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Transcendent 'Angels'

Mike Nichols' miniseries adaptation of the Broadway play Angels in America, which features Patrick Wilson of St. Petersburg, is landmark television.

Published December 7, 2003

[Photos: Stephen Goldblatt]
Patrick Wilson plays a central role in Angels in America as married lawyer Joe Pitt, who must tell his mother that he is gay.

Emma Thompson is a lyrical, sexual angel who bursts through another character’s ceiling at key moments and convinces him he’s a prophet.
Meryl Streep and Al Pacino had never worked together before doing Angels.

On his fourth day of filming, Patrick Wilson had a question.

He was easing into a dream gig, playing a central role in HBO's six-hour, $60-million adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America.

His castmates read like a who's who of film and stage actors: Meryl Streep. Mary-Louise Parker. Emma Thompson. Al Pacino. The two biggest stars on hand, old friends Pacino and Streep, had never worked together and it was Pacino's first TV project, raising the stakes tremendously.

Even for Wilson, a St. Petersburg-raised rising star with two Tony nominations to his credit by age 30, this was heady stuff.

Wilson was about to tackle one of the film's most demanding scenes. It's the moment when his character, married, straight-arrow lawyer Joe Pitt, places a tearful, confused call to his Mormon mother from a pay phone at a Manhattan park, confessing his homosexuality.

In practical terms, it meant Wilson would be pouring his heart out to a telephone receiver. His question: Who, if anyone, would be at the other end?

"I picked up the phone, and it was Meryl Streep on the other end of the line," Wilson said, still sounding amazed, months later. Director Mike Nichols had set up the phone so it connected to Streep's home, allowing him to play the scene with the renowned actor emoting back at him.

"It was that kind of movie," he added. "They didn't want to leave anything unturned."

Indeed, one look at Nichols' sprawling take on Angels, and it's obvious: This is a landmark piece of television drama.

Not just for the high-powered names in the cast, including Basquiat's Jeffrey Wright and Oscar nominee James Cromwell. And not just because of Nichols' own pedigree as a director with achievements in film, television and stage, including Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards.

What impresses most is Nichols' lavish production, somehow melding the grandeur of film with the theatrics of the stage and the immediacy of television. Pulling off such an expansive story, set in New York's mid '80s AIDS crisis, is nothing less than a show-biz miracle.

"It sort of lives very much in the here and now . . . the way that people talk to each other and react to each other," Streep said at a July news conference. "And then there's this whole other layer of - God, I don't want to say the word "theatricality,' but - it's almost opera . . . on a bigger scale . . . (and) very surreal."

And at the center of it all stands Wilson's Pitt - a Republican protege of vulgar, amoral power lawyer Roy Cohn (Pacino). Introduced as a poster boy for the Reagan revolution, Pitt slowly learns to accept his own sexual orientation in a story line that becomes a remarkable tour de force for the 30-year-old actor.

"It was so weird . . . when you're immersed in it, you don't understand the importance of it," said Wilson, who began rehearsals for the movie in 2001 and filmed his scenes between performances as Curly in a Broadway production of Oklahoma! last year.

"I would go to rehearse two or three times a week with Al, just he and I," he said. "It would be tough to do this role in your living room by yourself, let alone next to Meryl Streep and Al Pacino in a Mike Nichols movie. But everybody really made an effort to give this thing everything they had."

The play, which debuted on Broadway in 1993, highlighted Prior Walter, a gay man struggling with AIDS at a time when there were few effective drugs to treat the disease. Onstage, Prior's physical deterioration, which prompts his self-centered boyfriend to move out, was a compelling sight that quickly became Angels' trademark.

But in HBO's film, Pitt's struggle to reconcile his growing sexual urges with obligations to his religion, his wife, his family and his politics commands just as much attention.

Perhaps we've all seen so many depictions of end-stage AIDS on TV, the image no longer moves us as much. Or perhaps knowing that today's HIV treatments are much more effective blunts the horror of Prior's struggle, despite actor Justin Kirk's excellent work in the role.

But the biggest reason we care about Pitt is Wilson's searing performance; a note-perfect rendition that captures his earnest goals while outlining his life's hypocrisies.

Married, yet gay, he's devoted to a religion and a political ideology hostile to gay rights. A moral man, he is mentored by Cohn, a fiercely closeted homosexual who brags of his illegal actions in hounding accused communist spy Ethel Rosenberg to execution.

In a cast full of big names and bigger performances, Wilson's work is a "careermaking" turn, according to New York Times columnist Frank Rich, the paper's former drama critic.

"There's an electricity about Wilson that, without any significant changes to the text, makes (Pitt's) inner torment much of the dramatic throughline of Angels," said Rich, calling from his New York office.

"One problem for stage actors adapting to film is they're too big for the camera . . . a problem that has stymied everyone from Carol Channing to Nathan Lane," he said, noting that director Nichols once cast an unknown Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and a barely known Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park onstage. "Wilson has not been so dynamic a stage presence . . . whereas the camera finds exactly that in him. It's a very lucky break for him that he was cast in this."

To hear Wilson tell it, his journey to Angels was an easy one, prompted by Nichols' visit to his first Tony-nominated performance, in the Broadway production of The Full Monty.

According to his father, WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor John Wilson, Patrick later showed up for an audition with Nichols, clueless about what the initials M.S. and A.P. stood for on his script.

"I remember coming out of the first reading telling my agent, "He says he wants me to do it. . . . Is he serious?' " Patrick Wilson said, laughing at the memory. "My agent said, "I don't think Mike Nichols has a reputation for BS-ing people.' I never, ever expected to actually get it."

Wilson's mother Mary, a longtime voice teacher who gave him training while singing with her choirs, credits her son's success to his hard work and focus.

"He's blessed with an inner discipline and a passion," said Mary Wilson, who started her son in acting at age 5 in a St. Louis-area TV commercial with football player Dan Dierdorf. "He works at it and gives his very best. . . . He's willing to stick his neck out to achieve something. . . . We're proud of that."

Wilson shrugs off what might seem the role's most demanding requirements: passionate kissing scenes with co-star Ben Shenkman and a scene on a beach where he strips off his clothes in a desperate plea to win over his new lover.

"Whether you're straight or gay, it's hard to keep intimacy over several takes when you've got a camera a foot from your face," said Wilson, who had already dealt with being nude onstage in Monty. "It's no secret that I'm straight, and the first thing you look for in a script is, "What am I going to have to do?' In the end, the greatest compliment I could have is that people believe it."

Like the play, HBO's Angels walks a thin line between real and surreal, viscerally depicting the fanciful delusions of ill people such as Prior, Cohn, and Pitt's pill-popping wife, Harper. Thompson, in particular, shines as a lyrical, sexual angel, who bursts through Prior's ceiling at key moments and convinces him he's a prophet.

Nichols expertly weaves Angels' convoluted plot lines, which include Wilson's Pitt, who clerks for a federal judge and is unhappily married to Mary Louise Parker's Harper. Cohn, who serves as a warped father figure to Pitt, is secretly fighting AIDS even as he tries convincing his protege to take a job in the Justice Department to help save him from disbarment.

Pacino gives Cohn a menschy, in-your-face swagger, building a character bold enough to threaten his doctor with career suicide if word of his HIV status leaks. Despite admitting to seamy escapades with uncounted numbers of male prostitutes and other partners, Cohn knows being publicly tagged as gay would destroy his most potent power:

The ability to get Nancy Reagan on the telephone any time.

"Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows . . . who have zero clout," Pacino's Cohn tells his doctor (Cromwell) during one electric scene. "Does that sound like me? Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who (messes) around with guys."

As Prior's illness progresses, his ex-boyfriend Louis (Shenkman) falls for Pitt, torn between old and new loves. On a mission to learn more about Pitt, Prior trails him to a Mormon visitors center where his mother, Hannah (Streep), is working. Though Hannah had come to New York to help her son, she befriends Prior, who is hospitalized with pneumonia after trailing Pitt through a rainstorm.

Angels' conceit of casting actors in multiple roles - Streep has four parts, Thompson plays three characters, Wright and Kirk each play two - helps maintain the movie's connection to the stage. (For fun, try to guess who Streep plays in the movie's opening scene. One hint: She's the one with the bushy beard.)

Another connection to the stage: playwright Kushner's lush language, which falls out of his characters' mouths in heady gusts of words whose literal meaning can take a backseat to their poetic flow.

"When we think we've escaped the unbearable ordinariness and untruthfulness of our lives, it's really only the same old ordinariness and falseness re-emerged into the appearance of novelty and truth," Parker's Harper says in one mouthful of a monologue. "Nothing unknown is knowable."

Kushner exposes the earnest heart of his most extreme characters while exploring themes of love, forgiveness and destiny. By the time Cohn dies - tormented by visions of Streep's Rosenberg gloating over his death - viewers may even feel a little sympathy for one of history's most notorious reactionaries.

Setting all this against the backdrop of the religious right's rise and the Reagan administration's indifference to the then-exploding AIDS crisis only adds to the film's political weight. But Rich expects HBO's Angels will suffer little of the backlash that greeted similar criticism in CBS's The Reagans miniseries.

"There's a 9/11 undercurrent that's not been written into the script . . . the possibility of hope in the middle of an apocalypse, that overcomes such criticisms," said Rich, whose complimentary reviews of Angels in 1992 helped establish the play as a modern classic. "You feel very much that (Kushner) was onto something that still resonates today . . . a play about the turn of the millenium."

Wilson agreed. "I just saw a statue of George Bush burned in effigy down the street in Trafalgar Square," he said from London, where he is filming the movie version of Phantom of the Opera. "The political strains of the play are much more applicable now. And if it makes a religious group or conservatives get mad . . . well, it might wake something up in them, too."

With sizable parts in upcoming films The Alamo (a troubled Disney production yanked from a December release and now scheduled for April) and Phantom (planned for fall 2004), Wilson's own career is blossoming.

Growing fame brings some caution: He's learned to be guarded about personal stuff after loose talk about his past romance with Jennifer Love Hewitt landed him in the tabloids a couple of years ago.

But he's open about his career ambitions, which include developing a track record on film to match he range and recognition of his luminous co-stars.

"I feel like I'm kind of just climbing Mount Everest," Wilson said. "I get higher up and the air might get thinner, but it's a great view and such a rush. I'm kind of enjoying carving my own niche."

AT A GLANCE: HBO's six-hour Angels in America airs in two, three-hour installments, "Millennium Approaches" at 8 tonight and "Perestroika" at 8 p.m. Dec. 14. HBO will also break up "Millennium" and "Perestroika" into three hourlong installments airing at 8 p.m. Mondays to Wednesdays, and 10 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, in the week after their debut. See television listings for more details. Grade: A. TV Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).

[Last modified December 5, 2003, 13:39:21]

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