Angels in America
(this summary is from Literature, Art and Medicine Database page on AIA)
Angels in America is really two full-length plays. Part I: Millennium Approaches won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This play explores "the state of the nation"--the sexual, racial, religious, political and social issues confronting the country during the Reagan years, as the AIDS epidemic spreads.
Two of the main characters have AIDS. One, Prior, is a sane, likeable man who wonders if he is crazy as he is visited by ghosts of his ancestors, and selected by angels to be a prophet (but the audience sees the ghosts and angels too). The other main character, Roy Cohn, based on the real political figure, is a hateful powerbroker who refuses the diagnosis of AIDS because only powerless people get that sickness.
A rabbi opens the play, saying that in the American "melting pot" nothing melts; three Mormons try to reconcile their faith with the facts of their lives. Belize, an African-American gay nurse, is the most compassionate and decent person in the play, along with Hannah, the Mormon mother who comes to New York to try to untangle the mess of her son and daughter-in-law's marriage. In contrast to their commitment, Prior's lover, Louis, abandons him in cowardly fear of illness. The play portrays a wide range of reactions to illness, both by the patients and by those around them. Included is the realization that much of the nation's reaction is political and prejudiced.
The second play, Part II: Perestroika (winner of a Tony Award), continues the story, with the angel explaining to Prior that God has abandoned his creation, and that Prior has been chosen to somehow stop progress and return the world to the "good old days." Prior tells the angel he is not a prophet; he's a lonely, sick man. "I'm tired to death of being tortured by some mixed-up, irresponsible angel. . . Leave me alone."
Ironically, Belize is Roy Cohn's nurse, as Cohn--even as he is dying in his hospital bed--tries to manipulate the system to get medication and special treatment, and to trick the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg into singing him a lullaby. Meanwhile, the Mormon mother, Hannah, manages to help save the sanity and integrity of her daughter-in-law, Harper; and she also is a good caregiver for Prior.
At the end of the play, we see Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah sitting on the rim of the fountain in Central Park with the statue of the Bethesda angel. They say that when the Millennium came, everyone who was "suffering, in the body or the spirit, [and] walked through the waters of the fountain of Bethesda, would be healed, washed clean of pain."
These four characters represent Jews and Christians and agnostics; homosexuals and heterosexuals; blacks and whites; men and women; caregivers and patients; two generations--the American mix, in this case, caring about each other. Somehow, although the real angels in this play seem inept and reactionary, these folks together at the Bethesda angel fountain seem competent contributors to the future.
Writing credits (WGA)
Tony Kushner (play)
Tony Kushner (teleplay)
Cast Al Pacino .... Roy Cohn Meryl Streep .... The Rabbi/Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg/The Angel Australia Emma Thompson .... The Angel of America/Nurse Emily/Homeless Woman Justin Kirk .... Prior Walter/The Man in the Park Ben Shenkman .... Louis Ironson/The Angel Europa Mary-Louise Parker .... Harper Pitt Jeffrey Wright .... Belize/Mr. Lies/The Angel Antarctica Patrick Wilson .... Joe Pitt James Cromwell .... Henry Michael Gambon .... Prior Walter Ancestor #1 Simon Callow .... Prior Walter Ancestor #2 Brian Markinson .... Martin Heller Robin Weigert .... Mormon Mother Kevin 'Flotilla DeBarge' Joseph .... Singer in Church (as Flotilla De Barge) Florence Kastriner .... Louis's Mother written by Tony Kushner directed by Mike Nichols (more)
You are Visitor No:
photo by Stephen Goldblatt
Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003 (lots of interviews with cast)
Associated Press, `Angels in America,' `Dirty Pretty Things' win Humanitas Prizes
Fox News, Reagans: First CBS, Now HBO Movie Skewers Them (actually a positive review for the most part)
International Herald Tribune, DEATH AND HYPOCRISY IN THE REAGAN ERA, Frank Rich, November 15, 2003
Jewish Journal, A KUSHNER SERIES THAT WILL OFFEND ALL, by Sally Ogle Davis, Contributing Writer
It's actually a positive review despite it's title. Also has a picture with Al and Meryl Streep
Newsweek, CITY OF ANGELS, by David Ansen and Marc Peyser
NY Daily News, At long last, Pacino makes TV scene, by David Bianculli, July 13, 2003
Playbill Online, Tony Kushner's Angels in America To Debut on HBO in December, by Ernio Hernandez, May 20, 2003
SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY, by Hugh Hart
"Angels in America" is one of the most dazzling movies ever made for television or any other means of projecting a film, but it dazzles the mind as well as the eye. You emerge from it as its characters do -- battered, maybe, shocked and frightened, but also rewarded, moved, cleansed and emboldened. TV Preview, HBO'S 'ANGELS': GLORY BE!, Adaptation of Tony Kushner Play Soars With Visual, Emotional Splendor, by Tom Shales, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, November 30, 2003; Page N01
The Observer's John Heilpern: "...a bold and magnificent achievement that deserves to be seen by everyone."
The Daily News' David Bianculli: "HBO Films...has delivered a masterpiece."
John Leonard: "...not only the best television of the year but, hands down, the best movie, period."
"The accomplishment of this dazzling, poetic and hopeful Angels in America is that it shows us how brave and reckless that American sentiment is, how fearsome and splendid." Time's James Ponziewok:
"Angels" is highly entertaining — closer to "Nicholas Nickleby" than "Einstein on the Beach." NY Times's Alessandra Stanley:
"Fully capturing the grandeur, extravagance, urgency, poetry and humor of the produced play, the savvy veteran director [Nichols]has brought out an elemental dimension of emotional melodrama that makes the piece compulsive screen fare without subtracting one bit from its status as great theater." Variety's Todd McCarthy:
There is much, much more to "Angels" than politics, which is why it is so gripping. Were it a didactic ideological piece, it would be deadly. But Mr. Kushner's story is built on characters, gay and straight alike, who fight timeless battles over love and betrayal even as they struggle with the meaning of faith, family and America itself at an apocalyptic moment in the life of their nation. In the nearly dozen years since the play's premiere, its captivating interweaving of fever dreams with domestic drama, of humor with death, has become a calling card for adventurous TV, including HBO's "Six Feet Under" and "Carnivŕle" as well as "The Sopranos." And if anything, Mr. Kushner's writing has gained in pathos with age. What he has to say about coping with unfathomable loss and the terror inflicted by covert, death-dealing cells at the end of the last millennium speaks to us more urgently than ever in the new one ushered in by 9/11. If you blink, you may miss the World Trade Center when it peeks out of the clouds in the background of a shot, but its shadow is always there, hovering in the film's vivid downtown New York, roiling the viewer's heart. New York Times, ANGELS, REAGAN AND AIDS IN AMERICA, by Frank Rich, Published: November 16, 2003
(at the site you have to register but it's free. )
Within Angels lurks that great work about America itself, one that could well speak to the heartland, a work about migrations and revelations and about the essential tragedy of American and possibly even human experience, in which one person's liberation —now more than before—often means another's suffering. But the play as we have it is a more limited affair, one meant to reassure not the heartland but the marginal groups whom the play cozily addresses. What, in the end, can the "heartland" be expected to make of the play's real message: that those who come from it are unforgiven, and unforgivable by those of us who reside on the coasts? Still, the fanfares are loud. Not for the first time, in the case of angels, will the messenger have outdazzled the message. New York Review of Books, WINGED MESSAGES, by Daniel Mendelsohn, Feb 12, 2004
QUOTES ABOUT THE FILM
MIKE NICHOLS (DIRECTOR)
"HBO was fantastic, but even perfect HBO has the occasional accountant person who goes, 'Now wait a minute, how can you blah blah blah?' And I would say, 'Calm down, do you understand this is three movies? Three movies at the same time!'
"At those moments I would realize it was immense, but also to some extent I was bulls -- because it really is one movie, and of course the big secret was, although I complained steadily through the two years that I worked on it, I loved every minute. It was a great work with great actors, and we felt like we were hitting on all cylinders." SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY by Hugh Hart
"It's almost like translating a poem. If you're too literal, it's neither what the poet meant nor is it a poem. It's just some words that really don't make a whole lot of sense." SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY by Hugh Hart
"In a movie, people love words, even if they don't know it," Nichols says.
"When you say, 'I love "All About Eve," ' you're really saying 'I love language in movies.' It's just that the language is burned up in laughter, so you don't experience it as language. There's a whole list of things that aren't language. A fight isn't language. A joke isn't language. A seduction isn't language. A negotiation isn't language. Anything really happening burns up the language, and this play is filled with such events.
"So I was crazy about the language and I wanted it, but at a certain point in a movie there's a sort of meter that clicks in your head and you stop listening. It's not that Tony fought me at all. He loved the process as much as I did. We just looked to see where it could be cut down, which scenes would be more effective shorter, what scenes would be more effective not speaking." SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY by Hugh Hart
"At our first luncheon together, I told Tony I'd like to keep the doubling [an actor playing more than one role] in the movie, and he said, 'Oh, this is the guy to do this piece' because nobody had ever wanted that. But to me, it seems so much a part of what 'Angels in America' is about. It's important that the same actor play Prior and also the Leather Man with whom Louis punishes himself for walking out on Prior. It's crucial that the woman who plays Emily the nurse becomes the Angel because for those who think that the whole thing is a dream, Prior made the Angel out of Emily. There are real connections." SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY by Hugh Hart
"If ever there was a villain, it was Roy Cohn. Yet written with such breadth -- he's so human, so charming, so funny, so endlessly interesting, as the devil is. And then it gets more complicated because as he's disintegrating in the hospital, even as he's babbling and drooling, literally, Cohn is still charming in his lunacy. Al did what I think an actor's main job is, and just made a brilliant case for his character." SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY by Hugh Hart
"We had this very long table read but it was f -- exhilarating.You prepare your ass off and you steep yourself in the verities of the piece you're doing, and you work with the actors and you name things. Naming things is crucial. What's happening in this scene? What is he doing? What is she doing in response to what he's doing? What is our shorthand for that? Is it bargaining? Is it, 'Don't tell me, I don't want to know?' Then we name it, let's say, 'I don't want to know.' Sitting at that table and asking and answering, tentatively, questions, and doing the scene again, with a new idea about what it really is about and what's really happening -- that was the foundation upon which we built the whole movie." SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY by Hugh Hart
"I never really held to the auteur stuff that those French guys with the cigarette ashes all over them came up with, but the thing I do agree with them about is that there are literally millions of decisions to be made in a movie. You say, 'No, not that cup, this cup,' 'not that wristwatch, this wristwatch,' 'not that amphitheater, this amphitheater,' 'not that country, this country.' You say, 'Let's go to Rome, I don't want to go to San Francisco.' You say, 'I don't want any amphitheater. I want Hadrian's Villa.' All these decisions must be made by one person, and that's the director. Because if I get something exactly right, detail by detail, even though it didn't happen to you, you will remember it." SFGate.com, AWED BY ARTISTRY by Hugh Hart
AL PACINO (ROY COHN)
"I've never done television. I guess it was a natural thing for me to go from movies to the theater. ... You look at the scripts that come to you, the scripts that either you get or a friend of yours or someone tells you about. That's how it is." NY Daily News, At long last, Pacino makes TV scene, by David Bianculli, July 13, 2003
Pacino has considered television roles in the past, though he never made the jump. He thought about playing Hitler in the 1981 telemovie "The Bunker," a role eventually played by Anthony Hopkins.
"I was given the script and it was one of the best things I ever read. I remember at the time - this is over 20 years ago - my agent saying, 'You don't want to do that right now.' And I said, 'Really?'
"I would love to do television. If the material is there, you go with the glow, you know?" NY Daily News, At long last, Pacino makes TV scene, by David Bianculli, July 13, 2003
MERYL STREEP (Rabbi / Hannah Pitt / Ethel Rosenberg / Angel Australia)
(about her roles as a Mormon, a rabbi, you play a ''Celestial Principality,'' and Ethel Rosenberg)
MS: They were all aspects of me.
EW: What aspect was the rabbi?
MS: My father. Didn't realize this until I saw it. My father was there, and I didn't even know I was doing it. I wasn't really thinking about much. I didn't prepare a great deal. I did go to Williamsburg [Brooklyn] and had some kreplach -- you know, ''to prepare.''
Entertainment Weekly, VETERANS PLAY, by Jeff Jensen, November 28, 2003
I did look at Roy Cohn films, knowing it wasn't going to help me that much. But it still gave me something to focus on. For me, I love the whole idea of sitting with something for a period of time absorbing it. Just being alone with a role, living with it, thinking about it. Entertainment Weekly, VETERANS PLAY, by Jeff Jensen, November 28, 2003
We love characters like Roy Cohn. Richard III. Hannibal Lecter. We love the monsters because you're entertained by them and you imagine that they're not like you -- but that's the thing that really pulls you in. There is a connection. Revenge. It's a great thing to get, isn't it? And Roy can do it. He can pick up a phone and get revenge on anyone. And you wish you could do that. Entertainment Weekly, VETERANS PLAY, by Jeff Jensen, November 28, 2003
You begin the film as an ancient male rabbi. Soon afterward, you sit next to Tony Kushner, also dressed as a rabbi. You two seem deep in discussion. What were you actually talking about?
I think Tony and I were discussing our mutual friend Maurice Sendak, writer, illustrator, teacher, artist, and scenic designer, who plays the third rabbi on the bench in that scene.… We’d spent that morning in our rabbi suits, reading the paper and discussing events; we snacked, we joked and talked politics. I guess I was happy for the opportunity to try out my scrabbly voice before shooting. Anyway, in this picture Tony is telling me that after lunch Maurice had leaned over and asked, “When is Meryl Streep going to show up? I thought she would be on the set today”—and a few minutes after this photo was taken, Tony walked him some distance away and told him who the other old guy was. Maurice was, how do you say, gob-smacked: “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” and I was tickled…I felt better too, because actually he had been kind of distant from me all morning, nice but reserved, and my feelings had been a teeny bit hurt…ha! Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
You’ve had a long, good collaboration with Mike Nichols. How has he changed as a director between 1983’s Silkwood and today?
Mike is more relaxed and confident and just as delicious and inventive as he ever was. He lacerates you with the bons mots; he levels you with his wit and makes you feel omnipotent with the freedom he gives you. He’s incapable of earnestness and of saying anything that isn’t funny, deeply funny; even and especially criticism, for which he saves his best material. When you’re laughing it all goes in easier. And I don’t know any other director on earth who would’ve immediately and without reservation asked me to do these characters and then left it entirely up to me as to how they’d look, act, talk. He trusted me, and it’s that confidence in his actors that makes people want to work with him again and again and again. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
How have you changed as an actor?
Fifteen pounds. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Many of us have wanted to kiss Emma Thompson in midair. Could you describe the experience of actually shooting this scene?
Emma was sporting a really nasty truss in this film, which she wore on and off for about a year. It wasn’t for the hernia; it enabled her to fly, with a sensation she compared to the last stages of labor. I only had to wear it on the one day, and I feel it mitigated against the transcendent sexual experience depicted. I remember it was hard to kiss midair and not break each other’s front teeth. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Angels in America, the play, challenged a nation deep in conflict over how to deal with its gay and lesbian citizens. America is still embroiled in that conflict. In this adaptation, what do you want to communicate to the TV audience?
I hope this helps us explain ourselves to ourselves. Having said that, I just think it’s an amazingly ambitious piece that people will undoubtedly argue about, love, be scandalized by, and be riveted to. Can you end a sentence in a preposition? Am I in trouble? Am I trouble in? Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
EMMA THOMPSON (The Angel of America / Nurse Emily / Homeless Woman)
Shooting your flying scenes as the Angel: How’d you do that?
Well, with a great deal of assistance, obviously. I mean, I did try flying on my own, but it didn’t work. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Your actual flying position—have you noticed that everybody flies with one toe pointed and the other knee up? It seems to be accepted flying technique.
I don’t know about that; I don’t think I’ve seen that many other people flying. It’s Peter Pan–ish, isn’t it? I just took the position that seemed right—to show that your legs are there, I guess it is. But it was the most fantastic experience, because I was very high up. Really seriously high up. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
I can imagine, but tell me why [you don't watch rushes].
Because if you see something that you don’t like, you try and correct it, and it makes you very self-conscious. If you see something you do like, you try and repeat it, but you can’t repeat it, because it was something decent, which is unconscious. All the good things are unconscious. So it’s just a disaster. A disaster. If you’re trying to control yourself from the outside in, how are you going to be portraying genuine feeling, which happens from the inside out? Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
It’s been said that it’s kind of a disadvantage to be extremely intelligent and be an actor—because of the sort of interplay between superego and instinct. Is that true for you?
No, no, I always advise young actors to develop their minds. Because the fact is that on film particularly, but certainly onstage as well, what the audience feels when you come onstage is often to do with your character, and your character is built through each and every action of every day. And the more intelligence you have to guide yourself through the building of your character and your personality— You may be asked to play an intellectual. You may be asked to play Mother Courage. What’re you going to do if you’ve just spent 20 years scratching your ass? Forget it! Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Had you read Angels in America before?
No, I never had. It wasn’t, obviously, as huge a kind of cultural event [in the United Kingdom] as it was in New York. I hadn’t read it or seen it, which in many way protected me from what the boys labored under, which was that dreadful responsibility toward an iconic role. I didn’t worry about that, I just fretted about the usual things, like, does my bum look big in this? Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
What significance will it have in the United Kingdom? Does Angels matter there?
It doesn’t matter in the same way, except for the artistic community. The embattled—and not helped at all by the media or the government—community that we like to call the artistic community in this country. This is not a good place to be an artist, I don’t think.
Funny. I thought maybe it was a better place for artists than the United States at this point.
I suppose that is a bit of a sweeping generalization. Many artists would say, well, it is a good place because you don’t get any sort of false sense of who you might be—
Would you elaborate?
Well, you’re not allowed to feel that you matter at all, really.
That’s certainly my experience. I love my country and I love living here, but you certainly are made to feel in no uncertain terms that you’re not remotely important to your country, in terms of the press, and—no, no, no. There’s none of that. It doesn’t exist here in the same way as it does in Europe—where, you know, in Italy and in France, artists are…what shall we say? They’re--
Well, I don’t know about that, but they’re certainly valued. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
I don’t really know how much time you’ve spent in America. Do you have things you want to communicate specifically to the American audience at this point?
With this piece, what you want to be communicated is a sense of how complex and difficult and ultimately rewarding it is if you take the time, and make the effort, to be a fully evolved human being. And that is not about getting up and going to work in the morning. It’s not about paying your mortgage and it’s not even about feeding your children. It’s about looking slightly further than that and trying to understand others. Even one other will do. In fact that’s the most difficult thing of all. As Evelyn Waugh said, to love one other person is the root of all wisdom. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Ben Shenkman (Louis Ironson/The Angel Europa)
Whatever problem comes his way, Louis tries to talk it into submission. Did he frustrate you?
One of the things that doing the play taught me was how much I could trust people to empathize with that character no matter how ugly it felt to be him. [They empathize] because I think Tony [Kushner] writes in that zone where he isn’t selling his characters to his audience. He’s just telling the truth in a really big way about a lot of things. And people just like that, even if it’s ugly. Louis is about being at your worst, and everyone on some level understands what being at your worst is like.… Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
What was it like playing love scenes with the gorgeous Patrick Wilson?
[Laughs] Everyone in the movie’s good-looking. It was pretty hard to share the frame with a lot of these people and feel OK about it, including Justin [Kirk]. He doesn’t photograph too badly! Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
The Joe Pitt character is so lovable, so unaware of all the negative things he is—Tony Kushner really makes his callousness go down easily.
Because it’s effortless for him. He isn’t kidding himself. He really is blind to that stuff. And you’re right, Tony’s compassionate about how he shows that. He doesn’t shrink from saying how messed up that is, but he doesn’t manipulate it so that it’s about making somebody consciously deceptive or devious. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Does Louis ever see Joe again?
No, I don’t think so. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Patrick Wilson (Joe Pitt)
You’ve been best known for singing, dancing, and acting in musical comedy. So how did you get the part of Joe Pitt?
When Mike Nichols came and saw Full Monty and called me in, I didn’t know if they were casting Angels or not. But at that point in your career, you don’t expect to get parts like that.… When I went in to meet with Mike and Tony Kushner, I didn’t expect anything. I hate auditioning, always have. I really felt pretty comfortable because—this is the honest truth—I didn’t expect a part like this would roll my way. I just didn’t.
It was a lark.
Yeah. I get to meet Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner, and I get the best audition material ever written. As soon as I was finished, Mike said, “Do you want to do this?”
They just offered it to you right there?
I said, “Absolutely. But I am getting ready to do Oklahoma!” I told Mike. He said, “We’ll work around your schedule; let me worry about that.” Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
Did you find it really hard to do both the film and the play at once?
It wasn’t easy. First of all, Oklahoma! was a much harder show physically than I’d ever, ever imagined it would be. If nothing else, swinging a girl around your shoulder eight times a week, just chiropractically—it’s dumb to make that an adverb—but it’s just hard on your body. If you’re in the middle of a scene and you’ve got to go to a night shoot, you don’t want to be thinking about your Joe Pitt lines as you’re saying Curly’s. It’s kind of easy to joke about. But those are the moments when somebody gets hurt, when you zone out for a second. Advocate, FACES OF ANGELS, December 9, 2003
cast INTERVIEW excerpts from: (Newsweek, CITY OF ANGELS, by David Ansen and Marc Peyser)
NW: Mike, you’ve said that you wrote down your dream cast when you decided to do this movie.
Mike Nichols: This certainly was it. There was no one that any part was offered to that we didn’t get. That was a nice start.
Thompson: It’s nice not to be the 35th person on the list as well. That’s quite rare.
Nichols: As an actress once said to me, “Thank you so much for my part. Usually five or six people have to die before I get cast.” [Laughter] But in this case it was obviously a piece that everybody knew and loved. They’re great, great parts. And I think actors also sometimes like to do things for too little money.
Streep: Oh? Do you think so? [Laughter]
Nichols: Because it feels like art.
NW: Tony, a lot has changed since “Angels” first appeared. Here was a play about the ’80s that came out in the ’90s, and now we’re 10 years further along. One of the things that made the play of its moment was that it was about gay liberation, and now it’s showing next to “Queer Eye on the Straight Guy.”
Tony Kushner: For the straight guy ...
NW: What did I say?
Kushner: On the straight guy ... Well, that happens, too.
NW: What does that do to the play? What’s changed for you?
Kushner: Well, I mean, of course, the world has changed enormously since the play was written, and thank God. But I was scared about that in terms of the film. I thought, “Is it just going to be very old hat?” But the way Mike has made it, it doesn’t insist that you go back into the period by shoving it at you. “This was back then, when things were like this.” It simply uses the basic tool of drama, which is empathy and compassion, and says, “This kind of suffering was the consequence of this kind of oppression.” After all, you can immediately sympathize with what Nora is going through in “A Doll’s House.” You don’t need to be in a pre-feminist era. You get it because the play makes you get it.
NW: In your film, I was startled at the scene in Brooklyn where Mary-Louise Parker is on the roof and you show the World Trade Center.
Nichols: Well, it’s correct for the era.
NW: But kind of gutsy. Don’t forget, people were editing images of the Towers out of movies and TV shows after September 11.
Kirk: That didn’t last for long, though.
NW: But you didn’t have to create that image.
Nichols: It seemed important to me that it was there then and it’s not there now. And that’s part of the way in which we’re looking at this film. What was there then, what’s not there now. What is there now that wasn’t.
Kushner: One thing that sort of produced the play in the first place was a feeling of Apocalypse, which is now very much with us.
Streep: I wanted to ask you, Mike: what made you think this could work? I thought the play was amazing and in its time and place it just sort of radiated heat. But it was a theatrical experience I thought could never, ever be achieved in any other medium. It’s such an act of bravery and of recklessness—sort of a young man’s challenge, you know. Not that you’re not young in every sense, in your mind and in your outlook, but I’m in awe of that starting place that says, “Yes, I think I can do that.”
Nichols: It’s not entirely different from how you feel reading a play or film script for a part. There are instinctive responses. Something in you begins to stir when you read certain portions of things. And then there’s the experience I think we all had that brought us so wonderfully together and became the tone of every day’s work, which was: “There’s too much to understand.” You could never, I could never, understand all six-and-a-half hours, you know, in time to shoot it. I mean, I’m not that kind of scholar. And we’re still arguing what the play is about. On the way to the premiere last night, my wife [Diane Sawyer] said, “You keep talking about what it’s about, but only I know what it’s about.” I said, “OK, if you’re so smart, what is it about?” She said, “Being Jewish.”
Kushner: Seeing it last night, I realized it’s completely a film. The language is not in any way naturalistic—it’s very large; it’s written for the stage. But it’s so completely effortless how that trip from a stage play to the film was made.
Streep: It makes me think we’re not ambitious enough on film.
Pacino: We’re caught in that naturalistic language thing.
Thompson: We’re actors, you know. The point is not to be just like everybody else. One is to give a performance, and that’s what’s so glorious about this opportunity.
NW: Why did you have actors play multiple parts, as they did on the stage?
Kushner: The first time that Mike and I met, we had lunch to talk about this. And the very first thing he said was, “I want to do the doubling.” It never occurred to me that anybody would do that. And I immediately thought, “OK, this is the person that should make this.” It’s celebrating the artificiality of the event, and it’s scary for people in film to do that. You know it’s Emma again, in another role. You know it’s Meryl as another person.
Nichols: Something happened in America quite a while ago—far less in England—it’s the idea that acting is feeling, which is such nonsense and so useless and leads us into a corner of unintelligible people muttering.
NW: It’s the ultimate perversion of Lee Strasberg and the Method.
Nichols: That’s right. It is a perversion.
NW: When I started to watch the show, the old rabbi came on and I thought, “Onstage this part was played by a woman.” I couldn’t figure out who this terrific old guy was. Only at the end when the credits came on did I realize it was Meryl
Streep: That’s good.
Kirk: All the extras that day, the same thing. They knew Meryl was in the movie, and as she took off her costume, they were all buzzing.
NW: Have you played a Jewish character like that before?
Streep: Oh, Nora Ephron [in “Heartburn”]. She was very high-church Jewish. [Laughter]
Nichols: You know, when it comes to Meryl’s curtain call, where it shows all the characters she played, I wanted to throw in the black woman singing the gospel song. [Laughter] And then say, just kidding.
NW: Emma, was it intimidating to do all those characters in front of the queen of accents?
NW: You don’t like to be thought of that way?
Streep: [Even more wearily] It’s OK.
NW: You hate it.
Streep: Yes. It’s like saying, “I really like you because of your feet.”
Nichols: That’s a very good simile.
Streep: It’s just, it’s so—I mean nobody means to be insulting but ... it is. I mean, if I only played people from New Jersey, it would be such a limited career. [Laughter] But it would be honest.
Laurence Olivier could never really do a good American accent.
Nichols: Or a Jewish accent, God help us.
That whole generation of English actors couldn’t do American. But they didn’t grow up with television.
Thompson: That’s exactly it. My mom and dad both went to theater school, always expecting to do Shakespeare. They were required to do three accents at drama school. RP—you know, Received Pronunciation—a country accent and then maybe Irish or Scottish. You know, that’s all you needed. Now you practically have to know the f—ing U.S. postal district.
NW: Al, we’ve heard that when Robert Altman was planning to make a movie of “Angels” years ago, your name was mentioned to play Roy Cohn even then.
Pacino: Yeah, Altman contacted me.
NW: Did you see Ron Leibman play Cohn on Broadway?
Pacino: I saw Ron and I saw F. Murray Abraham. I remember the effect they had on me, but fortunately I saw it a long enough time ago. There’s something about seeing someone do something that you’re going to play that gives it—it’s almost a model. I did “American Buffalo” that way. I did “Pavlo Hummel” that way. It’s almost like, “Somebody did it, so therefore it can be done.” It sanctions it for you. And even though you don’t copy the model of it, it gives you a kind of confidence that at least it can be done and done really well, so you’ve got something to go for.
NW: Meryl, you’ve worked with so many great actors in your career. What was it like to work with Al as compared to Dustin Hoffman or Bob De Niro?
Streep: Same. The same. They’re all alike. [Laughter] It was great. We’ve known each other for 30 years and I’d never worked with him.
NW: Why? Were you avoiding each other?
Pacino: She doesn’t work that much.
Streep: His leading ladies are much younger. I’m kidding.
NW: Justin, what was it like not to work with Al Pacino? You have no scenes together.
Kirk: It’s like a horrible joke. You get to do a movie with Al Pacino and never work with him.
NW: Al, do you think you made Roy sympathetic?
Pacino: I don’t think you set out to do that. I think it’s innate in the characterization that Tony has made. It’s impossible to do that character without getting to the humanity of it. He’s already done that work, and so it’s up to you to sort of find it in yourself and follow his lead.
Thompson: You know, what he made me think of when I first read the play was Satan in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” That’s who he is. And you’re so fascinated by Satan, he’s the best character.
Pacino: I played him once [in “The Devil’s Advocate”].
Nichols: I thought it worked. I quite liked it.
Pacino: As a matter of fact, I did read Milton when I was playing that part. It was very helpful.
Thompson: It’s amazing, isn’t it? I haven’t read it for a long, long time, but my God, that’s sort of who he is.
Kushner: But the great trap is that when you fall in love with the Devil you’re recapitulating the fall of the human race. That’s why we fall.
Thompson: And that’s the point. It’s so fascinating. You desperately want to be with him.
Nichols: There is something to be said for the idea that one of the actor’s main jobs is to make the best possible case for the character. Al does that playing a villainous person.
Streep: I always loved that idea—defending a character from the judgments that are made right off the bat. We certainly did with Hannah, the Mormon mother who’s lost in New York. You make a decision about this character that maybe she’s someone who’s ignorable. In an airport you see millions of these ladies in mauve coats with white hair and features that sort of blend into their clothing. They’re like walking errata. They’re lost, you can’t find them, and you wouldn’t be interested in them. But Tony’s interested in Hannah and the possibility of her, the size of her journey. And this one [points to Pacino]. I mean, you took this character who is so reprehensible, and... even I was touched.
Streep: No. [Laughter]
Nichols: The first time I ever saw Meryl was in a play called “Taken in Marriage.” It was about the reunion of some women in a small theater, which is where we were. And there were these people onstage, some women acting quite well and speaking a not-very-interesting text. And out came this person who clearly, it seemed, had been allowed to invent her own dialogue. And she said whatever came into her head while the other people were all stuck with the text. That’s the difference. It was as if she was improvising. The accents are great, but as you say, they’re beautiful feet.
NW: Emma, how do you play an angel? There’s not a lot of precedent.
Thompson: No, you just have to let your imagination run riot, don’t you?
Pacino: She’s the sexiest angel I ever saw.
Thompson: It’s my Farrah Fawcett angel.
NW: Did you have any control over that hairstyle?
Thompson: Yeah. I looked at pictures of angels, and then I remembered that I had received a Christmas card from Elton John. With an angel on it.
Nichols: What an inspiration.
Thompson: I thought a Christmas card of an angel from, you know, the Queen of England, basically. It was one of those wonderful little Renaissance angels with wispy hair. And Mike, you wanted a proper angel.
NW: This is a very sexual angel. You get to seduce both Justin and Meryl.
Thompson: The sex! It was just such a wonderful thing to play. It’s a kind of sexuality that’s like fire. Because I think that part of the play is fantastically erotic.
NW: This is the first time you’ve acted with Meryl and you get to have a cosmic orgasm together. In midair.
Thompson: Our breastbones were literally tied together; there were like six inches between us. And our glasses knocked as we put them on to look at the monitor. We were shrieking with hysteria.
NW: We’ve been talking about this as a film, when in fact it’s a television show.
Thompson: It’s not, precisely.
Nichols: Well, it’s a film on television. What is a television show? It’s something with a host.
NW: There are some shots that you would rarely see on TV, like that long, wild tracking shot that goes from inside an elegant bar where Roy Cohn is putting the make on a guy, through the window across the street and then into the Rambles in Central Park.
Kushner: What I love about that shot is it goes zooming and then it stops for traffic.
Nichols: I was just obsessed with the fact that this was not only simultaneous but that they were within hailing distance of each other. The guy was f—ing somebody in the a— not that far from the Plaza, and that seemed to me a crucial part of it. I think it’s worth it just to remember that about New York, that 20 yards from the fanciest hotel is a kind of jungle.
NW: Mike, do you feel that these days you can actually do bolder things on television than you can in film?
Nichols: I do, yes. It has to do with HBO, it’s as simple as that. We love HBO and we love the freedom that there is on HBO, and the power. And what is that power? It’s economic. You know, we’re run by market forces—the fact that an outfit can make a billion dollars a year just sitting there collecting its subscriptions. It’s an economic basis that affords us this freedom.
NW: The budget was $60 million?
Nichols: Yes. But, that’s like three movies—and with visual effects! So it’s $20 million per movie—which is a lot for television. [Laughter] But look at the budget of any Disneyesque Cinderella movie where little sparkly things appear on the screen and there are fairies and so forth.
Thompson: You see a lot of these movies?
Nichols: Well, I have a granddaughter.
Kushner: Sparkly things and fairies. It’s sort of a good description of our movie.
QUOTES FROM THE PLAY/FILM
"You are hung up on words, on labels, you believe they mean what they seem to mean. AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don't tell you that...Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout....Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows." (thanks Ed for this info)
It is a six-hour miniseries made for HBO.
It is based on the Pulitzer prize-winning plays by Tony Kushner.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches ( opened on Broadway May 5, 1993), and
Angels in America: Perestroika (opened on Broadway Nov. 24, 1993)
Both were awarded Best Play Tony Awards in, respectively, 1993 and 1994.
Playbill Online, Tony Kushner's Angels in America To Debut on HBO in December, by Ernio Hernandez, May 20, 2003
Wright, who won a Tony Award for his work in Perestroika, is the only original Broadway cast member who will appear in the HBO production. Playbill Online, Tony Kushner's Angels in America To Debut on HBO in December, by Ernio Hernandez, May 20, 2003
It was filmed over the course of two years at a cost of more than $60 million.
Actor, Miniseries or Movie: Al Pacino
Actress, Miniseries or Movie: Meryl Streep
Supporting Actor, Miniseries or Movie: Jeffrey Wright
Supporting Actress, Miniseries or Movie: Mary-Louise Parker
Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special: Mike Nichols
Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special: Tony Kushner
(I can't find what the others are for. Technical awards I would guess.)
AN ARTICLE ON THE AWARDS (It includes a nice picture of Al.)
(this is the most Emmys ever won by a miniseries beating the record of nine Emmy wins for the 1977 ABC miniseries “Roots”
Best Actor in a TV movie or miniseries: Justin Kirk (nominated), Al Pacino (won!), Jeffrey Wright
Best Actress in a TV movie or miniseries: Mary-Louise Parker, Meryl Streep (won!), Emma Thompson
Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Al Pacino - Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Meryl Streep - Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Ben Schenkman, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Wright - Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Mary-Louise Parker - Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
released on Sept 7.
Encoding: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Widescreen
Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: September 7, 2004
The complete miniseries (Part 1: Millenium Approaches, Part 2: Perestroika)
Widescreen anamorphic format
Number of discs: 2