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AIDS in Hollywood

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Like Banquo’s ghost, Brad Davis continues to haunt Hollywood. Having kept his condition a closely guarded secret from all but a handful of friends, the actor died of AIDS-related complications last month in his Studio City home. His death alone might have been merely another reminder of AIDS’ terrible toll. But Davis’ dying words, left behind in the form of a book proposal that the 41-year-old actor had drafted in longhand eight weeks before his death, reverberate as both a rebuke and a challenge. Davis charged that the entertainment industry, devastated by the AIDS epidemic, which has taken 123,000 lives nationwide, hypocritically offers public support to those infected with the HIV virus but invariably discriminates against them.

”I make my money in an industry that professes to care very much about the fight against AIDS — that gives umpteen benefits and charity affairs with proceeds going to research and care,” Davis wrote. ”But in actual fact, if an actor is even rumored to have HIV, he gets no support on an individual basis. He does not work.”

Exactly a week after his death, as Hollywood gathered at the Universal Amphitheater for a benefit concert to raise funds for AIDS Project Los Angeles, Davis’ indictment was seconded by his widow, Susan Bluestein. In an open letter to the industry read by Richard Dreyfuss, she pleaded, ”Whatever the rules are today in Hollywood, they must be changed so that people like Brad can come forward before they die.”

No sooner was the gauntlet thrown down than it was picked up. That night Barry Diller, chairman of Fox Inc., and Sidney Sheinberg, president of MCA Inc., announced they were together pledging $125,000 to launch Hollywood Supports, a new organization designed to fight AIDS discrimination in the entertainment industry. It was the first time in the 10-year history of the AIDS epidemic that the industry’s top executives had moved beyond personal philanthropy to exert concerted leadership in battling the disease’s stigma. Coming just two weeks before California governor Pete Wilson vetoed a gay-rights bill, an act that set off riots, Hollywood looked positively noble.

But is it? Does the industry’s new rhetoric represent a genuine commitment or merely the latest public relations gesture?

There’s reason for suspicion, because what Hollywood says in public is not always reflected by what it does in private. ”Among straight people in the industry, there’s a schizophrenia,” says Richard Gollance, who wrote an AIDS-themed episode of NBC’s Lifestories last season. ”With friends, they’re incredibly supportive, but that doesn’t always translate into the workplace. When I was at NBC doing Lifestories, AIDS was treated more as juicy gossip than as anything else.”

For all its liberal trappings, Hollywood did not rush to grapple with the AIDS crisis — either on-screen or off — when the disease was first diagnosed in the early ’80s. Joan Rivers, one of the first celebrities to voice support for people with AIDS, recalls a fund-raiser at Los Angeles’ Backlot Theatre in 1984: ”We couldn’t get anyone on the program. Nobody wanted to go near it. And we got major death threats. I had armed guards onstage with me the whole time I did my act. It was a very sad, traumatic evening.”

Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 gave AIDS a public face, and Elizabeth Taylor’s unflagging work on behalf of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) has given AIDS fund-raising a social cachet. But within the entertainment industry itself, many of those directly affected by the disease have found little support or comfort. When Brad Davis became ill, for example, he was forced to turn to a friend in New York, Rodger McFarlane, executive director of Broadway Cares, a support organization for people with AIDS in the theater community. McFarlane helped the actor find confidential medical treatment in Los Angeles.

”There are people more famous than Brad who are in the situation he was in,” says McFarlane, and out of ”sheer fear” of exposure they pursue treatment in secrecy. ”I even go to pay phones to call these people. They don’t want it on their phone bill or mine.”

Although no documented cases of AIDS discrimination have been reported to the Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the fear of such bias is still a palpable reality. Cases haven’t been reported, insist AIDS activists, because most of those who are HIV-positive either have kept their status private or have been unable to prove suspected incidents of discrimination.

Actors must answer questions about their general health to be insured for a TV or film role, but they are not routinely required to reveal their HIV status. ”There is no problem with someone testing positive, as long as he or she can perform the role,” insists Lee Proimos, senior vice president of the Fireman’s Fund, a major insurer of films and TV shows. ”If someone who is HIV- positive isn’t sick, they’re not going to increase the price of the premium. There is no increased risk.” Yet such assurances have not filtered down to the rank and file. Claims one producer, ”I can tell you that people are reluctant to hire people who are perceived to be ill. It’s not so much a question of AIDS as it’s a question of illness in general. If anybody gets sick on the job, it can cost you $200,000 a day for every day you fall behind. Compassionately, you want to fight for them, but it also comes down to a question of economics.”

Making the situation even more difficult to assess is the absence of reliable statistics on the extent of HIV infection within the entertainment industry. By some estimates, the percentage of those infected in the industry could be as much as three times higher than that in other industries. But even if there are no solid numbers, there are hints: Between 1986 and 1990, entertainment-union health plans paid about $22 million to treat people with AIDS, a figure that is expected to escalate steeply in the coming years. Each week, Variety‘s obit columns report more deaths attributed to the disease, an ongoing drumbeat that is both tragic and numbing. While the deaths of actors like Hudson and Davis make headlines, the industry has already lost a whole roster of talented, lesser-known people, such as director Colin Higgins (9 to 5), lyricist Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid), and casting director Stephen Kolzak (Cheers).

Will the new get-tougher attitude allow people with AIDS to live and work in decency? Although the specifics have yet to be announced, Stephen Bennett, chief executive officer of AIDS Project Los Angeles, thinks the Hollywood Supports platform will work. ”I think the leadership of the entertainment industry is more sensitive and more tuned in than people have given them credit for,” he says. ”A group of industry leaders is going to put their names behind a set of principles regarding discrimination, AIDS education, and the role of the industry. It’s a real opportunity.”

Others are more wary. ”A much-awaited change has occurred,” says Richard Rouilard, editor in chief of The Advocate, a gay and lesbian newsmagazine. ”But it’s incumbent on the gay and lesbian community to continue to watchdog this change so that it just doesn’t become the trend du jour. At best this is a damn fine beginning, but there’s still a lot of people who have to be moved.”

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