incidentally, almost exactly a year before Angels in America started winning its Best Play of Our Lifetime' reputation. Companion was the first AIDS movie to turn Oscar's head. The ensemble cast featured a wide array of promising actors who'd go on to more fame in TV and film like Campbell Scott, Dan Butler, Dermot Mulroney, Mary Louise Parker and even Tony Shalhoub in his first credited movie role. Bruce Davison, who was Oscar nominated for his moving role as the father figure of the extended family of friends and longtime companion of a dying man.
(5 nominations and 2 wins: Actor & Song)
The AIDS drama went Hollywood mainstream in this odd entry in Jonathan Demme's filmography, in that it doesn't feel much like a Demme picture. The courtroom discrimination drama was a followup to his surprise Oscar bullseye Silence of the Lambs (1991). If Oscar blogs had been around in 1993 you know they would have all predicted Philadelphia to be the only challenger to Schindler's List before anyone had seen a frame of either. But Philadelphia only found modest Oscar success with below the line nominations, apart from its Best Actor win for Tom Hanks as a dying gay lawyer.
1999 ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER
(1 nomination and win for Best Foreign Language Film)
Pedro Almodóvar had been nominated once before in the Foreign Film category for his international breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. With All About My Mother, the director reached a new level of fame. The film features a trans character named Lola with AIDS and the nun (Penélope Cruz) Lola has impregnated. Mother would kick off the Spanish filmmaker's most glorious period (1999-2006) with a run of films that would make most filmmakers give up from the sheer unbeatable perfection of them. Thankfully Oscar was floored, too.
2002 THE HOURS
(9 nominations including Best Picture and a win for Best Actress)
Oscar's favorite among features with an AIDS narrative is this actressexual classic which won the Golden Globe for best drama but was bested by Chicago at the Oscars. In the triptych story, told across three time periods, Ed Harris plays the dying artist son of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) who is repeatedly visited by his best friend and defacto caretaker Clarissa (Meryl Streep). This was Ed Harris's fourth and final nomination from his Oscar-favorite period but he never won gold.
...and here in the timeline we stop to mourn again what might have happened with Oscar had Angels in America (2003) been an epic feature film instead of a TV miniseries. I'd like to think it would have rivalled All About Eve and Titanic as "most nominated anything ever"
(1 nomination for Best Foreign Language Film)
This one's about a young mother whose husband abandons her when he learns she has AIDS. She wants to live long enough to see her daughter graduate from school. Yesterday, from South Africa, marked the first Oscar nomination from Sub-Sahara Africa since the Ivory Coast won the Oscar for Black and White in Color (1976) and it was the first of two consecutive nominations - they won the following year for Tsotsi (2005). [Side note: The African continent rarely figures into the Oscar race apart from Algeria, way up north, which has had four nominees and one winning film, "Z" (1969)]
(6 noms including Best Picture and 2 wins: Supporting Actress & Screenplay)
Precious is so vivid in its portraiture of poverty, teen pregnancy, toxic family dynamics, and all kinds of abuse (psychological, sexual, and physical) that it's easy to forget the fact that Precious is also a story about a teenage girl beset by bad news including an HIV diagnosis
2013 DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (6 noms including Best Picture)
And we're up to date by moving back in time to the 80s for the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey, interviewed here) a drug using, sexually promiscuous electrician who self medicates with the help of Rayon, a trans woman (Jared Leto, interviewed here), and the birth of "buyers clubs" all over the States by which AIDS victims found drugs that weren't FDA approved.
How many of these have you seen and what do you make of Dallas Buyer's Club place in this history? Is it retrograde or another interesting angle from which to see the chaos at the beginning of the epidemic?
* Other films with characters living with HIV that won Oscar's favor though it isn't the focus of the narrative and they aren't the main characters: In America (2003) with Djimon Hounsou Oscar nominated as an artist/neighbor of the film's immigrant family, who is living with AIDS and Denys Arcand's connected films Decline of the American Empire (1986, nominated for best foreign film) andBarbarian Invasions (2003, which won the same category) and this year's Best Picture nominee Philomena (2013) which has an offscreen subplot about and AIDS death.