Longtime Companion, a courageous and deeply affecting drama about the AIDS crisis, begins on a note of happy tranquillity. As the bubbly rapture of Blondie’s ”The Tide Is High” floods the soundtrack, there’s a montage of contemporary New York gays starting their day: a man diving into the clean blue ocean surf at Fire Island, two lovers waking up in their Manhattan apartment and preparing to go to work. The tone is serene, even celebratory. It’s July 3, 1981, the day the first article about the (then unnamed) disease appeared in The New York Times. This opening sequence underscores the devastating irony of the epidemic — the fact that it struck just at the moment when gay men, or at least a portion of them, had found a harmonious place within the urban mainstream.

Written by playwright Craig Lucas for American Playhouse productions, Longtime Companion is a lively ensemble movie — at once funny and tragic — that unabashedly confines itself to the upscale fringes of gay life: hip, professional New Yorkers who thrive in an atmosphere of money and relative tolerance. The film has that quasi-documentary, quasi-low-budget atmosphere that marks so much of the American independent cinema. The actors, with a few exceptions, are on the bland side, and the whole feel of the movie is broad and discursive. You’re always aware you’re watching a staged-and-acted drama rather than real life. Still, if Longtime Companion lacks the seamless three-dimensionality of a major Hollywood production, one is carried along by the pungent urgency of its writing, and by the fact that AIDS is treated here with such disarming frankness and intelligence.

The dozen or so characters — friends and associates who range in age from mid-20s to late 40s — have lived through the fervid hedonism of the 1970s. One way or another, they’ve all been molded by the styles and attitudes of gay liberation, that cathartic explosion of pride and libido. In Longtime Companion, they’re still a subculture, but a radiant, self-satisfied one. The woodsy summer retreat of Fire Island is their communal utopia, a place for cruising the beach and reveling in the good life. Lucas has a great ear for the knife-edged confessional wit that is one of the enduring legacies of gay culture. The characters razz each other and turn gossip into an art form, but they’re never presented as venomous or shallowly ”bitchy.” There’s plenty of monogamy too. One of the film’s achievements is that it slyly deflates stereotypes of homosexual promiscuity (without in any way denying that it went on).

Then the plague strikes. Reports of the disease escalate, and before we’re quite prepared, one character is struck down, and then another, and another still. Set over a period of several years, Longtime Companion presents the onslaught of AIDS as a series of increasingly ominous rituals, from the anxious reading of newspaper reports to the funerals that come to seem more and more inevitable. The film gives us an intimate view of those who are stricken and those who can do little but stand by and watch them deteriorate.

In the few previous films that have dealt with AIDS (the TV-movie An Early Frost, the 1986 independent feature Parting Glances), only one character, in each case, has the disease; the effect, though chastening, has been similar to that of watching any other movie about a terminal illness. In Longtime Companion, more characters end up succumbing than we’re geared to expect. And so the film — in its very structure — mirrors the ravaging toll AIDS has taken on the gay community.

For a while, I felt myself quietly protesting the design, thinking, ”Wait a minute — you’re not going to tell me this guy gets it, too. ” Then I realized that was the whole point. There’s a raw audacity to this film’s approach: It means to wake us up, and does. While undeniably a message movie, Longtime Companion is pleading not just for the better treatment of people with AIDS (though that’s implicit) but for a more humane understanding of what gays are going through.

The performances are mostly serviceable, but a few stand out. Stephen Caffrey has an engaging sweetness as Fuzzy, the young entertainment lawyer at the center of the story. And Bruce Davison, a gifted actor who has never landed the roles he deserved (his biggest claim to fame was starring, nearly 20 years ago, in Willard), is superb as the acerbic, gentle-souled David. Middle-aged now, but still boyishly handsome, Davison has a scene in which he quietly urges his dying lover to ”Let go, let go.” The actor’s stoic tenderness is breathtaking; it’s one of the most purely emotional moments I’ve seen in any movie in years.

Longtime Companion concludes with a sequence some may dismiss as too sentimental, a fantasy reunion among the living and the dead. Beneath the scene’s obvious wish, though, is a subtler one — a wistful longing for the days when gays were liberated not just from oppression but from fear. Longtime Companion is both an unsparing chronicle of the AIDS crisis and an up-to-the-minute portrait of a gay community that has grown rife with terror, compassion, and a palpable yearning to return to a more carefree time. The film says that, as long as there are people who have to live with that kind of fear, it’s everyone’s tragedy.

Longtime Companion
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