On July 3, 1981, the New York Times ran a story on a rare cancer that had been diagnosed in 41 homosexual men. In December of that same year, a young gay man by the name of Bobbi Campbell posted photos of strange lesions covering his body in the window of Star Pharmacy, now Walgreen’s, in San Francisco’s Castro neighbourhood. Kaposi’s sarcoma was the cancer that was showing up in gay men in major cities all over North America in the early ’80s. Before long, it was recognized as just one of a series of opportunistic infections associated with the AIDS crisis.
The photos in the window of Star Pharmacy, along with the Times article, are benchmarks of AIDS history and have been immortalized in theatre, film and other art forms. In David Weissman and Bill Weber’s gut-wrenching 2011 documentary We Were Here, an activist recounts seeing the notices on his way to a double-bill at the Castro Theatre. In Ryan Murphy’s 2014 film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, it’s the Times article that Mark Ruffalo’s character Ned Weeks is reading while on the ferry from Fire Island to Manhattan.
It’s also that edition of the Times that lands with a disconcerting thud outside Mary-Louise Parker’s apartment door in one of the first films about AIDS to have a wide release, 1989’s Longtime Companion.
Now enjoying its 25th anniversary, Longtime Companion follows a circle of friends in New York City, from the dawn of the AIDS crisis up to its nadir in the late ’80s. The narrative is gruellingly paced and divided into yearly segments, from 1981 to 1988. As the years rage on, so does the epidemic, claiming the lives, and often the sanity, of the film’s characters. Companion is not only a sobering, chilling reminder of the atrocities experienced by gay and bisexual men before the advent of antiretroviral medications, but it’s also a heartening depiction of a community banding together during a crisis.
The film boasts a cast of then-unknowns, like Campbell Scott, the aforementioned Mary-Louise Parker — who would later star in HBO’s mini-series adaptation of Angels in America — and Bruce Davison, who garnered both a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his performance. The film also won the audience award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival.
Despite its accolades and prominence in queer cinema, Longtime Companion has faded into virtual obscurity among younger audiences — the film is currently without distribution and is unavailable on streaming services. To commemorate the film’s quarter-century anniversary, Yahoo Movies has published an oral history of the pioneering AIDS drama.
Unsurprisingly, Longtime Companion almost never saw its first day of production. The film was conceived at the pinnacle of AIDS misinformation and paranoia and at the tail end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency — Reagan didn’t publicly utter the word “AIDS” until his second term in 1987, nearly six years after the first reported cases in the United States. Writers and producers of Longtime Companion kept fears that director Norman René may be HIV-positive under wraps, as it would likely jeopardize the film from being insured. Their worst fears were confirmed when René died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. At pitch meetings, screenwriter Craig Lucas recalls being met with fierce resistance when pitching the project to potential producers.
But despite the tall odds stacked against them, Longtime Companion saw a major release and memorialized an entire generation of queer men and the allies that stood behind them. Let’s just hope someone with a big heart and even deeper pockets can give this gem of a film the renaissance it so richly deserves.