In 1987 a vocal and involved member of the gay community in San Francisco decided that too many of his friends had fallen victim to the taboo disease AIDS, which only three years prior had been termed GRID or Gay Related Immunodeficiency. He also happened to be an investigative reporter who had not only been tracking the disease since its first appearance in the U.S. but had been keeping close and detailed accounts of all of his findings. This man was Randy Shilts and in 1987 he wrote a journal, a medical chronicle, a transcript -- whatever anyone else called it, he always thought of it as simple peace of mind, entitled And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. Shilts traced the disease back to 1971 when the first case appeared in Copenhagen, although at the time doctors could not explain what was eating their patient away. The public was unwilling to believe that what Shilts had to say had any sort of truth to it How could a nation actually ignore such a medical crisis, blaming their ignorance on lack of funds and interest on Capitol Hill? AIDS was a forbidden word and was not typically accepted as dinner table conversation, unless you happened to be an open, raging homosexual.
Over six years passed before a production company of any kind even glanced at Shilts’ report, and even then the big names in Hollywood still refused to take such a risky project on. In 1993, Roger Spottiswoode and HBO Productions decided to make And the Band Played On into a movie. Even if it was a made-for-TV movie, if it had to be a TV company, HBO was a cable company with credibility and a long-time, strong reputation among the public. Spottiswoode and Shilts combined efforts, and while Spottiswoode wrote the screenplay, Shilts’ received writing credits and was consulted throughout production.
Once HBO signed on, Hollywood found another way to hold out its services; no one in the acting community would take part in the project. Richard Gere, just coming from one of his biggest movie hits yet, Pretty Woman, signed on for a miniscule role as a no-name Choreographer. Word of his participation in the movie spread and from that point on not only did the actors flock, but the star power hit home. Names like Matthew Modine and Alan Alda were practically begging to participate. And the Band Played On became an icon of not only its time but also of an entire generation. Young or old, AIDS infected our country in 1981, and it left its scar on all of humanity. It is a disease and a state of mind that still lingers around the world. And the Band Played On is a reminder of where the disease began, how long it took to seep eventually into the blood of a nation, and how far we, as a people, have come since those beginning harrowing stages.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Victoria Douglass Hatch, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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