Angels in America

This past week, at the Creative Arts Emmys and the televised 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, the HBO mini-series “Angels in America” snatched up a combined eleven statuettes, breaking the previous record of nine from the 70's classic “Roots”. Despite the entire cast being nominated alongside each other, Meryl Streep and Al Pacino took the Outstanding Actor/Actress awards while Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright took home the gold for their supporting work. Other awards included Outstanding Direction (Mike Nichols), Outstanding Writing (Tony Kushner), and Outstanding Miniseries. Having seen this before the Emmys were dealt out last week, I can attest “Angels in America” earned all eleven of them. With miniseries like “From the Earth to the Moon”, “Band of Brothers”, and now “Angels in America”, HBO continues to prove themselves highly superior to any network or cable station as the place for original television From May 1993 to December 1994 Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play had a successful run on Broadway. Now, close to ten years since the curtain went down on the Walter Kerr Theatre, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika - A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has found a new medium to conquer: television. The HBO miniseries “Angels in America” brings the two chapters by Kushner together, courtesy of Academy Award Winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate). The end result is a television event that should not be missed.

In "Angels in America", several lives coexist and intertwine as they battle with sexual orientation and the AIDS crisis in New York City, circa 1985. Rather than standing by the side of his lover Prior (Justin Kirk), as he physically disintegrates courtesy of contracting AIDS, Luis (Ben Shenkman) tries to come to grips with his situation by running away. Big time Lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) has also contracted AIDS, yet strictly denies his blatant homosexuality. All the while the relationship between Joe (Patrick Wilson), Roy’s associate, and Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), Joe’s pill popping wife, begins to dwindle and disappear as Joe starts to desecrate his Mormon faith by realizing he in fact is gayer than a priest at recess. As Prior and Roy both individually deal with their illness, divinity and ghosts begin to haunt the two men. For Prior it’s a good thing: the prophesizing Angel (Emma Thompson). For Roy it’s very bad: Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep) taunts and tortures the cold Cohn. Ultimately it comes down to survival. Who will survive the 80's? Who will be the virus’ first victim? Roy or Prior? Can Harper survive her ordeal with Joe? Can Luis survive without Prior? Can Joe survive being cast aside?

When the play ran on Broadway, each of the cast members played several different roles. For instance Kathleen Chalfant (Bob Roberts) appeared as Ethel Rosenberg, Rabbi Chemelwitz, and Joe’s Mother Hannah. In this mini-series Meryl Streep does just that, as does the rest of the cast - save for Al Pacino. In plays it’s understandable to do such a thing, but in a miniseries it’s unheard of. Yet it all works seamlessly. Both Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep are the ones who truly shine in this double casting. Watching Meryl as an old Jewish man is a sight to see, but it’s so believable that one forgets that it's even her. Thompson shines as both the Angel and as a homeless woman in the South Bronx. It’s this unique attribute to “Angels in America” that makes it note only compelling drama, but a great showcase of the cast’s talent.

The rest of the cast also do fabulous jobs here. One would think their careers depended on this miniseries because every single one of them brought their 'A' game to the table. Al Pacino gives his best performance since his days as Don Corleone. His trademark shouting and screaming is marvelous as his “Roy” goes through precisely what he deserves. It’s a pleasure to watch. Since I saw Mary-Louise Parker on stage in the first run of Proof (ironically with Ben Shenkman), I’ve insisted that she is severely underused as an actress. Here, she gets to flaunt her talent as “Harper”. Relative unknowns Ben Shenkman (Requiem For A Dream), Patrick Wilson (The Alamo), and Justin Kirk (Chapter Zero) all prove themselves worthy enough to be in the exclusive company. They are the true leads, despite Pacino getting top billing. All of them should be commended greatly for their jobs here, but none of them more then Jeffrey Wright.

Jeffrey Wright - I should only have to mention his name for someone to realize he gives a great performance. When a director casts Jeffrey Wright, it pushes the film immediately into the plus column. He made the Samuel L. Jackson crap-fest Shaft watchable and his performance stole the first fifteen minutes of this year's The Manchurian Candidate. Director Mike Nichols chose Wright for one reason and one reason only: he was the best man for the job. When the play opened ten years ago it was Wright on stage as Belize/Lies opening night. His performance in the play brought him a Tony Award; ten years later that same role brought him an Emmy. His consistency as an actor screams for some more notice rather then an occasional blurb in Variety. Wright is a lot like Philip Seymour Hoffman, only darker in skin tone, so sadly he continues to go unrecognized. It’s a damn shame.

Thanks to great casting and Pulitzer Prize winning dialogue, I wouldn’t have been surprised if director Mike Nichols phoned this job in. But thankfully he didn’t. He works with ensembles really well. From Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to What Planet Are You From?, he continues to direct good things. I still say his Wolf is one of the best werewolf movies ever and I can’t wait for his latest ensemble effort, Closer, in theatres this December.

A good miniseries comes along every so often. A great miniseries comes along once in a generation. Give my regards to Kunta Kinte, but “Angels in America” is arguably the very best miniseries ever - but it is a lot more then that. This is not just a miniseries, “Angels in America” needs to be seen by anyone with an appreciation of film. Yes it’s a miniseries, but that’s a technicality. This is the finest piece of filmmaking to be made this century! I would give this fifty stars if I could. I swear! Despite being one of the finest productions on television ever, this DVD treatment has no goodies whatsoever. None. Not one commentary, not one featurette, not one interview. HBO went all out with the “Band of Brothers” and “From the Earth to the Moon” sets, yet they skimp on this? Schmucks.

I would’ve killed for a documentary on the process of bringing this from the stage to screen, with playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner talking about the differences. Even Jeffrey Wright talking about his Broadway experience would have been good. There should have been interviews with the initial Broadway cast, to see what they thought of the miniseries. But alas, we get nothing.

A Commentary, at the very least by Kushner, should have been mandatory. I can understand not being able to get Nichols because he’s busy with Closer, I can understand not being able to get a cast commentary out of this. But they should’ve tied Kushner down in a chair for six hours in front of a microphone to get his two cents on the subject. But alas, we get nothing.

Why didn’t they have behind the scenes interviews? I would’ve liked to hear the cast seriously talking about their characters rather then in a two-minute pitch on Conan O’Brian. I would’ve dug to see how they did some of the effects. It would have been nice to include one little “making of...” But alas we get nothing.

I really really, really, really hate it when they do this. A masterpiece immortalized on DVD, and that’s it: nothing but the series itself to stand alone. It isn’t a problem, but bonus features on a DVD are always a dainty perk that should be standard nowadays. If I had my way, crappy movies should be paper bagged and put on erasable discs and all the really good stuff would have 4-disc limited special super-duper platinum premium editions.

It’s a shame there are no goodies, but the DVD encompasses six hours of some very compelling entertainment, so it least it has that going for it. Pick it up to watch the series, that’ll be enough.