Angels in America: Millenium Approaches
: Mike Nichols
: Tony Kushner
(Original Play, Screenplay)
: December, 2003
: Jeffrey Wright, Mary-Louise Parker
, Meryl Streep
, Al Pacino
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was a remarkable theatrical success, and a two-part film was a logical next step in its evolution. Under directorial guidance of Mike Nichols, the film eventually took the shape of an HBO miniseries, gaining critical acclaim and a multitude of awards. Millennium Approaches is the first half of that miniseries. Millennium Approaches is careful, deliberate, and written with a surgeon’s eye for scrutiny, leaving the task of adapting it to film daunting at best. In his effort to do it cinematic justice, Nichols made a number of departures mostly centered on the mechanics of the film, and did so successfully, creating an adaptation of the original work that is just as powerful.
The Effects of a Special Effects Budget:
The 60,000,000 dollar special effects budget played a crucial role in the fundamental shaping of the film. In his stage notes, Kushner made it abundantly clear that he had a specific intent for the presentation of the play’s more fantastical scenes:
The moments of magic — the appearance and disappearance of Mr. Lies and the ghosts, the Book of Hallucination, and the ending — are to be fully realized, as bits of theatrical illusion — which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing. (5)
The emphasis on the word “theatrical” is crucial to an understanding of his intent, which hinges on the clear understanding that, in the theatre, directors simply don’t always have the luxury of making a fully realistic illusion. Producing an angel, for instance, swooping in from the heavens and lazily flapping its wings as it booms down a holy decree, is impossible to do in the same way that one might do in a film. As such, the theatre must accept its visual limitations and strive instead to achieve this effect with the full knowledge that a theatrical audience is more likely to accept a less realistic representation of the angel, compensating through sound, lights, acting, and emotional effect. After all, this play is littered with scenes (i.e. the shared dream sequence), plot points, and characters (Prior’s spectral ancestors, for instance) that aren’t even remotely possible, and if we’re willing to accept the play for what it is and what it’s trying to say, than we have to make ourselves comfortable with the notion of theatrical illusion. Kushner himself describes the set of the play as being “pared-down, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly."
One upshot of the movie’s decision to increase the schematic scale of the text is to increase the feeling of isolation and smallness among the characters. Angels in America is largely concerned with the lives of people who don’t quite fit into their surroundings, be it because they’re Jewish, homosexual, or profoundly unhappy. Harper is a doubting Mormon drug addict, and her scenes are particularly reflective of this. Her mental transportation to Antarctica in the original play leaves much to be imagined, but the film takes us there, planting her in the middle of an unending landscape of snow and ice. The total desolation of Antarctica is visible on the screen instead of the mind’s eye, and there’s a great deal to be said for this. The dream/hallucination scene is equally impressive, breathtaking in its cinematic beauty: Harper somehow shares a drug-induced dream with Prior, engaging in a conversation in a room filled with moving statues and lush curtains. The mixture of vivid colors and black and white is truly striking, and the moving statues create an atmosphere of fantasy. When we take these instances of her mental escape alongside that which she’s escaping from, her home, the scenes within her apartment take on a new gravity as well. The apartment feels dull and cramped, half-painted with bland colors, some of the furniture draped in plastic, keeping everything sterile and impersonal.
Her first scene with Joe (her closeted husband) takes place primarily in the kitchen, and as they’re having an awkward conversation about Joe’s job offer, the simple act of preparing dinner is falling apart around them — each drops multiple items, and throughout the scene one or both are bending over to pick up a dropped pot or bag of food. It’s an entirely different brand of isolation. On the stage, the characters exist in a minimalist reality, stumbling through their complicated lives without a great deal of visual scenery, highlighting their general lack of place in the world. On the screen, however, their same effect is gained through interweaving cramped spaces with those generated impressively by the intimidating special effects budget.
Differences in Transitions and the Loss of the Split-Scene Technique:
Nichols’s directorial departures do not end here, however. Kushner’s play often calls for a split-scene effect on stage, in which the two halves of the stage show different events and conversations in progress. This naturally invites comparison between the two events taking place and sets up the relationship dynamics of the characters in the play. In Part 1, Scene 8, for instance, Harper and Joe have a conversation at home while Prior and Louis do the same thing, both touching on similar themes — intimacy is fading fast as their differences become more concrete, and things fall apart as Joe and Louis desire more and more to abandon their partners. In the film, this split scene idea is abandoned, and Nichols attempts to achieve the same effect by simply cutting back and forth between the two scenes. At times, this undercuts the end result, as with the scene mentioned; the transitions are nothing new and don’t occur altogether quickly, so there’s nothing to draw attention to the inter-relational parallels.
In other moments, however, the opposite is true, as in Louis’s scene with Belize at the diner. Louis is clearly frustrated, ranting on the nature of freedom in America, and when he utters that “underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred,” (90) we understand that while he may be talking about America at large, he’s also talking about himself and his desire to pack up and run from his partner, Prior. This is as good as a confessional, and as he’s delivering his diatribe the audience is given scenes of Prior (who has been diagnosed with AIDS) at an outpatient clinic with his nurse, undergoing a routine physical exam that is humiliating and cold. This is what Louis wants to be free from, and in this scene Prior is left naked and vulnerable, the lesions on his pale body fully exposed. We are instantly and painfully acquainted with the true physical torture of AIDS, and while a part of us wants to shrink back from it, understanding how Louis would want to hide himself from this reality, another part of us is deeply sympathetic to Prior’s feeling of abandonment. This conflict of emotion is key in that it’s central to the characters of both Louis himself and Joe, who wants just as badly to leave Harper behind and join the world that Roy represents (one of power and, more importantly, indulgence).
In upping the visual stakes of the film, Nichols ran the risk of detracting from the tension created by the actors, but the talent involved eloquently sidestepped this danger. Regardless of the flash of special effects and the visual impressiveness of the film, the film’s driving power is always the characters. They are perhaps most easily understood in terms of their relationships. Harper and Prior (played by Mary-Louise Parker and Justin Kirk) are both so destitute as to be an unbearable emotional strain on those that they live with, though their positions are not necessarily of their own doing. It’s easy to sympathize with both, who remain charming and often witty (especially Prior) in light of their overwhelming unhappiness. It’s unsurprising that the only scene in which they meet is somehow warm and comforting, as if they’ve known each other forever, brought together by their shared existential dilemma.
Louis and Joe (Ben Shenkman and Patrick Wilson), on the other hand, seem even more tortured, defined almost entirely by their guilt. Both put up dignified fronts in an effort to face the world, but both crumble, and despite the fact that their problems are not as obvious as AIDS or drug addiction, they seem more consistently emotionally pained than any other characters. As such, it’s no surprise that they too find each other in the end, after both have abandoned their partners.
Al Pacino as Roy Cohn is a riveting contrast, another gay man with AIDS who is determined to cope with it simply through ignoring it. He won’t even acknowledge the truth of what he is, claiming that he is a “straight man that fucks around with guys,” and his personality is abrasive and aggressive. Unsurprisingly, his performance is commanding in the grandest sense, and the scene in which he berrates his personal doctor for urging him to acknowledge the seriousness of his sickness is one of the most captivating in the film.
Meryl Streep plays both Joe’s mother (Hannah) and an aging rabbi, a deliberate choice on Kushner’s part most likely intended to offer a juxtaposition of two different characters both representative of the older generation. Hannah initially ignores Joe, brushing off his confessional phone call (in which he comes out to her) as drunken rambling, but immediately packs her things and heads for New York. She shows surprising resolve in her conversation with a homeless person, grappling with this person’s stubbornness in an effort to get on her way, and here Streep plays both characters, in effect arguing with herself. The Rabbi is so well acted and costumed as to be completely unrecognizable as Streep, though he too takes on a supportive role, in Louis’s life rather than Joe’s. Since the two are connected through similar experiences, it’s appropriate that the older characters that influence their lives be connected in some way, in this case through Streep’s brilliant performance.
In the end, the film manages to translate the play’s original intents and themes with great success, integrating changes that made the text more appropriate for the film medium. The film creates a radically different experience, larger than life as opposed to minimalist and focused solely on the characters, but the same message of change and displacement is nonetheless left intact.
Angels in America. Dir. Mike Nichols. HBO, 2003.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. New York: TCG, 1992.