My Grade: A
Summary: Angels In America Was Perhaps Written at a Time When Kushner Himself Was Discovering His Identity In The United States of America. His Play Is Both Worthy Of Acclaim and Wordy to Take It All In At Once. But The Pill Here Is Mike Nichols and an Extraordinary Cast, who Make The Film Well Worth Your Time
There is much multiplicity in Angels in America, all of which may be difficult to decipher in the worthiness and wordiness of Tony Kushner‘s Pulitzer winning script. There are political, theological and cultural allusions that are expressed in lengthy dialogues, sermons, monologues etc that you may find hard to allocate to the purpose of the play. What is simpler to understand is the questions about morality, musings about death, isolation and betrayal, problems of identity crisis and the universal feelings of love, compassion, empathy, responsibility, unity and impermanence. You constantly witness characters questioning their beliefs, breaking down, losing their sanity, finding a revelation and then living with hope that they find their true place and purpose in the ever-evolving life. And Kushner’s play is hardly didactic in tone, and neither does he express it in clean, profanity-free words: characters curse and abuse, resort to racial and profane epithets, vituperate the angels, ghosts and even God (of course, much of the exchanges are quite humorous) to obtain answers to complex existential issues that haunt humans, and that especially became important during the 80s when the AIDS broke out like plague in the US but had no form of treatment available to most patients.
Under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a majorly Conservative rule prevailed in United States of America in the 80s which many people recognise as the ‘Reagan era’. While I have little knowledge of those times, I can easily understand what those years must’ve been for homosexuals because we still find Conservatives to be the only guys who oppose any liberty given to them towards free and equal citizen status. Angels in America shows that AIDS then was given little attention because of the observation that most patients suffering from it were homosexuals or people indulging in sexual activities with others of same sex. The respite (not cure) from the disease was only given to people of important status while the rest ‘silently faded away’ as they ‘mattered little’ or they ‘brought it upon themselves’.
Prior Walter is an openly gay man who’s the first in the film to be inflicted by the disease. His Jewish gay partner Louis, who already has a track record of abnegating responsibility, slowly distances himself from his lover despite loving him dearly. Prior accuses Louis of not believing truly in what he preaches, and finds support in his best friend and ex-lover Belize and the hospital nurse. He also begins to experience seemingly realistic hallucinations where he encounters unknown people, ghosts and angels, who proclaim that he is a Prophet who can cure the world’s miseries if he wishes. Another man Joe, a Conservative Mormon lawyer begins discovering his second skin when he realizes that his coldness towards his wife stems from his repressed homosexuality, which he had always ignored as it went against his religious beliefs. His wife Harper, as a result of emotional isolation and fears, lives in comfort and friendship of imaginary friends who, akin Prior’s hallucinatory encounters, give answers to the questions that remain vague or unanswered in reality. Joe’s mother,aptly referred to as ‘Mother Pitt’ is an ordinary Mormon wife who, although is upset by her son’s revelation, finds that her womanhood innately shows the qualities of empathy and compassion to be more flexible towards changes around her.
Joe’s mentor is Roy Cohn, the famous Conservative Jewish lawyer who strongly shows anti-communist and racist attitudes and ignores moral and ethical issues in doing what he believes is right for US. The contemptible, churlish, unconscionable brute is another victim of AIDS, which he contracted through sexual relations with men; yet Roy does not believe he is a homosexual, terming the tag only for those ‘whom nobody knows and who know nobody’. His confrontation with his past sins materializes in the form of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a Jewish woman whom Roy had convicted using undue power for espionage.
Distance, death, desertion and isolation are recurring themes in Angels in America. The opening monologue of the rabbi itself is an example of distance: we see Louis and Prior sitting together a few rows behind the other members of their family as the rabbi is sermonizing at Louis’ grandmother’s funeral about the brave woman’s voyage to America. The two gay men are separated from the rest for their homosexuality while the Rabbi expresses his conservative view on religion. There is a haunting image about death some scenes later when Louis broaches the subject of desertion to the rabbi: after the conversation, we see an extremely long shot/view of the almost unending graveyard, with numberless black gravestones. Mike Nichols, the TV movie‘s director makes his camera float into and away from the subjects, and poetically captures the magic realism of the story. The colors in the film also capture the character’s emotion or essence, and sometimes you may see the whole image going startlingly red or brilliantly blue or find a major color dominating the background, like a dull yellow background around Mother Pitt when she arrives home and gets a call about her daughter–law or shades of green on Mother Pitt and Prior during their conversation at the hospital. There is, in short, a lot we get to see, and I haven’t come to burning ghosts of Prior’s ancestors and his shared dream with Harper yet!
Despite the complexities and the multitudinous implications in the play, you are always connected to the humanness of the characters. Yes, you may not believe that some of the characters can speak the dialogues that Kushner has given them to say, as they sound too big and important to come from common minds, yet you cannot ignore how deeply he explores universal topics to tell us who our real angels on earth are how we humans can make the world a better place.
Pacino is at his strongest and is the strongest of the cast here, making us feel a little sympathetic towards his character Roy’s horrible suffering while loathing almost every shameless ideology of the jerk. You’d think ‘What kind of enlightenment will this bastard gain from his suffering? Just die already!’, and indeed he’s just as repellent in hospital as he was outside and we never expect the man to change completely, but we see a sort of relation grow between him and people whom he usually wouldn’t even look at, people like Belize (a black homosexual, that’s two things to piss Roy off already). Do expect to hear plenty of racial slurs in their scenes together.
While Pacino has only one character to handle, Streep has three (if you include the Angel of Australia, four) characters to handle; one is the Rabbi, the second is Mother Pitt and the third is Ethel Rosenberg. Meryl’s rabbi has been given a complex characterization, and you are barely aware of ‘her’ presence in the rabbi and I’m saying this because when you know someone’s playing a particular character, you start hunting for the actor in the character and this never happens here. And her voice is perfect for a rabbi (plus,she’s part Jewish) who like priests, gurus and spiritual leader have a dulcet, persuasive tone that can make any person stop, listen and sometimes even fall for a belief that may be untrue or anachronistic. Her ‘Mother Pitt’ is the best of the characters, and her scenes with Prior (watch out the part when she tells that it isn’t good to make assumptions about somebody) are brilliant and touching. Meryl has her funny moments too in the scene with the homeless man as Mother Pitt and probably all her scenes with Roy as the ghost of Ethel. Emma Thompson is really smart here because she doesn’t give the archetypal version of an angel, and that gives her scenes the ambiguity that very-real looking dreams have: you never know whether it really happened or not!
Apart from three acting Tysons, we see plenty of other talented and young (though one close up of Emma Thomson as the angel and you have a pretty pointy sandcastle in your pants… Seriously, how did she look so young and hot in the scene?) actors not just filling up but taking full control of their scenes (ironically playing out-of-control characters). Justin Kirk as Prior is sick as hell, he’s funny as hell, he’s funny as sick and quite a queen indeed! Ben Shenkman plays his partner Louis, and unlike stereotypical gay men who are shown to have an unending passion for fancy clothes and gossip, Shenkman’s Louis is more like Mitchell from Modern family; he wears average joe clothes, can’t tell the difference between purple and mauve (as his friend Belize points out), loves (and I mean ‘loves’) talking politics and bashing conservatives (common hatred among gays though) and yes, Louis’ peculiarity, loves abandoning people: first his grandmother whom he hadn’t seen in ten years, then Prior and then… We’ll keep that in the closet for now. Shenkman has to act like a jerk but not be a jerk and he succeeds at doing that. Patrick Wilson’s Joe has in some ways the most difficult role of playing a thoroughly conflicted Republican Mormon married attorney who is a repressed homosexual and he doesn’t really get the most charming resolution, and Patrick is really good. Both Mary Louise and especially Jeffrey Wright have acted well, the latter having to show different traits and shades (in his scenes with his pals and those with Roy) so as to remain engaging.
Angels in America runs for six hours, but I have no problem seeing it again. There are things I know I’ve missed, meanings still not fully understood, questions still running in my mind, characters whose brilliance I haven’t fully relished. It’s really a play written which seems to have be written when the playwright himself was exploring USA, and all his ideas explode into Angels in America. It’s well worth your time.
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- Review of Mike Nichols’ 1983 film Silkwood, Starring 3-time Oscar Winner Meryl Streep (sashankkini.wordpress.com)
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