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To the Max

HBO's Angels in America Will Always Cast a Long Shadow Over Queer TV Shows

Queer politics, the Red Scare, and Roy Cohn are among the many topics Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols explored in their 2003 masterpiece.
  • Al Pacino in Angels in America (Photo: HBO)
    Al Pacino in Angels in America (Photo: HBO)

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    Showtime's Fellow Travelers promises something great: a dive into the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s through the eyes of two gay male politicos traversing the halls of power and falling rather enthusiastically into each other's beds in the process. While the McCarthy era has been dramatized countless times in film and television, comparatively little attention has been afforded to the Lavender Scare, where queer people were hounded out of government job because they were perceived to be security risks. One of the real-life figures who haunts this period in American history is Roy Cohn, the closeted gay Republican and McCarthy loyalist who was an influential figure in Republican politics and an unscrupulous lawyer lining his own pockets until his death from AIDS in 1986. Cohn is played with serpentine self-interest by Will Brill in Fellow Travelers, but any depiction of Roy Cohn for the last 20 years has had to live in the shadow of Al Pacino and Angels in America.

    In 2003, HBO mounted a hugely ambitious adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, which on stage was such a massive undertaking that it existed as two plays, produced one year after the other. The great Mike Nichols directed an all-star cast that included Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Patrick Wilson. And in the role of Roy Cohn, whose final days are imagined as haunted and angry, he cast Al Pacino. Streep, Parker, Wright, and Pacino all won Emmys for their work, as did the miniseries itself, a six-hour masterpiece that was about a great many things, but perhaps most prominently placing the queer experience within the historical and mythological contexts of America and indeed the world.

    That may sound heady, and oftentimes it is, as Angels and humans argue about the virtues of modernity versus stagnation, or as pioneer women come alive in history museums to speak on the violent nature of how human beings change. As Streep herself said in one of HBO's many promotional clips for the series, "It can't be reduced; it's more than just the sum of its parts.”

    Holding a show like Fellow Travelers up to the standard of Angels in America isn't entirely fair. But in their semi-fictionalized vision of Roy Cohn, Kushner and Nichols get at something that Fellow Travelers only glances at. Pacino's Roy Cohn is a creature of politics. At the outself of the miniseries, he wishes he were an octopus, with eight limbs to work all the phones he needs to in a day to exert the influence he likes to exert. Cohn revels in his ability to talk on the phone, get anyone to do what he wants them to do, to get an out-of-town client tickets to Cats (which he despises but thinks they'll fall for) instead of La Cage Aux Folles (which he adores, but of course those queer themes aren't for everyone). Roy thinks he can talk his way out of an AIDS diagnosis.

    Both Fellow Travelers and Angels in America focus on the Red Scare and the AIDS epidemic as two tentpole crises in 20th-century American history. Angels only deals with the Lavender scare implicitly, but Kushner says a lot while it does. Joe Pitt (Wilson) is a closeted Mormon lawyer working for Cohn, who wants to send him on to a job at the Justice Department, in no small part so he can act as a Cohn loyalist within the halls of power. Later, Joe leaves his troubled wife, Harper (Parker) for a firebrand Jewish liberal Louis (Ben Shenkman), a pioneering journey into uncharted terrain. When Louis finds out that Joe is Roy's right-hand man (or as Jeffrey Wright's Belize puts it, his "buttboy"), he erupts in anger and quotes from the very Army-McCarthy hearings that Fellow Travelers focuses much of its plot on. "Have you no decency?" Louis demands of Joe, though he could just as easily be asking Roy.

    In one of Pacino's most demonstrative scenes as Cohn, he tries to manipulate Joe to leave Harper for Washington. While doing so, he boasts about his work in the McCarthy era and claims credit for unethically influencing the judge in the Rosenbergs case — where a married couple were tried and eventually executed for being Soviet spies — to give Ethel Rosenberg a death sentence. "Was it legal? F*ck legal!" Pacino as Cohn thunders, slurring from illness and stroke but animated by pure hatred. "Am I a nice man? F*ck nice! They say terrible things about me in The Nation? F*ck The Nation! You want to be nice, or you want to be effective? You want to make the law or subject to it? Choose."

    In these scenes of Cohn at home, Nichols frames him like a diminished old miser trying to hold on to the clout and influence he wielded his entire life. It's like he thinks if he can brick up all that influence inside his uptown townhouse, he can take it with him. (Kushner and Nichols continue the Dickensian vibe by having Ethel Rosenberg visit him like a ghost of Congressional hearings past.)

    One of the themes in Fellow Travelers that could have been explored more deeply was the ways in which queer people in the 20th century dealt with their oppression. Characters like Cohn and also Matt Bomer's Hawk Fuller saw power as the only way out, and so they fought ruthlessly for their own survival, often at the expense of other queer people. Jonathan Bailey's Tim Laughlin and Jelani Alladin's Marcus Hooks were able to, sooner or later, find strength in solidarity with other members of the queer community.

    In any version of his story, Roy Cohn fell into the former group. Cohn's answer to his own queerness was to amass power and clout which could insulate him from the political and social oppression facing other marginalized people. As a loyalist to people like Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reagan, Cohn dedicated his life to the people who most oppressed people like him. Of course, in Kushner's next, Cohn saw queer people as nothing like him. When he's diagnosed with AIDS, Cohn argues with his doctor that he's instead dying of liver cancer, since AIDS is a disease for homosexuals, and despite his life spent having sex with other men, he's amassed too much political power to be defined by that term. "A homosexual," he explains, "is somebody who, in 15 years of trying cannot get a pissant anit-discrimination bill through the city council. A homosexual is somebody who knows nobody and who nobody knows. Who has zero clout. Does this sound like me?"

    While Cohn is a major character, his isn't the only story that Kushner is telling. Justin Kirk's Prior Walter, dying of AIDS, is visited by an angel (Emma Thompson) who imparts a prophecy and an order that humanity must stop its forward progress or else risk tearing the world apart. Prior's terrified lover, Louis, leaves him only to fall into bed with Joe. Joe's wife, Harper, is abandoned and retreats into her own mind to find the will to start over again. The greatness of Angels in America, both on stage and on screen, is its expansiveness. It's an imagined reckoning for Roy Cohn, but it's also about the politics of the Reagan era, the unimaginable losses of the AIDS crisis, the human drive to move forward, and the wreckage and pain that progress and change (much as we need it) can wreak. It's about how salvation can be found in surrender to and defiance of the angels of religion and history. It's about how politics is a zero-sum game of power that poisons and harms, and yet it's only in the political that the miraculous can occur.

    With the HBO miniseries adaptation, Kushner and Nichols took something that was far-reaching and profound and unwieldy within the shared delusion of a Broadway theater and somehow translated it, angels and all, to our little TV screens without losing its grandeur or poetry. In doing so, they cast a long shadow in which a lot of the queer art of the last two decades has stood. Even prestige dramas like Fellow Travelers unavoidably stand in its shadow, but that's what comes with being a standard bearer.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Angels in America, HBO, Fellow Travelers, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Jonathan Bailey, Justin Kirk, Mary-Louise Parker, Matt Bomer, Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Patrick Wilson, Tony Kushner, Will Brill