Although it has been over thirty years since the AIDS epidemic began in the United States, proliferating out of bathhouses in San Francisco and New York, Hollywood has always faced the opportunity to dramatise the crisis with reluctance. Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the stigmatisation of the disease with connotations of homosexuality and drug use rendered it a topic too taboo to be commercially viable for Los Angeles production companies.
Documentation of the plight was forced underground, with independent features like Norman René’s Longtime Companion (1989) having to do their best to shed light on American realities within a burgeoning AIDS community. It was only with the release of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia in 1993 that Hollywood finally offered a major platform to discuss the subject, albeit within the safe parameters of a cour troom drama centred on Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks, pictured above), a white, bright, middle-class homosexual. This said, it was a landmark film in appealing to a wider audience than ever before about a disease that at the time was responsible for the lives of a quarter of a million Americans.
Despite the steady deconstruction of the stigma surrounding AIDS since the 1990s, not so much down to Philadelphia as to the work of activism groups such as the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), traces of the inability to represent it unapologetically on Hollywood screens are still felt, seen most recently in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Following the trials of Texan electrician Ron Woodruf in Reaganite America- played superbly by Matthew McConaughey- he is given thirty days to live after being diagnosed with AIDS. Though ‘based on a true story’ (what does that even mean, anyway?), it is a film that it is artful in its approach to its subject matter, never affording to shine too stark a light on the issue that lies at its core. The protagonist’s real-life bisexuality is exchanged for a heterosexual, homophobic, coke-snorting cowboy. Much more entertaining, perhaps, but similar to the characterisation of Beckett in Philadelphia, it is a safe bet. And although Ron’s journey through the film is one of redemption, the distribution of unlicensed foreign drugs to AIDS victims through his buyers club delivers a message based on the individual, of one man overcoming the state, rather than a sense of social co-operation that buyers club were based on in reality. One can’t help feeling that Ron has been straightened out, and Republicanised, for the benefit of production executives and profitability.
Yet in the decision to make Ron straight perhaps lies Dallas Buyers Club most effective gambit. Since the release of An Early Frost in 1985, the first feature-length film to deal explicitly with AIDS, no Hollywood film has dealt with the subject through a heterosexual protagonist. Many have bemoaned the distance imparted between the Ron Woodruf of the screen and his real-life counterpart, but what has been perceived as an act of reductive conservatism is equally a far more compelling, and subtly reactionary way, for screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack to tell their story. Through the re-styling of Ron as an embodiment of Stetson-wearing Americana, Borten and Wallack redraw the boundaries of the equally stigmatised question of who the AIDS story can be told by. It should belong as much to the heterosexual patriot of the rodeo as it does to the outcasted homosexual, the figure that has monopolised American screen interpretations of the AIDS question, from Andrew Beckett to Prior Walter in the 2003 HBO miniseries Angels in America.
Although it may leave some of its social history at the door, what is vital to acknowledge is that Dallas Buyers Club should not have to be painstakingly faithful to the context of Ron Woodruf to accurately evoke the pain which victims of AIDS are subject to. The decision to separate art from life is immaterial to the fact that the film has provoked, and will continue to provoke, awareness of an era that is still widely uncovered in Western film.