Film from Showtime, 2002.

Kiefer Sutherland has managed to bring a few personal attributes to perfection: he has a magnificent voice, a graceful, yet thoroughly masculine bearing, an icily impassive stare...and he takes ill like no actress ever played Camille.

Fans of 24 know this: few of his scenes as Bauer hit home as well as when his action-adventure invulnerability is compromised. His long-lashed eyelids turn heavy and moisten, Makeup sprays him heavily with mineral oil, his upper lip widens, and his chin wobbles in exquisite (in more ways than one) pain. Watching him crumble after a series of blows that should have killed him several times over we can tell almost to a hair, exactly what hurts and how much.

In Behind the Red Door this ability is brought to its ultimate test, as Sutherland plays Roy (as in 'king', not Cohn) Haddad, a gay advertising mogul cut down by AIDS. As Roy, Kiefer's initial demeanor is cocky, spoiled, self-centered ... no offense to his sensibilities is too small for him not to throw a tantrum, from the layout artists' goofs to overdone lamb at a posh restaurant. His only saving grace is his relationship with his sister, Natalie: somewhat older than she, he shielded her in childhood from their abusive father by teaching her how to draw hearts, teasing her, telling her stories, and generally forging a world of their own making, where happiness resides behind a red door to repel evil spirits, a world sundered with the death (some say murder) of their mother. Fifteen years later, he is on the top of his game, designing slick ad campaigns for European designers, driving a Jaguar, and living in a beachfront mansion to (no pun intended) die for. (In passing, I must say that in some ways the cinematography and music for this film are the true costars here: everything, save Natalie's black leather jacket, is in muted, hazy tones, while a delicate solo piano underscores the tender, painful emotional content.) Together with his personal assistant Michelle, a vapid chatterbox, and his shallow, glamorati staff, he's about to celebrate his birthday, one year after his long-time companion had, apparently, left him.

Kyra Sedgwick is not quite his equal: as his sister trying to learn the truth about her violent family past in a murder-mystery subplot, she looks alternately anorexically good-looking and rubber-faced, moving through the muted earth-toned world of what is supposed to be a suburb of Boston (but is actually, like every other scene in this film, shot in St. John's, Newfoundland) in a black leather jacket that cuts through the misty surrounds like a black hole. She's a raging against the ordinary photographer, too proud to stoop to wedding pictures, too idealistic to deal with the galleries, and in some ways is just as narrowly self-centered as he is, turning out shots full of angsty dark forboding that somehow never seem to find an audience. After having been conned by Julia (played by Stockard Channing) into visiting her estranged brother, she's hectored into staying overnight for his birthday party... and after Roy callously drops the bomb about his condition (his mate, who had actually died instead of leaving him, had apparently infected him), is emotionally blackmailed into staying on. Over time, however, she not only learns to deal with his bouts of high fever and manage his dosing schedule, but to cook gourmet AIDS-friendly meals for him (no mean feat, here) handle his personal and business affairs, genuinely love and care for him, and, almost as a sideline, come to terms with her past and produce true art.

Roy is a hard man to help. Knowing he's going to die soon anyway, he cheekily chain-smokes, in the hospital for a blood transfusion to counter the anemia caused by his AZT treatments, he frets about the lack of a VCR and his missing Gucci kitbag and Armani bathrobe. (His humor, ranging from lightspeed zingers to a supremely wicked practical joke on his sister, is well worth the price of admission.) He snipes and snarks, camps and cruises: even half-supinely collapsed on a park bench during a sudden crisis, he seizes the opportunity to check out the baskets of passing men. But as his T-cells fall, and the seriousness of his condition begins to hit home, he gradually mellows and becomes once again the fanciful, sensitive poet he once was, getting enjoyment, not out of luxury geegaws, but of simple pleasures ...a delightful vignette has him repainting the (red) front door, designer sunglasses on nose, ciggy in mouth, and an IV pole dripping into his port (looking for all the world like a hip fashion accessory) while he sings a homofied "Home on the Range". While still as fastidiously ornery as ever, he unbends enough to teach her the ropes of his business, the arts of civilized living, and his accrued wisdom as a loving partner: it's tacit that upon his death, she'll inherit the house, the car, the business and the (apparently straight) cute guy next door. His voice is a part of his transformation: as an overbearing advertising mogul, he bellows, snarks, and blusters, as he begins to face his own mortality and becomes weak and frail (which he does with minimal help from outside students take note, though I do wonder exactly how many sizes of that same Armani bathrobe he went through), his voice turns so quiet, like the tiny hiss of snowflakes hitting ocean waves (a wondrous piece of imagery from the film) that I spent the last half-hour of the film holding my breath to hear him. Mid-way, however, that voice seems to lose its way in several key speeches: it's as if Sutherland was drawing a blank on how to read them.

There are a few places in the script where I would feel lost, too. A good deal of this confusion apparently stems from the fact that this is a romanticized version of the director's own brother's story: in collaging what seems to be quotes from him and family lore onto the larger, more glamourous canvas of Roy's fictive life, certain bits and pieces seem isolated and disconnected, and if I were rating it from 1 to 10, I'd take off a point. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise impressive small film that achieves well beyond what it set out to do.

It's interesting to me that the focus was so squarely on his illness and all its day-to-day clinical details, unusual for an AIDS film. (Though being written/directed by the woman who brought you Doogie Howser, MD doesn't hurt...) He doesn't have to break anything to his parents (Mom's dead, Dad Haddad doesn't care), and then come out to them, though it's brought out that most of his remaining relatives don't even know he's gay. He doesn't lose his job, or have to deal with a lover: he owns his own business, and the lover is dead. (Though, there is one sequence, where we see, not hear, him telling Michelle from behind a glass partition.) He doesn't publicize his condition or turn his viral load into a political issue...he doesn't even wear a red ribbon, for crying out loud! More importantly, his great wealth and status as a white male shields him from most of the indignities of living with the disease...this isn't the dying Hispanic kid on the cover of COLORS magazine here, nor the thousands of patients living bleak day-to-day lives in squalid rented rooms, watching daytime TV in between doctors' appointments.

Some people would argue that this dandy-with-consumption image of AIDS candy-coats the truth: he even gets to keep his hair as he dies prettily watching a winter sunset in the arms of his sister, who exclaims how beautiful the light is just as she realizes he has no pulse. However, it's one of the few film or theater pieces about AIDS that I've not only liked watching, but would eagerly watch again (Red Hot + Blue is another). Far too much that has been said about the disease (in the past twenty or so years it's been around) has been freighted with some kind of extraneous message or another: like the disease, talking about it seems to break down all rational discourse in favor of whatever opportunistic culture war axe the speaker has to grind, whether it's the intellectual progressivism,quilts-as artworks, the evils of American culture, racism, homophobia/ heterophobia, the limits of the scientific method, religion and its denial, etc. By sweeping away this excess baggage (certainly you can't call Roy discriminated against or underprivileged, and certainly all that can be done is obviously being done for him) one is confronted with a far more realistic picture. Yes, it's a disease, yes, it's long-term, frustrating to treat, baffling in its cure, and often fatal, but it doesn't necessarily mean God has left his creation: AIDS is preventable, (often) managable, can happen to just about anyone, and being that it's not the end of the world, is a lot less scary than I imagined. This, more than any amount of self-serving polemic, has led to me actually learning about the disease instead of simply dreading, fearing, and denying it, which means a door (whether red or not) seems to have been opened for me, and (I hope) will open for others too.

Good work, Camille.

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