'The Battle of amfAR' and the Power of Celebrity to Provoke Change

A star who lamented the wages of fame for most of her life, Elizabeth Taylor embraced the spotlight in order to raise awareness and money regarding AIDS.

The Battle of amfAR

Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: Mathilde Krim, Jeffrey Laurence, Richard Berkowitz, Ned Landau, Sally Morrison, Phill Wilson, Aileen Getty
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-12-02 (HBO)

"I think there are times when being famous is useful, when it comes in handy. If I or any other celebrity can help, then we should do everything we can. That's the only reason for being famous." Elizabeth Taylor is standing in a parking lot, framed so that you can't see the microphones pointed toward her. A star who lamented the wages of fame for most of her life -- she appeared in her first film at age nine -- Taylor here embraced the spotlight in order to raise awareness and money regarding AIDS.

As recounted in The Battle of amfAR, premiering on HBO on 2 December in recognition of World AIDS Day, Taylor began making inspired use of her celebrity with regard to HIV/AIDS. When he longtime friend and colleague Rock Hudson died in 1985, she took a specific step, joining with philanthropist and medical researcher Mathilde Krim to found amfAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research), an organization that, over the past 25 years, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in support of finding a cure for AIDS.

When Krim and Taylor took up the cause, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film makes clear, they were battling a US government that was not just ignorant, but actually and publicly hostile to the population it perceived, at the time, most apt to incur the disease. That Ronald Reagan and his administration so infamously refused even to refer to the disease, much less allocate or seek funding for research led to all manner of consequences, not least being the affected populations' organized protests and demands for action. Taylor and Krim saw their work as of a piece with such activism, sharing its outrage and focused on finding money for research.

To that end, Taylor was especially well equipped, and she wielded her celebrity like a weapon, testifying for Congress, organizing fundraisers, pressuring her friends and associates, even convincing Reagan to attend a 1987 event in DC, the one where he said the word "AIDS" for the first and only time in public. Though he pledged at this event to create a national commission on AIDS and also to show compassion to those afflicted, he was hardly supportive; he was, as Krim says in an interview clip immediately following footage of his speech at the event, "miserable".

Krim's work is key to amfAR's success, as she conducted her own research and funded work by others, tracking down and bringing together scientists so they might collaborate. "My initial impression of her," says activist Richard Berkowitz, was that "She reminded me of Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz descending in her bubble over Munchkinland to help. And she did." Krim's devotion to this cause emerged, she says, in part from a devastating childhood experience in Switzerland, where she saw footage of the concentration camps taken by US soldiers and asked her parents about it. When her parents denied that such atrocities could have taken place, professed ignorance as a way to maintain their vision of the word, she determined, at age 17 or 18, to pursue truth. "I thought," she says, "'I'm going to replace all these stupidities with facts with knowledge."'

Just so, Krim earned a PhD at the University of Geneva, then devoted herself to research in cytogenetics and cancer-causing viruses at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. She worked at Cornell, and went on in the early 1980s to use her wealth and prestige as the wife of United Artists' Arthur Krim, to pursue her interest in AIDS. She solicited Taylor's help, and amfAR was born.

The Battle of amfAR focuses on both women's dedication and persistence, noting the particularly potent mix of their skills and influences. Where Taylor's stern rebuke of Orrin Hatch at a Congressional hearing, on camera, is surely memorable, both also pursued politicians behind the scenes. "You have to understand," says Jeffrey Laurence of Krim's best asset, "That this is a very gentle, sophisticated, wealthy, incredibly well-dressed grandmother! And she can go and say things to senators and congressmen and wealthy people that the rest of us can't say." Here the film shows her in stills with Bill Clinton, with Mario Cuomo, and with Madonna, all smiling and committed to her cause, the cause that she and Liz Taylor helped to make the world's cause.

Krim's own education extends beyond science, she says. Through her new friends -- many employed or volunteering at amfAR, she learned a new way of looking at the world, as well as, she says with an infectious smile, about "the gay life". "We would have lunch together," she says of Berkowitz, and he and his friends "would explain to me what the gay life was, you know? What was done and not done and with whom and how." That she took this and other lessons as a means to expand her own understanding, to increase her sense of empathy, to make use of her influence, may be Krim's greatest gift.


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