Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : November 4th 2013 Contents A42
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Monday, November 4, 2013
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in a scene from the film, Dallas Buyers Club. AP PHOTO
"This guy s got fangs!" That is what
Hollywood star Matthew
McConaughey recalls saying when he
first noted the charged personality of
1980s Aids activist Ron Woodroof.
McConaughey portrays Woodroof in
Dallas Buyers Club, a new film that
opened in American cinemas last
Not since Tom Hanks won an Oscar
for playing an Aids-stricken lawyer in
Philadelphia (1993) has such a high-
profile Hollywood leading man por-
trayed a character battling the disease
on the big screen.
Woodroof was a Texas rodeo cowboy
and electrician who was diagnosed with
HIV in 1985. He was rambunctious,
heterosexual and homophobic---at least
at the start of the film. When he could
not get the medicine he needed---
because it was not officially approved---
he railed against the US Food and Drug
Administration, the medical establish-
ment and pharmaceutical companies.
He took matters into his own hands
and obtained non-government-
approved medicines, which he gave out
to other people fighting Aids through
a subscription service or "buyers club."
The arrival of this film has rekindled
an ongoing debate in America over the
often less than perfect way in which
mainstream cinema depicts Aids.
Documentary filmmaker David
France, who directed the award-win-
ning film How to Survive a Plague,
which focused on the early years of
Aids activism, sees Dallas Buyers Club
as a solid achievement. "I think this
story by and large captures what it was
like then---and I think it does it well,"
he says. But Cathy Hannabach, who
teaches film history at Temple Univer-
sity, believes that American Aids films
have focused too narrowly on just one
group affected by the disease. When it
comes to Dallas Buyers Club she says:
"I m a bit sceptical that it can offer
anything different from the same white,
middle class male story that we ve seen
a million times."
It is true that from the time the Aids
epidemic first emerged in New York s
gay community in the early 1980s to
the present day, many of those depicted
with the disease on screen have been
white and middle class.
But Aids activist Peter Staley, who
was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, is
pleased the film is delving into a past
era of Aids activism: "I m just thankful
that Hollywood has begun to look back
now at these years. Even a mediocre
Aids film at this point in my view is
a good thing. Even a politically incorrect
Aids film is, I think, a good thing as
long as we just start talking about it
again and realising it s not over."
Staley is old enough to remember
the silent years in the 1980s when the
mainstream film industry ignored Aids.
There were notable independent films---
and a landmark TV movie, An Early
Frost, which depicted gay men with
the disease. But there was nothing sig-
nificant from Hollywood, nor that much
interest among studio executives in
attempting to tell an Aids story.
"Nobody wanted to talk about gay
men," Staley recalls. "They didn t want
to talk about homosexuality and they
didn t care that we were dying."
It was not until Philadelphia in 1993,
more than 10 years after the first cases
of Aids were reported in the US, that
Hollywood featured a leading man with
the disease. Initially, it might have been
viewed as a risky endeavour, but having
Tom Hanks playing a gay Philadelphia
lawyer dying from Aids proved to be
a critical and commercial success. Next
month will mark the 20th anniversary
of the release of the film-one that is
widely seen as an important milestone
in Hollywood s portrayal of Aids. David
France says, "We had for the first time
a major Hollywood star in a very pow-
erful film from a huge studio---and that
meant America was going to watch and
for the first time we saw a person with
Aids struggling with the certainty of
Cathy Hannabach can find much to
criticise in Philadelphia with what she
maintains are its problematic racial and
gender politics. She nonetheless con-
cedes that it was a significant movie.
"It was the first film that paved the
way for a mainstream audience to have
access to information about HIV/Aids,"
she says. Staley sees Philadelphia as
cinema that had a potent, galvanising
impact on the American public. "I think
it shamed them into realising how much
they were discriminating against us
and helped politically strengthen the
gay community s hand as it battled for
a government response," he says.
One of the enduring problems lim-
iting development of mainstream Aids
films has been the long-held perception
that movies depicting the disease will
not be embraced by audiences.
At a press event for Dallas Buyers
Club at the Toronto Film Festival,
Matthew McConaughey was keen to
emphasise Ron Woodroof s dynamic
personality, not Aids, in positioning the
film to journalists. He played down the
disease aspects of the film. "This is
damn good entertainment. It s a wild
bull ride of a movie. It s anarchy, it s
rock and roll!"
Concerns over moviegoers discom-
fort with stories about Aids are, in Peter
Staley s view, well-founded. "I think
there s a real resistance by the public
to revisit Aids and to think about Aids,"
he says. "People view it as depressing
subject matter---so anybody that does
tackle the subject, their first instinct
is going to be to package it in a way
that de-emphasises the Aids storyline."
grapples with Aids
I'm just thankful that Hollywood
has begun to look back now at
these years. Even a mediocre Aids
film at this point in my view is a
good thing. Even a politically
incorrect Aids film is, I think, a
good thing as long as we just
start talking about it again and
realising it's not over
---Aids activist Peter Staley
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