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On Dec. 7, 2003, HBO unveiled the first part of its adaptation of Angels in America. The drama went on to earn 21 Emmy nominations and claimed 11 wins including outstanding miniseries. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Demanding and rewarding and with sweeping themes that more than justify its extraordinary length, Angels in America is transposed from an award-winning work of theater to an artistically ingenious work of television. Adapted by Tony Kushner, the play’s author, directed by an inspired Mike Nichols and performed by an undeniably talented cast, this six-hour production — two years in the making and at a cost of $62 million — is truly a television event.
In the strictest sense, Angels in America is the story of about a half-dozen people in New York in the mid-1980s whose lives are profoundly affected by the epidemic of AIDS. There is Prior (Justin Kirk), who is showing the ravages of his disease, and his lover, Louis (Ben Shenkman), who cannot bear to witness it.
Louis has a clerical job in the same courthouse where Joe (Patrick Wilson) serves as chief clerk to a presiding judge. Joe, as devout a conservative as he is a Mormon, is finding that his prayers and even his marriage to Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) can’t change the fact that he is a homosexual.
Joe’s mentor is Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the infamous red-baiting bully who, it turns out, also has come down with AIDS. For the blustering Cohn, who refuses to identify with other gay men because he sees himself on a higher and more powerful level, this is as much a fight for image as for health.
Other key players include Meryl Streep, who plays Joe’s mother as well as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose controversial capital punishment Cohn considers among his proudest accomplishments. Emma Thompson plays both a nurse and a prophetic and erotic angel. Jeffrey Wright reprises his stage role as Belize, the gay go-between for Prior and Louis, as well as the hospital nurse for Cohn.
Throughout the production, characters interact with one another in unexpected ways and places, not only advancing the story but fleshing out broader themes about life, truth, justice, love, reconciliation and progress. Written nearly two decades ago, the play contains an overarching mystical sense about the approaching millennium but, like all great art, raises more questions than it answers. In the end, there is both hopefulness and also a resignation that God, if not dead, is surely absent.
As remarkable as the play itself is the manner in which Nichols transforms it into a spectacular work of television. He opens scenes but retains a sense of theatrical dialogue. He embellishes special effects but never allows them to supersede the substance of the material. He creates wonderful flights of fantasy even as he keeps one foot firmly planted in reality.
Nichols also is blessed with a virtuoso cast, each of whom creates characters that live and haunt and mesmerize long after the final credits pass. Production credits, without exception, are similarly magnificent, particularly Stephen Goldblatt’s sophisticated cinematography and Stuart Wurtzel’s incredible production design. — Barry Garron, originally published Dec. 5, 2003
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