Angels in America (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Directed by film veteran Mike Nichols in 2003, Angels in America is an award-winning HBO mini-series adapted by Tony Kushner from his 1991 Tony-winning play, "Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes." According to one reviewer, the drama "became the defining theatrical event of the 1990s, an astonishing mix of philosophy, politics, and vibrant gay soap opera that summed up the Reagan era for an entire generation of theater-goers." The HBO version features a distinguished cast headlined by such acting stalwarts as Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Emma Thompson.

It's a very ambitious undertaking, like a Greek tragedy translated into modern times, with angels providing the modern equivalent of Greek gods. The dialogue also attempts to achieve a kind of classical theater feel in that it is often rhetorical and symbolic, as if the characters were delivering rehearsed orations rather than exchanging everyday speech. That type of presentation doesn't work as well on screen as on stage, and there are times when Angels in America seems like high camp, like the scenes which feature Emma Thompson as an angel. On the other hand, a lot of it does work, and when it does it can be a very moving experience. The number of awards and the critical accolades are somewhat misleading since this is a classic example of a made-for-awards production, rabidly espousing left-liberal values, and featuring more than one character dying of AIDS. Yes, it can be extremely good, and it probably merited that award-season hardware, but you should not be fooled by the awards into thinking it is something you are likely to enjoy. It's made for a tiny audience. It is six and a half hours long, and the audience for long, long Greek tragedies is small enough to begin with, and diminishes further when those hours are passed in "a gay fantasia." It's the classic cult production - the vast majority of you will either dislike it or have no interest in it, but those of you who do like it will like it very much.

Still, it must be pretty good, because I have watched it twice, and I ended up watching it all the way through the second time, even though my original intention was ... well ... long story. Here's the short version: after I watched Good Night and Good Luck, I re-read some transcripts of the McCarthy committee hearings, then I read a biography of Joe McCarthy, and then I watched Citizen Cohn. While watching the Cohn biopic (also an HBO production) I was reminded of Angels in America, because those two productions feature a nearly identical conceit: Roy Cohn, on his deathbed, talking unrepentantly to the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Rosenberg and her husband were executed in 1953 for espionage. Cohn worked on the prosecution team. After the Rosenberg trial, Cohn was Sen. McCarthy's lead counsel while still in his mid twenties, and later became one of America's biggest back-door dealmakers. He was presumed to be gay, and died of AIDS-related complications, but never admitted his sexual preference, remaining in public denial even on his deathbed. (He once dated Barbara Walters, who insisted he was straight.) 

The Cohn role was played in each production by a great actor, James Woods and Al Pacino, so the real reason I watched Angels in America a second time was to compare the Woods interpretation of Roy Cohn on his deathbed to Pacino's take on the same man in the same situation. Pacino brought more vulnerability and a more down-to-earth quality to Cohn, who was well known as the world's biggest asshole. Pacino, abetted by a more nuanced script, managed to create at least a tiny bit of humanity in the monstrous character, and even generated a spark of empathy, although sympathy was out of the question. Woods just played Cohn as a totally aloof, smarter-than-thou, dishonest, and self-absorbed scumbag who thought that his caregivers were trying to poison him. Despite those differences, there was no denying that the two screen giants were playing the same loathsome, ungrateful man in the same situations. My first-hand knowledge of the real Cohn is based entirely on the 1950s because I just don't remember what the man was like in the 70s and 80s. I can't recall having seen him as a middle-aged man on talk shows or anything like that. Based on my impressions of Cohn in those Army-McCarthy hearings, James Woods captured him better than Pacino. On the other hand, Woods got to play part of the Cohn role as a young man in the 1950s -the very era I am familiar with. Pacino seemed to be playing the usual Al Pacino character, but since he never got to play Cohn as a young man, I couldn't relate Pacino's performance to any anchored reality.



  • widescreen anamorphic (16x9)
  • two disks



  • Patrick Wilson - rear nudity which includes significant looks at his package from rear angles.

  • Emma Thompson - apparently nude, but actually a combination of body double and CGI.

  • Mary-Louise Parker - full frontal and rear nudity while standing up.

The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for 21 Emmys, It won eleven, and three of the losses came to itself. (Actors nominated against one another.)

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+, a very ambitious undertaking, and a highly-politicized one which produced polarized reactions. Some of it doesn't work, like the Emma Thompson scenes which are laughably high camp, but a lot of it does work. It is a significant achievement and often a very moving experience.

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