Hollywood confronts AIDS on the big screen -- ''Probable Cause,'' ''Blue Earth,'' and ''Cure'' are among the movies tackling the subject

More than a decade after the epidemic emerged, Hollywood is finally confronting AIDS on the big screen.

In September, Jonathan Demme will begin filming Probable Cause, a story for TriStar Pictures about a homophobic attorney who defends a lawyer fired from his job because he has AIDS. Bill Murray and Daniel Day-Lewis are reportedly targeted for the leads, but the list of stars wanting in is long. ”Every actor in town wants to do this project,” says TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy. ”I’d been thinking of doing a picture in this area, but until now nobody came up with a project that I felt told the story without hitting the audience over the head.”

While Demme may be the first big director willing to go out on a limb with an AIDS project, a number of other AIDS-themed movies are being readied:

Propaganda Films’ Good Days is also a courtroom AIDS drama, with an original script by David Leavitt (The Lost Language of Cranes), to be directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy).

Columbia Pictures’ Cure will be directed by Francis Ford Coppola from Diane Johnson’s screenplay about the search for an AIDS cure.

Blue Earth, produced by Howard Rosenman (Father of the Bride; Common Threads, a documentary about the AIDS Quilt), is a true story about a Chicago fast-tracker who returns to his hometown and then learns he has AIDS.

Journalist Jonathan Kwitny’s upcoming book, Acceptable Risks, about AIDS activists’ fight to bring unapproved pharmaceuticals to patients, is currently in development at Warner Bros. as a Spring Creek Production.

”These projects would not be happening at all if there weren’t an easier environment,” says literary agent Ron Bernstein. ”There’s finally a growing awareness in the community of AIDS.”

But just how aware is Hollywood really? It’s no accident that the first studio-supported AIDS movie is being made by a powerful director coming off an Oscar-sweeping hit, The Silence of the Lambs. ”Demme could make the phone book,” says Interscope producer David Madden. Another producer adds, ”I’d like to give Hollywood more credit, but there’s just a handful of directors (who could make a movie about AIDS). And even with them, these movies would not be made for $80 million.” It has also been noted by insiders that Demme, like his colleague Oliver Stone (JFK), was attacked by the gay community for alleged homophobic depictions in his last movie. (Stone is currently producing the gay-themed The Mayor of Castro Street.) ”They’re making amends,” suggests industry analyst and screenwriter Michael Mahern.

Until now, Hollywood has left the subject of AIDS to independent filmmakers like the late Bill Sherwood, who made Parting Glances (1986), and Craig Lucas and Norman Rene, whose low-budget Longtime Companion was a modest hit in 1990. It may have taken a steadily and tragically expanding personal involvement with AIDS to get big-budget movies about it up on the boards. No one who works in the industry has been untouched: Everyone has lost a friend, loved one, or colleague; many high-profile groups, from the American Foundation for AIDS Research to AIDS Project L.A., throw benefit galas that raise millions, and MCA president Sid Sheinberg recently agreed to extend health insurance to his gay employees’ live-in partners.

But even as A-list directors get interested, Hollywood still considers any film about sickness a hard sell. ”AIDS is no different than cancer or a nuclear holocaust,” says Twentieth Century Fox senior vice president Michael London. ”All these subjects are difficult to transform into entertainment.” The AIDS projects that do get made will probably have more to do with the battle against injustice, like Probable Cause, than with confronting death.

And still others will languish in development hell, like Larry Kramer’s 1985 play, The Normal Heart, which Barbra Streisand still wants to film despite her clashes with the playwright, and Randy Shilts’ history of AIDS, 1987’s And the Band Played On, which is floundering at Home Box Office. As with stories about Vietnam, Howard Rosenman argues, it takes time for a difficult subject to mature to Hollywood’s taste. ”Projects go from idea to first draft to second writer to director before they get made,” he says. ”AIDS reached Hollywood consciousness when Rock Hudson died seven years ago. But the right story never crossed anybody’s desk.” That is, until Demme met Probable Cause.