A Lost Generation

For the public record, Rudolf Nureyev, 54, was said to have died last week of "a cardiac complication, following a grievous illness." His physician in Paris, Michel Canesi, then added, like a cardplayer signaling his bluff, "Following Mr. Nureyev's wishes, I can't say any more."

He didn't need to. At the dawn of 1993, more than a decade into the battle against a disease for which no cure has been found, the code was easily broken. It had been rumored for years that the great dancer was struggling with AIDS. Indeed, the rumors may have started even before his sickness struck: in some quarters, where obituary pages are scanned before the weather report, and funeral services are as much a part of social life as parties, a kind of holocaust mentality has set in. The cultural world is getting used to untimely deaths. Every week someone's friend, collaborator, colleague, or lover dies. But a death like Nureyev's makes the front pages and becomes not just an occasion for grief but for politics.

I had not thought death had undone so many.

--T. S. ELIOT "The Waste Land"

Bennett. Rock Hudson. Robert Mapplethorpe. Freddie Mercury. Perry Ellis. Tony Perkins. Liberace. Keith Haring. Denholm Elliott. Halston. These are a few of the famous ones we mourn. But consider the loss of Peter Wadland, 46. He was the producer of the late romantic pianist Jorge Bolet's records. Partly because Wadland died, Bolet's records went out of circulation. The wunderkind behind a small record label, Wadland also had helped shape the great revival of Baroque music in the '70s. A single death creates a cultural chain reaction.

To Los Angeles movie buffs, Gary Abrahams and Gary Essert were known as "The Two Garys." They created Hollywood's first major film festival, Filmex, and dedicated many years to the creation of The American Cinematheque, a place where the great legacy of film could be preserved and screened. When Essert died in December, less than two months after his companion Abraham's death, the Cinematheque was still an unrealized dream; many movie lovers now worry that without their dedication and pizzazz, it may never come to pass.

Critic Stephen Harvey, who died this past New Year's Day, was a film curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A funny, lovely man, he lived with the AIDS virus for 11 years, without a shred of self-pity, putting together retrospectives of the work of Joseph Mankiewicz, Ida Lupino and Vittorio De Sica, and writing a definitive study of director Vincente Minnelli. Thousands of New Yorkers, many of whom never knew his name, reaped the delightful rewards of his distinctive eye. His job can be replaced; his sensibility can't.

The cultural fabric has been cruelly ripped. How do you measure the loss? There will be no more delicious rhymes from Howard Ashman, the dazzling lyricist of the songs of "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." No more ecstatic camp extravaganzas from the influential playwright/actor/impresario Charles Ludlam, whose Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York turned classical drama on its head. There will be no fulfillment to the leaping promise of dancer Edward Stierle of the Joffrey Ballet, dead at 23, who had just begun to choreograph. No more exuberant theatrical revivals like "The Pirates of Penzance" from director Wilford Leach. No second film from the gifted director of "Parting Glances," Bill Sherwood, or new plays from Scott McPherson, writer of "Marvin's Room." No more jaunty fashions from Willi Smith. No more Debussy from pianist Paul Jacobs or performances from actor Larry Riley.

"The impact on the arts and culture is incalculable," says Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, which recently produced Tony Kushner's epic theatrical response to AIDS, "Angels in America." "The problem, aside from the horror of the deaths, is that the system by which we encounter art is a system of passing things down, and when you break the circuit the way it is being broken by AIDS, the damage may be irreparable."

That circuit is particularly tenuous in the world of dance. You can always look at a painter's picture, but dance is different. Lesley Farlow, who is coordinating an oral-history project of the New York Public Library's Dance Collection, explains, "It's essentially an oral tradition that is passed on from body to body." Part of what the arts are losing are mentors: when teachers die, "that direct link disappears," says Farlow. But great artists have a wider influence, too. Performance artist Tim Miller, 34, whose art of sexual politics cost him a National Endowment for the Arts grant, puts it like this: "It takes a generation to bring a journey up to the point that Charles Ludlam was up to. You don't replace that loss in three or four years. The heart is being cut out of the cultural life of this nation."

Or think of the paintings that you will never see in museums. The average age of death from AIDS in the United States is 35, one study shows. But the preponderance of works that hang in the Museum of Modern Art is by artists older than 35. How many rooms of empty frames would have to be filled to create a museum of unpainted art? Or shelves built for unwritten books?

The crisis, of course, has not just struck the world of art, it is just that its ravages are more visible there-and have an impact on everyone whom culture touches. We don't hear very much about the janitors and lawyers, the accountants and schoolteachers who die in silence. Many people in the arts are fearful that the media give a distorted view of AIDS, which allows the public to dismiss the threat: We're not artsy, we're not gay, this can't happen to us middle-class folks. But contagions don't read press clippings, and they don't make moral judgments. They strike wherever the opportunity is hot. In Africa , the disease favors copper miners in Zambia, truckdrivers in Central Africa. Paris is more like New York or Los Angeles: one study showed that more than 60 percent of the deaths of Parisian men between 25 and 44 in the professions of journalism, arts and entertainment were caused by AIDS.

One of the many reasons the world of culture has become the center of the storm is that the art world has been more willing to talk about the subject, to use its visibility, its innate expressiveness, to raise consciousness. But Nureyev's death is a reminder of the politicized divisiveness about AIDS and sexuality that still remains. "Nureyev's silence about his illness shows that AIDS is still in the closet," observes Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight. "You still run up against the sissy factor: culture is only paid lip service because it's considered the insignificant province of women and gays, which is what allowed Patrick Buchanan and his ilk to beat up on the NEA. AIDS is not a gay disease, but because it first showed up in the gay population it's bound up with the gay-rights movement."

Novelist and AIDS activist Paul Monette, who just won a National Book Award for his memoir "Becoming a Man," is one gay man who is furious with Nureyev's deception. "I don't consider him a great hero of the arts. I consider him a coward, I don't care how great a dancer he was." To Monette, who says he himself expects to die within the year, it was Nureyev's duty to the gay community to use his fame in the war against ignorance.

According to Wallace Potts, a close friend of Nureyev's who was with him in Paris shortly before he died, Nureyev was concerned that once you go public with the news, "your whole life becomes dealing with the disease. He didn't deny that he had AIDS," he says. "He didn't want it to consume his art." Potts says Nureyev first developed symptoms about a year and a half ago. "He did everything he could to fight it," he says. "His whole life was dancing and being onstage. For the longest time he thought that if he fought hard enough he could beat this thing. Toward the end he was reconciled. He was not a sentimental person. He never complained. He didn't show any signs of pain. But at the end, the fevers took their toll."

But at my back in a cold blast I hear The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

--"The Waste Land"

You could argue that the more esoteric the art form, the quicker has been the response to the crisis. A downtown performance artist has less to lose than a Hollywood producer with a $30 million budget on the line. Which is one reason the theater has been far ahead of the movies. Tony Kushner, whose apocalyptic "Angels in America" comes to Broadway this spring, argues, "In the theater it's possible to create a cost-effective public art about this unimaginable tragedy, so that there can be a public way of mourning. [Larry Kramer's play] 'The Normal Heart' helped to shape the consciousness of a generation."

Kushner's brainy and hugely entertaining seven-hour play succeeds in moving AIDS and gay culture from the margins to the mainstream, but even he has qualms about the process. "Sometimes I feel there's something ghoulish about making art out of AIDS. I'm not sick and I'm glad I'm not. I question how much right I have to write about something I haven't experienced personally." Bill T. Jones, the charismatic dancer/choreographer, has had more firsthand experience. His partner and lover, Arnie Zane, with whom he created pieces that upended gender and blended high and low culture, died in 1988. Emerging from his grief he has created startling art, like "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land." "I'm trying not to say what my mother says: if it took slavery to help us find the good masters, it was good. I'm not going to say that," says Jones. "But his death was a kick in the pants. It forced us to ask the question, what is the relation between life, creativity and death?"

One of the most popular new American orchestral pieces is John Corigliano's Grammy-winning First Symphony, written in direct response to the epidemic. The powerful work is a far cry from the academic classical tradition or the minimalist. "We want substance again, not just style," argues William Hoffman, who wrote the AIDS play "As Is" and the libretto for Corigliano's opera "The Ghosts of Versailles." "Pop art is looking tired, pallid, because reality is so dramatic. We want answers to questions-why are people dying so young? AIDS has produced deeper thinking."

In Hollywood, it has mainly produced evasion and bad nerves. Though the movie business considers itself liberal, money dictates ideology. AIDS and gay themes are simply not deemed commercial in film (though AIDS is a more frequent topic on TV). If the subject is addressed in popular movies, it's in metaphor: in the blood and contagion subtext of "Bram Stoker's Dracula"; in the analogy to another disease, ALD, in "Lorenzo's Oil." One of the recurring film fantasies of the past decade, from "Ghost" to Mel Gibson's "Forever Young," is the notion of the return from the dead. Is this escapism a direct response to what everyone wants to escape from: the fear of untimely mortality?

But even the studios are catching up. Director Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs") is now filming the movie "Philadelphia," the story of a lawyer (Tom Hanks) fired from his firm because he has AIDS. Denzel Washington plays Hanks's homophobic lawyer. "There hasn't been a Hollywood movie about AIDS because there hasn't been a great screenplay yet," insists Demme. "We knew that we couldn't just do a passionate movie about AIDS and expect people to come. I care, I lost friends and loved ones to AIDS-and if I can't read these stories in the papers, how on earth are you going to get me to go to a movie? The answer is you've got to make it enormously entertaining."

This doesn't explain why it's taken till now for a film of Kramer's "The Normal Heart" to get a green light-which it has, for Barbra Streisand to direct and star in. "Family Values," about two brothers, one straight, one gay and sick, is also in development. Francis Coppola is planning a movie on the search for an AIDS cure. After years of delay, an HBO movie has been made of Randy Shilts's history of the epidemic, "And the Band Played On."

It's never easy to discern why Hollywood executives all jump on a thematic bandwagon, but one factor may have been the death of actor Brad Davis, the star of "Midnight Express." The day after he died, his widow released a handwritten manuscript in which he wrote of the six years he hid his secret, afraid he'd never get work if his sickness were revealed. "I make my living in an industry that professes to care very much about the fight against AIDS-that gives umpteen benefits and charity affairs ... but, in actual fact, if an actor is even rumored to have HIV, he gets no support on an individual basis-he does not work."

Standing back from the disaster that has afflicted his community, Lincoln Center theatrical producer Bernard Gersten grapples for historical perspective. "Of all the tragedies of this century, does AIDS stand alone as a robber of youth, creativity and potential? The last 20 years of the century will have been dominated by AIDS. There have been a great many scourges in this millennium. Yes, people are dying today and we must do something about it. But you can't help thinking of the great tragedies. Six million Jews and 20 million Russians died in World War II. How many died at Nagasaki and Hiroshima? How do you quantify all this? Still, AIDS is the concern of today. And the failure to act in the past against those previous scourges should stimulate us to act so that won't happen again-the 'never again' syndrome."

To those in the eye of the hurricane, numbness battles with rage. People count the names of the dead on their Rolodexes, and when they break 100, stop counting. Will a new president bring a new commitment to finding a cure? Can the culture make itself whole again? "A certain world has been shattered," reflects composer Alan Menken who lost his collaborator, lyricist Howard Ashman. "Especially in the gay community, people have been left with such a crater around them, they're just in despair. The worst part is missing him. There went someone who could have been a director, a producer, who would have been a teacher to thousands of people. I'd like to think of this like a forest fire: those of us who are left work harder to replenish our culture."

A Lost Generation | News