Stars 'feast' on HBO epic 'Angels'
By Mike Hughes
Gannett News Service
When "Angels in America" reached Broadway a decade ago, two things seemed certain.
First, this was a masterful play with a sensational piece of writing. Second, it would never be filmed.
"It was an overwhelming experience," says actress Meryl Streep. "(But) I couldn't imagine how they could possibly translate it to film."
Neither could playwright Tony Kushner. "I sort of gave up on the idea," he says.
Then everything came together under director Mike Nichols. "Angels in America" airs in two massive chunks, at 6 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 14 on HBO. Al Pacino and Mary-Louise Parker star. In support are Streep and Emma Thompson who have at least three roles apiece.
Here is a $60 million epic that had every reason not to be made:
- Length. The HBO film is more than six hours long. Viewers can see the first half Sunday and the second half on Dec. 14 and again in six chapters at 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Dec. 15-17.
- The bigger-than-life writing style. TV viewers are used to terse, natural dialogue. Kushner uses his words in an epic manner. "It's the language," Pacino says, "which is so wonderful ... the rhythm and iambic of the words are necessary to bring off the feeling of it."
- The combination of those words with spectacular delusions, dreams and fantasies. "There are some wild, wild parts of this," Streep adds.
- The subject matter, which is both powerful and depressing.
Kushner started writing the play in 1988 and finished it in '90. He set it in 1985-86 as the AIDS crisis was exploding.
"(It) has always been about a specific historical period," Kushner says. "It describes a period ... that has long since gone. We're now looking at a global pandemic of truly, sort of apocalyptic dimensions."
Kushner started with three seemingly separate stories.
In one, a man (Justin Kirk) learns he has AIDS. His lover (Ben Shenkman) flees, then frets with guilt.
Another focuses on Roy Cohn (Pacino), a real-life figure. A Republican force since the McCarthy era, he's trying to hide the fact that he's gay and dying of AIDS.
The third focuses on an earnest young Mormon lawyer (Patrick Wilson). His wife remains anchored in their apartment, taking pills and having delusions.
All of these gradually entwine. There are also spectacular detours, visually and verbally.
The result drew a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize and more. London's National Theatre called it one of the 10 best plays of the century; Newsweek called it "the broadest, deepest, most searching American play of our time."
Still, people doubted it would be filmed.
"I saw the play when it was on Broadway," Nichols says. "It didn't occur to me (to film it). I was just overwhelmed by the play."
His view changed when he was filming another prize-winning play ("Wit"), with Thompson. Cary Brokaw, one of the "Wit" producers, pushed for an "Angels" adaptation.
Nichols' reactions? "It fell into my head (that) if you can have the ideal actors ... many more things seem possible."
That included Pacino and Parker, in the most spectacular roles. "It's like a great piece of music," Pacino says of playing Cohn.
With all the dreams, delusions and detours there were also plenty of other rich parts.
"Mike offered me three parts and then he offered me four," Streep says. "It was like a feast."