AIDS is changing what we see on stage and screen
Los Angeles — THE new James Bond, played by Timothy Dalton in the forthcoming movie ``The Living Daylights,'' will have only one girlfriend. This may not seem like a major artistic event. But it is seen in Hollywood as part of mounting evidence that the world of entertainment has begun to reflect new attitudes of sexual responsibility in film, TV, and theater fare. These changing attitudes go along with the more obvious concern for victims of AIDS indicated by the many show-business fund-raising events in their behalf.
In previous James Bond movies, the spy character played by Sean Connery and Roger Moore was noted for frequent amorous affairs. This time, says Mark Locher, a Screen Actors Guild spokesman close to the project, ``there was a conscious effort to portray the new Bond as not someone who sleeps with every woman he meets, and as one who values monogamy. There was the feeling the public wouldn't stand for it otherwise.''
This is but one example of how the makers of entertainment recognize the key role of consumers in demanding socially responsible portrayals in the all-pervading media of the day. Votes are cast whenever the TV channel is changed or money is plunked down for a cinema ticket.
``We have already seen a shift in values about commitment, marriage, and sexual situations in the society at large,'' says George Dessart, vice-president of program practices at CBS.
``My expectation is that that trend will continue, and will be mirrored in much more thoughtful attitudes toward sex and relationships in all the entertainment media.''
A number of related themes emerge in conversations with writers, directors, and producers across the country - against the backdrop of recent nationwide reports about the ravages of AIDS in the creative community.
`A question of realism'
One such theme is that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s has turned the corner, entering a new era of caution and restraint in both heterosexual and homosexual contexts, among those married as well as single. Under the general maxim ``art imitates life,'' this new caution is percolating into the screenplays, sitcoms, soap operas, and dramas now being conceived for the coming years.
``That doesn't mean you ignore the implied sexual relationships in, say, a classic play like `Hamlet,''' says Bill Bushnell, director of the Los Angeles Theater Center. ``But if you are dealing with a contemporary play that deals with casual sex and don't put it in a 1987 context of caution about AIDS, chances are the entire play would ring false.''
The new caution is not a formal directive from those in decisionmaking roles - such as studio heads for films, program directors in TV - either for increased ``relevance'' or ``social responsibility'' or increased ratings. It is rather the reflection of attitudes ``growing from the bottom up, creators being true to the things they care about,'' as one writer put it.
``It wasn't so much that we were thinking consciously about being socially responsible,'' says Terry Louise Fischer, co-creator of NBC's ``L.A. Law,'' speaking of a recent episode in which one character suggests the use of a condom to a friend as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.
``It was a question of realism. These are the concerns real people are having, and to ignore that on a socially conscientious show just wouldn't wash.''
The new attitudes are taking hold not just because it is the social subset of artists, writers, and performers who have heretofore been documented as the most visible victims. The perception has grown, with increasing accounts of heterosexuals diagnosed as having AIDS, that the wider population considers the disease more than a problem unique to homosexuals and drug addicts.
``This is the advent of the new sexual revolution,'' says Harvey Fierstein, a prominent author of plays dealing with homosexuality. ``There are new rules that have to be learned by everyone.''
In a recent episode of the television series ``Valerie,'' the title character openly advises her son against having premarital sex. The use of a condom is discussed as a means of birth control.
``Those kinds of specifics were not talked about in prime-time TV until recently,'' says Barbara Brogliatti, senior vice-president for communications at Lorimar Telepictures, producers of ``Valerie,'' ``Dallas,'' and ``Falcon Crest.'' ``[Those specifics] will increase in coming seasons,'' she adds.
Debate continues on whether such specifics, however well intended, may encourage promiscuity among young viewers. But the trend is evident.
Theater is first to reflect concern
The theater took the lead among forms of entertainment in dealing specifically with AIDS. Such plays as ``The Normal Heart'' and ``As Is'' dramatized the effects of the disease on individual lives. Just last week ``Beirut'' opened in New York. It is a cautionary tale, dealing in part with both ignorance of the disease and the dangers of overreaction. It is also the first heterosexually oriented play concerned with AIDS.
But it is theater aimed at homosexual audiences that has seen the largest jump in concern over AIDS.
``For a long time all we could write about was coming out,'' says Michael Kearns, an openly homosexual actor and director, who has produced or directed six AIDS-related plays in the last two seasons.
``AIDS has completely rejuvenated our writers with whole new realms of concern.'' And although those concerns - love, death, separation, abstinence, precaution - have been working their way into the popular media, some say those media have not gone far enough.
``All of the news shows, `60 Minutes,' `20/20,' etc., have dealt with the problem in depth,'' remarks Mark Thompson, associate cultural editor of The Advocate, a national biweekly gay newsmagazine. ``But when was the last time you saw a TV movie dealing with the problem?''
``I would like to see more concern reflected in the daily diet of soap operas, sitcoms, and allegedly socially conscious TV shows,'' says Josh Schiowitz, chairman of the Alliance for Gays and Lesbian Artists in the entertainment industry.
``There's been much progress, but we still have a long way to go before casual sex is eliminated from our general TV and movie fare.''
TV and film are more cautious
Not that television drama has ignored the problem of AIDS. The award-winning TV movie ``An Early Frost'' told of a son admitting his homosexuality to his parents as well as informing them that he had AIDS. Programs such as ``St. Elsewhere,'' ``Hill Street Blues,'' and ``Hotel'' have dealt with the disease. In the season's recent cliffhanger episode of ``Dynasty,'' oil magnate Blake Carrington admonishes his homosexual son to be careful in his sexual relations.
Mass-market movies have been the medium that so far has stayed away from direct reference to AIDS.
``The lag time between start and finish is such that producers are very concerned about a shift in public attitude about the subject that they can't predict,'' says Saul David, producer of ``In Like Flint'' and its spy sequels starring James Coburn. He says the concern about the disease instead manifests itself in new caution over sex scenes.
``There is quite a lot of discussion among agents and screenwriters about approaches to these scenes that there didn't used to be,'' he says.
``An agent is likely to read a script nowadays and say, `Gee, there's a lot of indiscriminate bed-hopping going on here that might get us in trouble - can you put something else in there?'''
Part of the reason television and movies have yet to reflect more explicitly the societal concerns about sexually transmitted diseases, say producers and programmers, is that both media are still seen essentially as fiction and fantasy-oriented entertainments, not forums for documentary.
``Let's face it, people often use TV and movies to get away from the nitty-gritty details of rules that regulate their lives,'' one TV writer says. ``To the extent they don't want that encroachment, we spare them.''