Bill Sherwood: Parting Glances (1986) | featured image
Depiction of Steve Buscemi in Parting Glances (1986) | poster

Subversive AIDS Film ‘Parting Glances’ Was Quite Unlike Its Contemporaries

In a brave and subversive move that appealed to mainstream audiences yet was undeniably queer, “AIDS film” Parting Glances used barbed comedy to convey tragedy.

Parting Glances
Bill Sherwood
19 February 1986 (US)

Parting Glances (1986) is the only completed film of Bill Sherwood’s brief professional career. A gifted talent, Sherwood’s promise was cruelly cut short by his early death in 1990 from AIDS. It’s a landmark film in queer cinema, one of the early films to look at the AIDS crisis. What is notable about Parting Glances is that although AIDS is an essential detail in the film, it did not dominate the plot. One cannot separate AIDS from Parting Glances, but it manages to thread many different themes into a witty romantic comedy.

When Parting Glances was released in February 1986, the US had by then been in roughly five years of the pandemic. It was only three and a half years earlier that the acronym “AIDS” was used by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). President Ronald Reagan only – and finally – mentioned the word AIDS about five months before the film’s bow. Primarily seen as a ‘gay’ disease, AIDS was either ignored by the mainstream media, or its patients were largely vilified.

The other film of note that addressed the issue was a made-for-television film, An Early Frost, which aired in November 1985. In both films, young gay men are seen living with the virus and their loved ones are preparing for their impending deaths. In the early ’80s, an AIDS diagnosis was seen as a death sentence, and as a result, most popular entertainment that dared to address the subject used a tragic approach. What’s significant about Parting Glances is that not only was the theme of AIDS working in concert with other topics, but Sherwood’s script addressed AIDS with brave humor.

Sherwood’s choice of using barbed comedy to tell his story is brave and subversive, as it’s tempting to couch the subject in serious, heart-wrenching tragedy. Subsequent films and television shows chose to tell the story with heartbreak, but Parting Glances is a rom-com. The person living with AIDS in the film, Nick (Steve Buscemi), is a funny wit who responds to his life with hilarious snark. He’s not painted as some long-suffering victim or plaster saint. Instead, he’s a savage jokester who is also wise and very astute about the people around him; but he’s still very kind, which is why it makes sense that his loved ones want to be with him during his illness, despite his sarcastic quips.

Parting Glances opens with a shot of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument in Manhattan, while Brahms’ Piano Quartet, G minor, Op. 25 provides the soundtrack. We see the back of a man jogging toward the monument, clad in red shorts and a matching tank top. As the credits appear, the man appears smaller as he’s running up the steps of the monument. In the next shot, we get the image of a young man sitting cross-legged, reading V.S. Naipul’s A Bend in the River. The jogger zips across the screen, playfully leaping over the reader’s legs. The Adonis is still running up and down the steps of the monument, the reader follows, walking, before being impishly nudged by the runner who pops up behind him.

The grandeur of the Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Memorial Monument fills the screen, its neo-classical structure juxtaposed with graffiti and tagging, the urban stamp on public architecture. The two men walk past the monument and leave the park, an easy, genial, matching pace between the two. After Sherwood’s credit flashes across the screen, the jogger mischievously kicks his companion in the ass.  

In the next scene, we see the couple walk into the apartment, the reader engrossed in his book, shrugging off the amorous nuzzling of his athletic friend. The two engage in play wrestling before ending up in bed having sex. Though not explicit, the film is frank in its depiction of the nature of the men’s relationship, and it’s treated with a refreshing nonchalance. Sherwood planned for this, saying:

I wanted to get the [gay] sex out of the way at the beginning because so often the films with gay subject matter, they work up to it for an hour, and when the two men or the two women finally kiss, the whole audience screams. So, I sorta wanted to have the sex in the beginning and then go on from there

There are some important visual cues, as the camera spans the apartment, that foreshadow some key moments later in the film. One is Naipul’s novel, which is set in Africa. Another is a credenza with a passport, a plane ticket, and a pile of cash on it. As the men throw off their clothes when getting ready to make love, the articles of clothing land on a suitcase. In the post-coital scene, the men are in the shower, the runner spooning the reader, but neither look particularly content. In fact, the reader is downright glum.

Domesticity is established. The reader pads into the kitchen and drinks milk straight out of the carton before setting his sights on clearing out the fridge of jarred items. Once dressed, as if to help the audience out, the men introduce each other to us: “Robert,” the reader says. “Michael,” the jogger responds.” After the introduction, we get the reason behind the sorrowful tension between them: Robert, the jogger, is moving to Africa.

The plot of Parting Glances revolves around Michael (Richard Ganoung), a young editor who’s facing the imminent departure of his partner, Robert (John Bolger), who is off on a work assignment to Africa for two years. The convivial life of partnered bliss (same-sex marriage didn’t exist in the United States in 1986) is marred by Robert’s feelings of ennui, which drives him to Africa. Michael’s attention is also diverted by his devotion to his best friend and former lover, Nick (Buscemi).

The setting of Parting Glances is 24 hours in Manhattan as Robert and Michael enjoy a goodbye dinner with an older, sophisticated couple. Later, they show up at a farewell bash a friend throws, and finally, the night ends at a gay club, before the two separate for two years.

Though Robert and Michael are the main couple of the story, it’s the relationship between Michael and Nick that is the most interesting and profound. The two share a history as well as lived-in chemistry. We’re introduced to the two when Michael stops by Nick’s apartment. We see Nick as the camera pans around a bedroom, the blast of classical music overwhelming the scene. Nick is lying on his side, facing away from the camera, wearing headphones. Stacks of televisions dominate the front of his bedroom. Sherwood’s camera closes in on the sleeping Nick, his thing, veiny arms like paperclips. Michael enters, and Nick’s large, owl-like eyes open. Nick greets his friend with a jovial, “You look so froofy.”

Contemporary audiences may be used to seeing an older Steve Buscemi; his angularity softened by age. But as Nick, the younger Buscemi possesses an unconventional beauty. He’s gangly and somewhat emaciated (an implication of his illness) but has idiosyncratic handsomeness. His alabaster pallor and gaunt figure, his deep-set eyes ringed by dark exhaustion, give him a Tim Burton-esque quality. It’s a star-making performance, one heavily removed from the menacing and quirky screen persona he would later develop as he became an indie film giant.

The rapport that Nick and Michael exhibit in Nick’s flat establishes a different kind of domesticity than the one Michael shares with Robert. Michael moves easily throughout Nick’s flat, preparing his friend a meal, feeding him healthy foods and vitamins. Though we don’t hear the word AIDS, the early panic is hinted at when Nick confronts his friend about Robert’s absence, saying “Robert hasn’t come by to visit me, including tonight, because he’s afraid he might catch it.” An important thing the film notes is that the gay community suffered from “AIDS panic” as well mainstream society. Even Michael rushes to the bathroom to scrub his hand that he scratched with Nick’s knife.

As the plot of Parting Glances progresses, the film moves in an episodic manner, starting first in a well-situated building. Michael and Robert join a well-to-do older couple, Cecil and his wife Betty (Patrick Tull and Yolande Bavan, respectively). Cecil, Robert’s boss, is an openly gay man who enjoys an open marriage with his beautiful wife, who is sexually sophisticated despite her youthful demeanor. The centerpiece of the film is a goodbye party hosted by Michael’s close friend, Joan (Kathy Kinney).

At this point, the film shifts from being a domestic dramedy to a story about urbane, artsy Manhattan culture. Joan’s apartment is a cavernous artist loft in a neighborhood blistered by urban blight (Joan being an early gentrifier of her street). The party is populated by sophisticated eccentrics, each seemingly interesting and creative. Sherwood’s talent for creating a cacophony of voices is nothing short of brilliant in this scene. It’s not necessarily the most realistic sequence of dialogue, much of it being quite stylized and arch, but he manages to create unique voices: no two people in the party scene sound the same. From the smallest role to the leads, the diversity of the points of view and characterizations is breathtaking.

The other significant point of the party scene is that Sherwood creates a world that is queer and queer-friendly but not self-consciously so, despite the affected quality of the characters assembled. Sherwood subverted queer pop entertainment as well as the rom-com by showing a reality in which straights and gays congregate easily and without agenda. The film is inherently political – it would be impossible to make queer cinema in an AIDS America that is divorced from politics – but the party scene is Sherwood’s way of crashing into a rom-com staple. The party scene, often punctuated by a meet-cute, here folds into not only a queer sensibility but a pan-sexual (not pansexual) atmosphere, in which married straight people have no qualms about partying with queer folks and vice-versa. As film scholar Vito Russo points out, “[Parting Glances is] about how people get along, in this case, most of them happen to be gays.”

The queerness isn’t the point of the episode but it’s an important theme that acts as a structure for the interpersonal drama, which Sherwood weaves throughout like a master tailor. With shades of Anthony Asquith‘s The V.I.P.s (1963), Sherwood sets up mini-dramas with specific conflicts. The leading conflicts are Robert and Michael’s looming goodbye, but we also meet young Peter (Adam Nathan). Peter is a handsome record store clerk who is immediately smitten by Michael after the two meet when the latter pops by to buy an LP. Nick also shows up at the record store, and we get a history of his friendships not only with Michael but with Joan – and Michael and Joan share their feelings of Nick’s eventual death. Sherwood’s sense of camp humor is also evident with the inclusion of Douglas (Richard Wall), the Truman Capote-esque fop who yields his wealth and Fire Island property to lure handsome men.

When watching Parting Glances, it’s tempting to suggest that Sherwood’s ability to create a film that is “accessible” despite its queerness makes the film universal. To some, labeling Parting Glances a ‘queer’ film may seem limiting and dismissive. In our current political and social climate, where identity politics are blamed for division and rancor, saying something is ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ would seem self-segregating. But Parting Glances is a queer film, despite its potential universality. As actor, playwright, and screenwriter Harvey Fierstein once said,

When people say to me your work is not really gay work, it’s universal. And I say, ‘Up yours. It’s gay. And that you can take it, and translate it, for your own life is very nice. But at last, I don’t have to do the translating. You Do’.

Though Sherwood sought to create a space in which the queerness wasn’t the sole point of Parting Glances, he still wanted to show a film about “present-day gay life in the big city” that treated gay people with an honesty and directness rarely seen in films that sought to transcend a niche audience. (Russo likened Sherwood’s film to Woody Allen’s New York oeuvre.) Its reputation has grown since its release 35 years ago, and the tragedy of Sherwood’s early death imparts the film with an unintended urgency and poignancy, despite his efforts in making a film in which Russo so pithily noted: “nothing happens and everything happens”. Parting Glances is an important queer film because even if it does reach for some kind of universality as well as verisimilitude, it’s still undeniably queer.  

Works Cited

Fierstein, Harvey. Interview Segment. The Celluloid Closet. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. 1995.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet (Revised Edition), 1987.

Sherwood, Bill. Interview with Rian Keating and Paul Kaplan. 1986. (Available on YouTube)

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