Aaron Spelling was a television impresario who became a genre unto himself. A prolific creative, the man was responsible for some of the most memorable – if camp – moments of the 1970s. When assessing his legacy, people will inevitably look to his kitsch classics Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981) and The Love Boat (1977-1986) from the ’70s and his slate of primetime soap operas, Dynasty (1981-1989), Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000) and Melrose Place (1992-1999). Though a realist about his contribution to art, Spelling had expressed frustration that his work would be reduced to serial television, his film work going unnoticed.
However, one of the genuine jewels in Spelling’s oeuvre is the 1993 film And the Band Played On, directed by Roger Spottiswoode. The film is a timely piece of commercial art, intersecting several tropes of early ’90s television: the cable television ‘event’, the issue-driven television movie, the early ’90s new queer cinema, and the all-star cast. When discussing his work on And the Band Played On, Spelling remembered thinking, “Nobody’s gonna watch a movie about AIDS unless we get some guest stars.”
The phrase “guest star” is key. One of Spelling’s most enduring shows, Love Boat, was a dramedy set on a cruise ship. The most notable part of the show was its prodigious use of guest stars. As Jack Jones would warble the title tune, a gallery of guest stars would flash across the screen, their instantly recognizable smiling faces framed by an animated portal. Faded Hollywood stars, Vegas entertainers, television actors, aging child stars, showbiz vets, and celebrities would stroll across the MS Pacific Princess’ sun deck.
Spelling didn’t invent stunt-guest casting, even if he became synonymous with it. The Golden Age of Television features shows like The Lucy Show, which relied on guest casting to attract viewers. It’s a cynical way to ensure that people will watch the show – it’s not enough to see Lucille Ball’s slapstick antics on television, having her trading quips with stars like John Wayne, Ginger Rogers, or Danny Thomas. More than any other television producer, Spelling knew how to sell television shows properly.
And the Band Played On is quite a different project for the man responsible for Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty. Because his television was pure escapism, a film based on the history of AIDS would not seem like a natural fit for Spelling. Working with director Roger Spottiswoode and screenwriter Arnold Schulman, Spelling took on the seminal – and monumental – work of Randy Shilts, whose nonfiction tome, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), served as inspiration for the film.
It was a Herculean task. Shilts’ book, though compelling, does not lend itself to a film adaptation. It’s a brutal look at the various players who contributed to the AIDS epidemic in America, exacerbating the tragedy through a toxic mixture of prejudice, apathy, anger, and indifference. Shilts focuses on conservative politicians, queer rights activists, and medical professionals; according to the author, each group shares responsibility for the tragedy of AIDS due to homophobia, personal and professional agendas, and ambitions impeding profound progress in tackling the health crisis. Shilts – who would die of AIDS – ends And the Band Played On with a dire note, the book’s release happening at the height of the AIDS crisis, with no end in sight.
Spelling’s approach to the film markedly departed from his usual fare. However, it still bears the mark of not only an Aaron Spelling production but also a specific kind of early ’90s liberal approach to not only the AIDS crisis but to gay rights and community. Unlike his other work, the film takes great pains to avoid camp and satire; it remains reverently respectful to the story – yet its glossy production includes a dizzying cast of A-list movie stars. The starry cast makes the film a Hollywood spectacle as much as a work of activist pop art. And the Band Played On spoke to the braiding of Hollywood celebrity, celebrity AIDS activism, and Hollywood liberalism. The solemn march of famous faces throughout the film mirrors the trend of stars wearing red ribbons at award shows.
And the Band Plays On features Dr Don Francis (Matthew Modine), a young idealistic epidemiologist we first meet in Zaire, tending to a horrific outbreak of Ebola. Devastated by his experiences, Francis is haunted by his memories. Though we aren’t told yet that many in the scientific community would link AIDS to Africa, the film makes that connection for us, as Francis’ time in Zaire echoes as he faces the terrible deaths in San Francisco.
A few years after his time in Zaire, Francis is in the States. He notices a particularly rare form of pneumonia affecting a growing number of gay men throughout major urban areas, especially Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco – three cities especially known in the early ’80s as major spots for gay communities. Tasked by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta to look into these cases, Francis is plunged into an “othered” world of queerness that is marked by sexual activity. As his research continues, it becomes evident that this new disease is transmitted through sex. Francis partners with several sympathetic allies within the community, including gay rights activist Bill Krauss (Ian McKellen) and public health official Dr Selma Dritz (Lily Tomlin), to reach out to local gay men, many of whom frequented bathhouses, which Francis hypothesized were the ground zero for infection.
In one of the many knotty, thorny questions that made it from Shilts’ book to the film, the role of the bathhouse is depicted as being met with skepticism and hostility. An essential part of the gay rights movement, particularly in its formative years in the post-Stonewall era, is queer people’s right to assert their sexuality. For many closeted people, their sexuality was seen as wrong or strange. Gay sex was deemed as unnatural, perverse, and even dirty.
This schism is illustrated in a particularly brutal scene in which Francis faces a crowd of angry gay men at a town hall. As he and his colleagues warn the men about the bathhouse, they are met with jeers and catcalls. Activist Bobbi Campbell (Donal Logue) gives a stirring speech highlighting what’s at stake for these men – especially when they’re told their sexual behavior contributes to the health crisis.
Campbell’s powerful speech warned of the difficulty in AIDS education in its infancy when so little was known about the illness. Because AIDS hit a marginalized and vilified community first, its members viewed the intervention by well-meaning professionals as being shoved back into the closet. The town hall scene depicts chaos and fear. When a vote to close the bathhouses fails miserably, Francis and Krauss are despondent – as if they hadn’t heard a single word Campbell said. When an appalled Krauss turns to Dritz, she empathizes with their opponents. “They’re human, Bill,” she says. “And they’re scared.”
The scene’s frank depiction of gay sexuality and the representation of various queer men is remarkable and illustrates the push-pull of the film’s progressivism and conservatism. That scene also explains why And the Band Played On was not a network television movie of the week but an HBO movie event. (It would later air on NBC with parental warnings.) Spelling recounts the difficulty he experienced getting the film made. His interest was urgent because Shilts was very ill by the early ’90s, and Spelling wanted to see the author live long enough to witness the film’s completion.
Spelling credits two people for finishing And the Band Played On: Bob Cooper and Richard Gere. Cooper was the head of HBO Pictures. He reached out to Spelling to make the film but faced Spelling’s wariness because the project was languishing in development hell. Spelling was initially guarded when collaborating with Cooper until he understood HBO’s sincere commitment to the film. It still remains Cooper’s favorite credit during his time at HBO because “it was so difficult”.
The other man Spelling names as instrumental to the film is Richard Gere. In a star-studded cast, Gere’s name stands apart. Like most superstars who appear in And the Band Played On, his part is brief. He’s credited simply as “the choreographer”, though his character is based partly on Broadway legend Michael Bennett. Gere has a leonine presence, handsome and stylish, and plays a pivotal part as an early patient who responds to his diagnosis by cutting a fat check for research.
Gere is moving and affecting in his role, as are the other actors Spelling assembles. The all-star cast is both the film’s strength and weakness. As And the Band Played On marches forward and we move from one grim milestone to the next, more famous faces appear, interrupting the film’s momentum. Pop star Phil Collins shows up as an unscrupulous bathhouse proprietor, Angelica Huston cameos as a concerned pediatrician, Steve Martin makes a brief appearance as a bereaved brother, Swoozie Kurtz makes her mark as an early heterosexual case, and BD Wong does good work as Krauss’ lover.
The work of all these performers is respectful, tasteful, and compassionate. Kurtz gives a bravura performance, recalling the bathetic work of Great Hollywood divas like Susan Hayward, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford. (Her two-minute role in the film earned her an Emmy nod.) Along with these stars, we also see exceedingly familiar character actors like Glenne Headly, Richard Masur, Saul Rubinek, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jenkins, Christian Clemenson, and Dakin Matthews rounding out the cast, prompting viewers to try and figure out where they’ve seen these actors before.
Spelling’s characterization of these performances as “guest” spots is accurate. None of these roles requires a performer of Angelica Huston’s caliber and fame. Still, her participation accomplishes two goals: first, it adds to the allure and appeal of And the Band Played On, and second, it affirms these actors’ sympathies for people with AIDS and, by extension, their sympathies for gay men. (To the film’s credit, Shulman’s script doesn’t shy away from the Reagan Administration’s homophobia.)
The primary cast – Matthew Modine, Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellan, and Alan Alda, who plays off his genial persona by giving a villainous interpretation of Dr Robert Gallo – do yeoman work to make these real-life people compelling characters. Alda, in particular, is effective as the ruthlessly ambitious Gallo, who is competing with the Pasteur Institute in Paris to develop a test. Because Modine, Tomlin, McKellan, and Alda are given space to create characters, their appearance isn’t as distracting as Steve Martin’s, whose fame and comedic screen persona are incongruous and uncomfortable despite his solid work.
So much of the work in front of the camera is well-intentioned that watching And the Band Played On becomes more of an act of social activism than a work of art. It’s churlish to criticize Spelling for choosing to film Shilts’ work and undermine some of its potency and searing power by turning it into a spectacle. The film is almost criticism-proof because Spelling intended to tell a very important and serious story, and he wanted to do so to as many people as possible. He did that by doing what he does best: creating glossy, must-see television by populating his world with famous faces. The film comes to a halt to allow for some impressive emoting before moving on to the next scene.
Though And the Band Played On is a very good film, its impact is lessened somewhat by the Hollywood-heavy approach to the casting. This choice pulls the focus away from Shilts’ searing reportage and makes the film about famous people doing good.