Longtime Companion, the film by Norman René; is about a small group of men who know each other from the bars in NYC and Fire Island—that is, some of them know some of them—who are caught for a moment on Fire Island and at work and at home in the city as they digest the first news of the health crisis beginning to sweep the nation. Before any of them know what this crisis is, one of them dies, apparently of pneumonia. Then, in rapid order, we see one of these men after another sicken and die, until there are only two left—along with “Lisa,” played by Mary-Louise Parker—walking on the beach at Fire Island.
Longtime Companion, first released in May 11, 1990, is about events in New York during the early eighties and the earliest stages of the AIDS epidemic. It is the first Hollywood film about the AIDS crisis and widely released in theatres. It was preceded by An Early Frost, directed by John Erman, which was a made-for-TV movie that first played on NBC in November 11, 1985, and by Buddies, directed by Arthur J. Bressan, which was distributed to a small number of art houses in 1985. I never saw Buddies, but I did see An Early Frost. Aiden Quinn plays a gay man who is infected with AIDS, who kicks out his lover, and who comes home to his parents—Gena Rowland and Ben Gazzara—where he is taken care of as he sickens and then dies. At that time I was volunteering with the AIDS Action Committee, and while I was sure there were persons with AIDS who went home to their parents to die, I didn’t know any, and I never heard of any. Men’s birth families were largely outside the whole process of dying that gay men with AIDS were going through.
Longtime Companion, as I have said, was the first movie to get wide release, and it told the whole story that I was experiencing during those years in Boston. I remember being moved by it, as one after another of its principals suffered and died. The scene that people remembered was when Sean, whom we have known well since the earliest scenes on Fire Island, is in a hospital bed at the home he shares with David and is suffering badly. David seeks to relieve his suffering. He sends the nurse away, and he sits by the bed, speaking soothingly to his lover, who appears to be blind and to not know what is happening to him, and to be afraid. David speaks to him, “I’m here. I’m not going to leave you,” and then he says, “If you want, it is OK to go.” While Sean gasps for breath, David says, “It’s OK. You can go. You can let go of everything. Let go. All the pain.” And gradually Sean’s breath calms down—slows down—and the scene ends. David had eased Sean over into dying, releasing him from suffering. Some of us were sobbing. I can’t remember now whether I had heard about that happening before I saw this movie, but after I saw Longtime Companion, I heard about it happening with other men. In New York, in Boston, in other movies.
All of the men in Longtime Companion get to know each other very well by the time the AIDS epidemic is in full blast, by the time the movie is really up and running. The audience gets to know these men too, gets to know them almost very well, and I think the audience has a sense of the men going too soon, dying before we have had a chance to really get to know them. That was the way AIDS was. We all felt robbed. In the final scene in the movie, Fuzzy and Willy and Lisa—the survivors—walk on the beach at Fire Island and wonder what life will be like after the plague, and there, coming over the walkway, are all the guys who had died during the movie, restored to us, laughing, coming down onto the sand. It is an amazing wish coming true, at least here, in a dream. I think the scene focussed for many of us what we had lost during the epidemic—the people we had loved—when in the confusion of our lives during that time, it was possible to lose sight of what it was we had lost. This was about people and the loss of people we had cared about. All those people.