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Bruce Davison takes risk of AIDS role

CANNES, France -- This is the second chapter of a story that began last January. Here at Cannes, a movie named "Longtime Companion" is gaining good reviews from the European critics, and it's one of the hottest tickets at this year's film festival. It opened May 11 in New York to SRO business, set some box-office records, and will be rolling out nationally on Friday.

The first chapter of "Longtime Companion" unfolded last January when the movie had its world premiere at the United States Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the leading showplace for American independent films. It told a difficult story - a group of gay men followed through the years of the AIDS crisis - and it had a lot of death, a subject not thought to be popular at the box office. The filmmakers hadn't seen it with an audience before, and didn't know how it would play. There was a lot of nervousness in the room.

The nerves didn't last long, however, because "Longtime Companion" is one of those special films that involves you almost immediately in caring about its characters, and moves deeply into their lives until you are implicated in their suffering and share their victories. And near the film's end came an extraordinary scene in which one of the characters, played by Bruce Davison, sat at the bedside of his dying friend and talked to him as he died, giving him permission to do it, telling him it was all right to let go. On the day after "Longtime Companion" played at Park City, I talked with Davison. And four months later here at Cannes, far from the snow and cold of Utah, I met Lindsay Law, who was responsible for getting the film financed when nobody wanted to touch it. "Nobody wanted to make a film about death," he said. "The film isn't really about death, it's about friendship, but that's what they all said. So we ended up financing it ourselves." He was able to do that because Law is the vice president of American Playhouse, the PBS project to help independent films find financing and audiences. "Ordinarily we put up perhaps 25 percent of the budget of a film, against the prospect of eventually being able to show it up PBS," he said. "We find distributors or investors who want to come in for the remaining shares. This time, nobody wanted to touch it--not a film about AIDS and dying. What were we going to do, tell them 'Terms of Endearment' was about cancer? We felt it was a film that should be made, so we put up all of the money ourselves." It was apparently a wise decision, judging by its strong New York opening. And it reminded me of talking to Davison in Park City in January, when the movie's prospects were still far from certain. "What we're hoping," he told me then, sitting in a coffee house in Main Street, "is that it will get some sort of word of mouth, because it's the toughest sell of anything I've been connected with--especially tough to a mainstream audience. But a lot of people have told me they had their doubts walking in, but they're glas they saw it." What might have appealed to the audiences--a cross section of mainstream Utah, plus the usual film festival types--was that the director, Norman Rene, had no particular message to convey, other than that tragic times sometimes create heroes. As his film opens we meet a cross section of homosexual men from several different walks of life, whose lives are generally settled and happy. The first newspaper article about AIDS appears as a sort of distant cloud on the horizon, and then, week after week, month after month, the disease becomes more central to their concerns. One man dies before anyone quite knows what AIDS is. Others live in a state of quiet apprehension. Sexual patterns change. Promiscuity becomes "risky," and then dangerous. Rene constructs his film in such a way that we can't predict from the story structure who will get the disease and who will be spared. And everything seems to lead, in countless different ways, to that great scene in which the character played by Davison tells his friend that it is all right to go gently into that good night. "To play a character, a noble character, without any stereotype attached to him, that's a great opportunity," Davidson told me. "And that final speech I have, the monolog at the bedside, is one of the great speeches any actor has been given. Because it's so convincing, I've been asked if it was improvised. It was all there in the screenplay by Craig Lucas, syllable for syllable, dot for dot. It was like learning the phone book. It's a very simple speech, really, but the details dovetial, they build and stretch. It's the same way that he intertwines the characters, overlapping each other, letting them recede and emerge. he's a wonderful writer." He said Norman Rene's direction was also crucial to the scene. "He told me one simple thing. He said, 'Remember, this scene is about him, not you.' It's the best direction I've had, a summary of what I need to keep reminding myself as an actor that a scene it not about what a feel about something, it's about what's happening, It's not about grandstanding. as an actor. "At first I didn't see it that way. I walked onto the set wanting to recapture what it felt like for me when my mother was dying of cancer. I brought all of that with me, and the director said--no, it's not about your feelings. It's about him. You have to get him to let go." Davison acted the scene so strongly, so well, that there has been talk of an Academy Award nomination. It's the kind of moment people don't forget. For Davison, the role was also an opportunity to be seen as a strong middle-aged leading man, to announce himself as having obviously broken with a past during which he spent many years in the Hollywood twilight zone of the aging juvenile. He made his first major film, "Last Summer," in 1967; it was the same film that contained the debuts of Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas. He made his first big hit, "Willard," in 1970. He has been around ever since, on TV and in movies of variable quality, and he's done a lot of stage acting in Los Angeles. But "Longtime Companion" showcases his emergence as a character in the Peter Finch or Edward Fox tradition--complex, adult, sensitive. "I've done so many things as an actor," he said. "I raped Barbara Hershey in the first film, I beat people to death with a bucket, I disemboweled Tina Louise, I was in drag on 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents,' and I kissed a rat, of course." All of those are things you can smile about, I said, but until recently the idea of a straight actor playing a gay man would have been more unacceptable, as a career move, than anything on your list. "There was a time when fears like that were common--when I had fears like that. At this point in my life I've had so many ups and downs that I don't take my so-called image that seriously. If it's a good role and I believe I can do it justice, that's all I want to know. "The thing is, there's a tendency to push AIDS off to one side, for people to separate themselves from it, to choose sides. That's destructive. It's like when I was a little kid, I was in a snowball fight, and it was the second graders against the third graders. The second graders were overrun by the third graders, and I suddenly became a third grader, and I carted that guilt with me all through school. Nobody knew about it except me, but I knew. "With this role, I felt I owed my performance to my friends who have died with AIDS and lived with AIDS. My agent, my manager, and my personal manager all died within three months of each other." Of AIDS? "Yeah, of AIDS. And there was a piece in the paper this morning, about the Obie awards, where they read a list of those who have died in the last year. The list is now so long it becomes terrifying. What's great about the film, in the face of that, is its affirmation. It's about living. Death is not the climax. The climax is the continuing life of the other characters, their choices, and their decisions. "Each character is represented in some part of the process. We've just gone through the death, we've watched it, we've experienced it, and now we go through the service afterwards...and then boom! Somebody else dies. That's how it happens. My manager's lover was there the whole time for him, nursing him, and then suddenly he was gone, too. It's very accurate in a lot cases; one partner takes care of the other, and then he dies, too. There is heroism involved." Here in Cannes, as at Park City, the power of Davison's performance, especially in the central scene, is drawing a lot of praise. He is not here to experience it; he was scheduled to come to the festival, but then the screenings here conflicted with the movie's benefit premiere in Los Angeles, and so he stayed at home. Perhaps, in some way, that was a symbolic decision, a response to his first trip to Cannes in 1967, with "Last Summer." "When I was 20 years old or so," he said, "I went to the Cannes Film Festival, and I as a kid with stars in my eyes. I would walk down the street, and a whole restaurant would get up and applaud. I bought it, you know, and it was the worst thing that ever happend in my life. I bought ti and thought, 'I'm immortal now. I can't fail.' It was a trap, one that so many young actors have happen to them. Because of course I wasn't immortal, and God knows I could fail. "Barbara Hershey and I, who were both in that film, in the lower periods of our careers used to stand in the umemployment lines in Hollywood behind people like Richard Farnsworth. And one day Farnsworth turned around and said he was in 'Electric Cowboy' with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. He said 'I finally got me a good part here.' So we didn't see him in the line anymore. It gave us all a little hope. So, I'm hopeful. But I've got my feet on the ground."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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