April 28, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

The guy from thirtysomething. The really cute one. The one who got killed in a car accident. All these words describe Peter Horton, but now it’s time to rethink him. This week, with the release of The Cure, a tiny-budgeted, controversial story about a little boy dying of AIDS, Peter Horton becomes a movie director. The verdict: It’s a modest but stylish and subtly audacious debut. But Horton almost didn’t make it. Literally. The Cure that might have been would have been directed by Steven Spielberg or Sydney Pollack, at a budget of $20 million and up, and would have starred Michelle Pfeiffer or Meg Ryan as the mother of a boy with AIDS who sets off down the Mississippi River with his best friend in search of a cure. But The Cure that’s unreeling in theaters is an entirely different-much smaller-film. The script that two years ago was a hot, million-dollar property with power- listers attached now comes with a cheaper, first-time director, half the budget, and no bona fide box office stars-a case study of Hollywood politics. It’s also the first major studio release since 1993’s Philadelphia to put AIDS center stage, a crucial step in Hollywood’s depiction of the disease. But as Horton learned the hard way, such a distinction carries responsibilities and pressures that even the sturdiest fiction cannot bear. ”I’d been looking for years for a script that I could put my passion into,” says Horton, who turned 40 on the Minnesota set of The Cure last summer. ”That’s hard to find even if you’re Sydney Pollack, let alone if you’re a first-time director.” Eight years ago, he had agreed to step into the role of Gary on thirtysomething only when the producers promised to give him a shot behind the camera as well (by the show’s final season in 1991, Horton had put six episodes on his directorial resume). Since then, he’s honed his craft with a TV movie (Extreme Close-Up) and the pilot for the short-lived 1994 hospital drama Birdland. He began campaigning for the job on The Cure almost as soon as the script started circulating two years ago. For Horton, the film, a parable set in a rural community and told through the eyes of the boys, evoked memories of his own childhood in Bellevue, Wash. ”It had everything that I was looking for in a film,” he says. Few were so enthusiastic-at first. ”Everyone really liked the script,” says Robert Kuhn, the 38-year-old comic-turned-screenwriter who’d had only one screenplay produced before The Cure, ”but they worried about its commercial prospects.” Still, when Spielberg’s production company, Amblin, showed interest in buying it, recalls Kuhn, ”everyone else said, ‘Wait a minute, we might be missing something.”’ Hype and buzz suddenly upped the script’s asking price to $1 million, which was promptly met by producer Eric Eisner, then head of Island Pictures. Eisner’s first choice for director was Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman), who passed, claiming that he was worried about getting the performances he needed out of child actors. Pollack also said no, as did Spielberg. Universal, which had signed on to release the film, grew nervous about The Cure’s diminishing profile in the absence of a star director. So Eisner got cost-conscious. ”I started thinking the smart way to make this movie was not to spend $20 million,” he says. Eisner hired Horton and cut the budget in half. Hoping for a star who would boost the movie’s box office (”It’s a hard sell,” jokes Horton. ”I don’t know if I want to see it”), the director courted both Michelle Pfeiffer, to whom he was married from 1982 to 1988, and Meg Ryan. Both said no. Then rumblings about the script began, as it floated through agents’ offices, with some readers complaining that The Cure was irresponsible in its treatment of homosexuality. For example, neighborhood bullies taunt Dexter, the hero who contracts the virus through a blood transfusion, with shouts of ”faggot” and ”queer,” but there are no substantial gay characters to neutralize the slurs. At least one talent manager who saw the script refused to pass it on to the firm’s clients, calling it homophobic. Horton tried to address the problem via the character of Jerry, a male nurse who shows up at the end of the film. But Jerry’s homosexuality is apparent only in a slight prissiness in the performance of Peter Moore. The result is an effeminate character who is, at best, secretly gay; at worst, an offensive stereotype. ”He’s in there for such a short period of time,” says Horton defensively. ”There’s really no room for us to say, ‘Oh, here’s our gay character Jerry.”’ Horton handled other obstacles with more aplomb. He kept the film on schedule and on budget-despite the technical nightmares of shooting on the St. Croix River and Minnehaha Creek (crew members often waded out with their legs spotted with leeches) and under the constraints of child labor laws. He wisely excised extraneous information about the characters’ backgrounds, relying on his actors to fill in the blanks. ”He didn’t force us to hit anything over the head, any particular moment or emotion,” says Annabella Sciorra, who got advice for her performance as the sick boy’s mother from a friend who was caring for his sick lover at the time. ”This made the ones that came up spontaneously really powerful to watch.” Horton also wrangled solid performances out of Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park), 11, as the boy with AIDS, and Brad Renfro (The Client), 12, as his buddy. Horton helped Mazzello mine his own fears to find his character, and gave Renfro room to act on instinct. ”Brad is like Robert Redford,” says Horton. ”Joe is like Dustin Hoffman. One’s a movie star, and the other is a great, great actor.” The result has critics divided. ”Heartfelt and heartbreaking” is how one describes it. Others complain that Horton cheated by sparing the dying boy the physical ravages of the disease. But Horton continues to defend the film’s uncomplicated take on the subject. ”The world of AIDS is not political,” he maintains. ”It’s about human beings getting sick.”

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