Health & Wellness

HIV on Film

Kelly McCann

From An Early Frost to Rent, pass the popcorn and the tissues


by Kelly A. McCann

With all of the winter weather we’ve been experiencing during the past couple of months, I find I’m spending much more time indoors. After all, one doesn’t need to be doing any hiking, gardening, or camping in 20-degree weather! So I’ve recently become reacquainted with my DVD player. Let’s just say that I’ve rented so many movies lately, Netflix is losing money on the deal!

I don’t really do musicals or slasher flicks, but I like comedies, action-adventure movies, love stories, mysteries, documentaries, foreign films, and pretty much everything else. And, given my profession, I am particularly interested in movies addressing HIV/AIDS.

Since 1984, there have been more than 100 films made in which HIV/AIDS is the main (or at least a significant) plotline. Many of the movies are informative, historically accurate, thought-provoking, and even entertaining. I must, however, caution you: they’re tearjerkers, and require Kleenex for viewing. But don’t be dissuaded from watching them, as several of the films also convey beautiful messages of love, compassion, humor, and hope.

While I won’t suggest that you view all of the HIV-related films, there are a few I can heartily recommend. Here’s my Top Ten List, in no particular order:

1. An Early Frost (1985). This was the first made-for-TV movie in the U.S. to address AIDS. This show aired on NBC early in the epidemic when ignorance and stigma were rampant. Aiden Quinn, who starred as the central character, received accolades for his courage in agreeing to portray a man with AIDS.

2. Longtime Companion (1990). A Sundance Audience Award winner with a great ensemble cast, this film focuses on the lives of three gay male couples in New York from 1981 to 1988. It’s a heartbreaking and heartwarming story of love, friendship, loyalty, and loss.

3. Angels in America (2003). HBO produced this six-hour miniseries based on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Like a few other movies on this list, the film examines the early days of the AIDS epidemic in an exquisitely beautiful and often surreal way. This one is a must-see.

4. It’s My Party (1996). This is the highly emotional, bittersweet tale of a man dying of an AIDS-related brain disease who throws a party for himself. Friends and loved ones attend the event in order to say their good-byes.

5. And the Band Played On (1993). An adaptation of Randy Shilts’ book, this HBO film was too much of a political hot potato (due to its criticism of the Reagan administration) to be seen on network TV. It educates viewers about the history of AIDS in our country through the experiences of the scientists, doctors, activists, and patients battling HIV at the onset of the epidemic. Plus, there are some wonderful performances by its large and well-known ensemble cast. The closing credits are guaranteed to make you cry. They include a video montage of well-known people who died from the disease, which  rolls as Elton John’s “The Last Song” plays.

6. Life Support (2006). This is yet another made-for-HBO movie (I’m sensing a trend). Based on the life of AIDS activist Andrea Williams, Queen Latifah (yum) stars as an HIV-positive woman fighting to reunite her family as she battles her illness and the spread of AIDS within the African-American community. Queen Latifah received an Emmy nomination for her powerful work in this film.

7. Philadelphia (1993). Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for his role as attorney Andrew Beckett, who was fired from his law firm because he was gay and had AIDS. Directed by Jonathan Demme, this was the first big Hollywood movie to tackle the topic of HIV.

8. The Hours (2002). AIDS is only a subplot in this intricately interwoven tale of the lives of three women, but I had to include it on the list because of its complexity, emotional depth, and superb cast. There were several brilliant performances in the film, but Ed Harris’s portrayal of a man with AIDS is exceptional and amazingly realistic.

9. Boys on the Side (1995). Mary-Louise Parker (yum), Drew Barrymore (yum), and Whoopi Goldberg (sorry, Whoopi) star in this sweet and sentimental, chick/buddy flick.

10. Rent (2005) I have to admit, I didn’t see it and I don’t plan on seeing it. I don’t care for musicals, remember? But I’ve heard about it. I know it’s based on La Boheme (did I mention I don’t do opera either?) and I know there is an AIDS subplot, and I know people love this show. So it made the list. What else could I do?

With a selection of fine poignant films such as these, there’s no need to worry about keeping your emotions all bottled up inside. Pick one of the these titles, pull Orville Redenbacher out of the pantry, and grab the Puffs Plus. It’s time for some great entertainment and a good cry!

When she is not reviewing movies, Kelly McCann is the CEO of AIDS Foundation Houston. Read her blog at

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