Oscar History

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7 Days Til Oscar. Dallas Buyers Club & AIDS Pictures

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

2013-1990: From DBC back to Longtime Companion

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.

(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. 

Tom Hanks loves opera in "Philadelphia"

(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.

(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.

(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. 

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Reader Comments (36)

Nathaniel, what nominations do you figure Angels in America would have gotten, had it been eligible for Oscar?

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterColin

I think The Sweet Hereafter also has a character, albeit minor, that has HIV/AIDS.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEthan

Colin... well that's just the thing. The sky seems the limit. might it have been a rare picture that scored more than 4 acting nods? It hasn't happened since 1976! but i think you could make a case for that having happened there. STREEP / PARKER / PACINO for sure... but would anyone else have been nominated? I'd like to think WRIGHT and WILSON as well though i realize that Wilson probably wouldn't have happened even though he was basically perfect in a role that is surely harder to play than he makes it look.

February 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Great list! I recently rewatched Philadelphia and while it's very heavy handed Hanks' performance and Springsteen's song are timeless. I really hope Matthew wins - his work was so dedicated and complex.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersati

Colin - I second your question. Interesting.

Also, Nathaniel, your high praise for Angels gets me wondering about Meryl Streep. For my money, Angels is the best film that she's ever appeared in. (Remember that Onion article by "Meryl Streep" about how she's never actually been in a classic film?) I don't think its necessarily her best performance, but of all her films it's the one that I return to most often. What do you think? Is Angels the best movie in which Meryl appears?

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWoolf

Woolf -- i dunno. but my answer is maybe. It's really diffcult to compare a miniseries to a standalone movie. but it's definitely way up there in the Streep catalogue both for the quality itself (which is easily top tier along with Silkwood and a few others) and for her performance. I think it's easily the 2nd best performance she's given in the past 20 years (after Prada)

February 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I've seen all of these except Yesterday. This list just makes me realize how much I hated Dallas Buyers Club. Like Philadelphia, it repackages the AIDS epidemic for a sheltered, heterosexual audience, but somehow it strikes me as ickier. Perhaps because the intervening 20 years make the ick of DBC all the more ick-filled. I think because I don't know that much about the story that inspired Philadelphia, while I find the invented components of DBC offensive, just like I find the overpraise of the leading actors a little gross.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Blue

sati: Really? That lifeless, passionless turn by Tom Hanks is "timeless"? He's not even as good as Liam Neeson as Schindler, let alone MY choice of winner, Bruce Campbell as Ash. And I'm not even kidding on that last one. Critique me if you want, but Jack's left town.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

For me the first, Longtime Companion, is still the best although I haven't seen Yesterdays or Precious. Philadelphia left me cold, far too preachy.

I have seen Buddies. It was rough and suffers from its low budget but very moving.

One performance that I think was slighted was Eric Roberts in It's My Party. It was far more affecting than Tom Hanks work and is one of his absolute best. The film never made much of an impact at release so he never stood a chance of recognition but his work is stellar.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I feel "Boys on the Side" (95) should be included in the list of prominent AIDEs films even if it doesn't have any noms. It was a non-gay (although Whoopi gave it her all) film with the central character who is positive. It also included one of my favorite exchanges. Lawyer "You are a lesbian." Whoppi "Yes, I'm sure you hear that all the time, but in this case its true."

There is also "Les nuits fauves" Cesar winner 93 France

I think DBC is a good addition. There is still so much work to be done researching this disease and this film brings it back to the table in a new and previously unrealized manner.

I like Leto's performance and don't deny his work or dedication, but I would really like to see what a true, trans actress would have brought to the role. "All about my Mother" would not be nearly as strong if it weren't for Agrado and the performance/experience of the actress playing her.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I think it's interesting to think of a theoretical "Angels in America" movie when it comes to Oscars in relation to what else was nominated. My guess is that it's main nominations would've been the following:

Picture nominated over Seabiscuit
Nichols nominated over Peter Weir
Pacino nominated over Jude Law, outside shot at beating Sean Penn
Streep nominated over Samantha Morton
Parker nominated over Patricia Clarkson, wins over Renee Zellweger
Kirk and Wright nominated over Ken Watanabe and Alec Baldwin

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

in this odd entry in Jonathan Demme's filmography, in that it doesn't feel much like a Demme picture

Watch Beloved (1998) this year.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Alex's comment intrigues me - Do people really think Jude Law got the 5th actor slot that year? It wasn't Depp/Captain Jack? If so, wow (though, admittedly, I really liked Law in Cold Mountain). And if they had been nominated, I too could see Pacino and Parker having a decent shot at taking Oscars home that year.

Out of these films Longtime Companion is my favorite, by far. It's lovely.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

If I remember correctly, I think Djimon Hounsou's character in "In America" is dying of aids too? Isn't he? And the movie got 3 nominations, including Hounsou himself.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenternicolas.jct

ScottC: It's one of those two in the fifth slot that year.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I find it shocking that in all this fantasy Oscar nominating for "Angels in America" (which this along with HBO's Grey Gardens still fall in my recent Oscar fantasy realm.) that no one is nominating Emma Thompson. I'm not saying she was as strong as Parker, but I would certainly say its strong enough (especially in that year) to be nominated, in a fantasy sense.

Director: Nichols
Actor: Pacino
Actress: Streep
Supp Actor: Wright
Supp Actress: Parker, Thompson
Adapt Screenplay: Kushner
Score: Newman

Ooooooooh what might of been....

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterZacary

Patrick Wilson was fine in the miniseries, but Bill Heck, who performed the role of Joe through the entire run of the off broadway revival at Signature a few years back, truly showed the worthiness of this character in the story. He fully embraced the character's pathetic lack of substance and gave into his indelible need for connection through Louis. I felt Adam Driver, who replaced Quinto as Louis, similarly found his character's significance in the proceedings, bringing an elemental sexuality that was somehow from and outside his physical persona, simultaneously. Suddenly the erotic components of the text came to life, and for maybe the first time (and only, if you look back at the list above), the fact that this was a disease most frequently spread through sex by beautiful sexual strong people was made apparent. It made the play enticing in a way that made it more scary than I'd ever read or seen before or since. Kudos.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Bruce Davison's goodbye to his partner is the most honest gut wrenching goodbye in 90's cinema.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

"Longtime Companion" is good but it deal with one specific gay group white males. "Philadelphia" is much more mainstream. Now if "The Normal Heart" had been made into a movie...? And now that there are so many out gay pro athletes will we ever see a movie made from " The Front Runner"?

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Jaragon: The Front Runner? I think an after-action report period piece, with interview sections from some of those out gay athletes of today, kind of like When Harry Met Sally? Could be an interesting take on the material. Otherwise, no.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

@ Jaragon: Well don't worry we get to see the Ryan Murphy- Directed adaptation of The Normal Heart on HBO this year. Oy. One can never know with that Ryan Murphy. I find that he tends to over simplify themes or beat you over the head with them. Let's hope he's so inspired by the work, that he just steps out of it's way. I'm still not thrilled with Julia Roberts as the doctor...feels like a waste of a great role on an alright actress.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterZacary

Philadelphia, to me, is like Macklemore and Same Love: I think it's significant, and I'm glad that it happened, but it's a shame it's not any good.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

joel6 -- i really liked IT'S MY PARTY at the time and eric roberts is underrated nowadways even though he sometimes overdid it in his heyday (but then who among big stars doesn't?) so thanks for bringing it up.

nicolas -- oh yeah. you might be right. anyone remember for sure?

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

To keep things in perspective, while none of these films were great, with the exception of Angels, at least they were out there for public consumption and discussion. To my memory, nobody was talking about AIDS back in the late 80s and early 90s. These films pushed AIDS into the mainstream which was important at the time.

And Bruce Davidson was outstanding and deserved his Oscar nomination. His performance was so powerful and touching.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

brandz -- oh i loved Davison in that, too. But that whole cast was good.

February 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yes, Nicolas is right.Hounsou's character in "In America" is indeed dying of AIDS.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I'm correcting you gently to remind you that one of the friends in The Decline of the American Empire (1986 - Foreign Language Film nominee) was living with AIDS. The same character is a survivor appearing again in The Barbarian Invasions.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPat

The discussion about how many noms Angels in America would have received if it was released as a film instead of a television mini series is interesting.

I just saw Behind the Candelabra the other night and was thinking how many noms that would have received if it was released as a film.

Well it was released as a film in many countries - but it was reported that noone in the US wanted to distribute it.

And now the front runner for Actor, Supporting Actor and Make up (c'mon - will the Academy give Knoxville or the turky Lone Ranger an oscar?) is a film about AIDS and homosexuals.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

but would a three hour (at most) film version of angels in america capture the scope of the play like a six hour mini-series? it probably would have felt truncated and been deemed a disappointment

i always recommend parting glances and longtime companion for many reasons, but mostly for - respectively - introducing me to steve buscemi and mary-louise parker. both made me really sit up and take notice

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

The only way to make " The Front Runner " would be as a period piece the book has a very 1960's hippie sensibility. A modern day version if you did the coach/runner love story as a sort of "Brokeback Track Meet".

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

par - that's a great question and the answer is that yep, it probably wouldn't have had the same impact so maybe it's a silly 'what if' about the Oscars. Still i have to wonder if a 4 hour movie might have done it ?

February 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

To answer the direct question:

I remember seeing An Early Frost on TV, and for years, when people mentioned Longtime Companion, I thought that's what they meant. Turns out, though, that I've never seen Longtime Companion.

I've seen:
All About My Mother
The Hours
Dallas Buyers Club

...and of course, Angels in America, which doesn't count.

February 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

bette streep -- except DBC isn't about homosexuals at all.

deborah -- i remember one of hte first scenes from an early frost only - aidan quinn shaving. It made quite an impression on me as a young'un... but i don't remember any of the rest of it. so i'm not sure i actually saw it or if i was forbidden (my parents did control the tv)

February 24, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel if you haven't seen all of An Early Frost you really should. The information contained within is dated of course but the performances are amazing. How could you go wrong with Ben Gazzara, Aidan Quinn, John Glover and especially Gena Rowlands and Sylvia Sidney both of whom are incredibly moving.

February 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Another early one (91) on TV was "Our Sons" with Julie Andrews, Ann Margaret, Hugh Grant and Zeljko Ivanek.

February 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I saw Longtime Companion right around the time everyone I knew was having the same experience. I had been living in San Francisco from 86 to 91 and it was at least as bleak as presented onscreen. Thank god the movie exists!

I remember so, so wanting Bruce Davison to win the Oscar. I knew it was an uphill battle since subtlety only wins rarely and that card may have been played with Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune.

February 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

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