The year is 1985, and a closeted young man is returning from New York City to his family’s home in Texas, hoping to reconnect before the unspeakable tragedy he’s been burdened with separates them... forever.
You can probably surmise what this film is about.
It’s Christmastime in the first wave of the AIDS crisis. Rock Hudson had died just two months earlier. Adrian’s family doesn’t know there is an ulterior motive to his first trip home for the holidays in years: He’s there to say goodbye.
Writer-director Yen Tan’s new film 1985, which just premiered at this year’s SXSW Festival, is a rare black-and-white, pared-down take on the otherwise familiar AIDS drama. Much of the film takes place within the confines of the blue-collar house Adrian grew up in, far from the New York/San Francisco setting we’re used to taking these stories in from. It’s a quiet, intimate entry into the canon, in stark contrast to last year’s vibrant and vivacious BPM, the French film about a group of ACT UP activists in the 1990s.
The result is a poignant, even provocative meditation on a part of LGBTQ history, one that strips away color and scope, portraying it in black and white and setting it in a blue-collar American living room.
Tan, who adapted the feature from his 2016 short by the same name, says shooting the film in black and white gives the viewer a visual cue that we’re going back in time, perhaps encouraging them to consider it from a perspective removed from today’s ideologies about being gay, coming out, and the AIDS crisis. It also creates a nostalgic, almost soothing Leave It to Beaver or Norman Rockwell aesthetic, in certain juxtaposition with the film’s grief-stricken theme—not to mention cultural attitudes at the time.
Tan was inspired to make and write 1985 by conversations he had with older gay men when he was in his early twenties, fresh out of college and working at a viatical settlement firm. It was 1998, and many of his clients were men living with HIV or AIDS and negotiating the sale of their life insurance policies to third parties.
By the nature of the job, men revealed details about the relationships they had—or more often, didn’t have—with their families. Often, Tan felt confused. Why would this gay man whom his family disowned still name his father as his beneficiary? And then there was one patient whose offhand comment stuck with him, two decades later, planting the seed from which 1985 eventually grew: “The saddest thing is when the family doesn’t know.”
“A lot of those things that happened at that job didn’t quite click until the last few years when I’m revisiting memories of it,” Tan tells The Daily Beast. “When I was coming out, it was an exciting thing for me to enter that world. But at the same time I was working at a job interacting with people who were coming to the end of their lives, making end-of-life arrangements. I think the things people were telling me back then, I understood it, but it didn’t quite hit me on an emotional level until I got older.”
When we meet Adrian, his partner has recently died of AIDS. He himself is sick. We watch his pilgrimage, leaving his community in New York City for his family home in Texas, and perhaps expect to see a coming out story. But in many ways, Tan says, 1985 is a film about not coming out. There’s an added layer to the tragedy: the desire to be truly known by the people you love, especially before your death. And the emotional burden you carry when they don’t.
That notion in particular struck Cory Michael Smith, who plays Adrian in the film. The 31-year-old actor, who has starred in Carol and HBO’s Olive Kitteridge miniseries, is best known for playing Edward Nygma, aka The Riddler, on Fox’s Gotham. “There’s something special about telling a story that feels closer to home,” Smith, who identifies as queer, tells The Daily Beast. “I’m not exactly like The Riddler in real life.
“I’m from Middle America,” he says. “I’m from Ohio. I’ve been living here [in New York] for a while, and there are stretches when I don’t see my family often. Going home and that whole charade is very familiar. The first family dinner after a while. Coming out to a family, the fear of that.”
He says his family handled his coming out with “a lot of love,” though it took “a lot of time.” It wasn’t hard for him to imagine the pain Adrian feels as he goes through his last holidays with his parents (played by Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis). The fear of coming out is compounded by a disease that no one knows much about, that is killing his community, that killed his boyfriend, that he knows will probably kill him, too. This will probably be his last Christmas, and he knows it.
“This story, a story about AIDS and stripping away politics, stripping away activism, stripping away the medical drama of it, what you’re left with is something so personal about family and connecting with family and keeping secrets with family,” Smith says. “It just overwhelmed me.”
Tan and Smith are both fully aware 1985 is hardly the first queer film to depict the AIDS crisis. They also know that it is premiering at a time when there is a rising tide, though hardly a dam break, of LGBTQ stories in pop culture, and that attitudes about how those stories are told are shifting. There has been, for example, a critical pushback against the instinct to entrench the gay experience in darkness and tragedy: stories consistently involve disease, death, bigotry, the anxiety of coming out, the loneliness of out life.
“I won’t be surprised if at a Q&A people are blaming me for bringing something sad back into the conversation again,” Tan says. “I think it’s a sad story, but I didn’t make it wanting to exploit the sadness. I feel like I made a hopeful film.” Besides, he says, “I don’t take the perspective that we don’t need to talk about it because it’s sad and tragic. That’s more reason that we should talk about it.”
Smith spent time talking with doctors who were on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s when little was known about this disease killing so many members of the gay community. He tears up while recounting how, while shooting, he kept a book of photos of men who were dying at that time, men who were just like Adrian. Who, had he been born then, could have been him.
“I don’t ever want to insinuate or push that the queer experience is hindered with shame or darkness and depression,” he says, taking a beat before elaborating.
“It’s not about connecting gay people with the idea of disease. But I do think it is important to look at the gay experience in the early ’80s and know that it was overwhelmed by disease. It’s a film that is going back to a moment and telling a very personal story about the pain and suffering that certain people went through. Sometimes I think it’s OK to have a moment of silence and consider what that experience was.”