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HBO’s LGBT History: Common Threads (1989)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed films & miniseries produced and distributed by HBO.

Last week we looked at the quietly touching film Tidy Endings (1988), written and starring Harvey Fierstein and a must-see for Stockard Channing completists. We’re not going far this week, since much of HBO’s early LGBT output tried to grapple with the AIDS epidemic that had dominated the cultural conversation about gay men in the 1980s.

Did you know that films produced by HBO have won over 20 Oscars? This past year alone, HBO dominated both documentary categories with Citizenfour and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 emerging victorious. It has been a stealth awards run which Sheila Nevins (currently the president of HBO Documentary Films but her involvement stretches back to 1979) has all but nurtured herself. 

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989) [Watch on Vimeo]
Written & Directed by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman (based on the book, The Quilt: Stories From The NAMES Project by Cindy Ruskin)
Narrated by: Dustin Hoffman (who'd just won his 2nd Oscar)

HBO’s commitment to strong documentary storytelling goes back to the late 1980s; their first Oscar win came in 1985 when the American Undercover special Soldiers in Hiding won the Best Documentary Feature award, the first time it was bestowed to a pay cable service. Having hosted the then-surgeon general in their 1987 informative special, AIDS: Everything You and Your Family Need to Know…But Were Afraid to Ask, it’s not surprising HBO would help produce Epstein and Friedman’s Common Threads which won Best Documentary Feature at the 62nd Academy Awards, the year Driving Miss Daisy took Best Picture (how’s that for a double feature?). Common Threads continued the network’s commitment to mining urgent and contemporary social issues in their documentaries...


“It took Rock Hudson’s death to capture America’s attention. By that time AIDS had already killed 15,000 other Americans.”

There’s an entire history to be written about Rob Epstein’s cinematic contributions to American LGBT history on screen. From his involvement in Peter Adair’s Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977) to his Oscar winning documentaries (The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and Common Threads) and his seminal The Celluloid Closet (1995), Epstein (alongside Jeffrey Friedman from Common Threads onwards) has long been a vital force in increasing the visibility and representability of American sexuality, a commitment he’s intent on pursuing even as he and Friedman move into narrative features (as Howl and Lovelace attest). If you want to read a more in-depth talk about Oscar & LGBT docs, I cannot recommend this conversation between Glenn and Daniel enough.

The film opens with a slow pan on each of the panels of the people who make up the film's narratives

Common Threads is based on the AIDS quilt project, and follows five individual stories of people who have panels memorializing them on it. Much like the quilt itself, the film is at once a personal and intimate memorial as well as a broader cultural symbol of the lives lost to the epidemic. The lives presented on screen showcase the various risk groups which shouldered the brunt of the early epidemic: in addition to gay men (Dr. Tom Waddell, David C. Campbell and his lover Tracy Torrey, and Jeffrey Sevcik - whose story is told by film historian Vito Russo who succumbed to the disease a year later), the film features the story of David Mandell Jr, a young hemophiliac and Robert Perryman, a straight African-American man who’d been an intravenous drug user. Like the NAMES project, Common Threads is touching in its cumulative effect.

“Too much love gone. Too much tragedy. I took David’s story and what his loss meant to me and I multiplied that by the number of panels and it was just so horrendous. Every one of those persons represented by a panel is a person who was loved by somebody and that loss, that tremendous loss. And I keep thinking of the possibilities for David. What he could have been. What his promise was. And how cut short it was. And again multiply that by the number of panels.”

Hearing family members and lovers reminisce about those taken by the virus is made harder (cruel even, in the way raw stories of grief need to be) by the repetition which structures the film: we hear of the sudden diagnosis, the lack of information, the futile battle with a disease no one knew (or cared) much about, and then of course, the death. Russo recalls being visited by Jeff’s ghostly presence while on a flight, Perryman’s wife holds back tears as she remembers refusing to visit her husband on the eve of his death fearing her fever would worsen his state. These stories of sadness and grief and anger recur and echo throughout the film, perhaps most explicitly in Tracy Torrey’s segments which are relayed by his lover David who finds himself afflicted with the virus and takes it onto himself to create his own quilt panel. Not even the film’s interlocutors are safe from the AIDS battle they helped to chronicle.

Governors Island in 2014. Can you spot the detail that my camera inadvertently caught, making this a touching image of that summer morning?

Last summer I got the chance to visit the quilt as it was unspooled over Governors Island. Seeing it in person was cathartic, enraging, inspiring and saddening all at the same time. What struck me then (and what struck me as I revisited Common Threads for this week) is the way art had become for the various people who chose to create these intricate panels, in the words of Sallie Perryman a “healing force.” Epstein and Friedman’s film, by choosing a rather unfussy style that focuses on the stories themselves (using Dustin Hoffman sparingly to offer some historical context and helpful statistics) takes inspiration from the quilt: Every panel tells a story. Every name is a life. And the film, with its emphasis on first-person storytelling paired with stock footage and family videos, stealthily builds on the personal narratives to offer a heartfelt indictment of the Reagan administration inaction even as it remains wholly focused on the lives lost.

It's always struck me that the most incisive and necessary cinematic portrayals of the LGBT community in the 70s and 80s were coming from the documentary field and Common Threads is no exception. Have any of you caught this landmark documentary? Does its urgency feel palpable still or has it become a historical time-capsule?

Next week: We make our first visit to one of HBO’s favorite genres - the biopic! - to see James Woods as Roy Cohn in Citizen Cohn (1992) (available here), an infamous political figure that was concurrently being immortalized in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays.

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Reader Comments (6)

You'd think this would be on HBO Go.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBD

BD -- i don't understand HBO GO's resasonings behind only making some of their archives available. It'd be such a bold frontier if any of their original programming (since they own it) were always available. I can undersatnd with features that they just license to show but their own original programming is a different matter.

Manuel -- great point about art being a healing force. That seems especially true of the AIDS crisis, so many sick artists were doing incredible work. A desperate defiance or a life-extending catharsis who knows.

May 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This movie really isn't easy to find. It's not available from Netflix or iTunes. You can't even buy a DVD from Amazon. I'm glad my library has it!

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTW

BD & Nat, There really doesn't seem to be rhyme or reason to what is being made available through HBO Now and HBO Go. I've amended the post to include the link to the link on Vimeo which seems to me to be the only way to legally watch it (libraries notwithstanding TW!)

May 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

What a powerful document this is. Each story is so simply told and yet so powerful and by the end it is truly a gut punch of a viewing experience but an essential one. I can't remember where I saw it. I think it might have been PBS since I've never had HBO but it is so worth any trouble it might be to find.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I haven't seen it. To be honest, I've been avoiding it for decades. I feel it's time now, but when I hear the soundtrack I literally shrink.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

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