The new film 1985 revisits a dark time in gay history, when the AIDS crisis ended so many promising lives. But actress Virginia Madsen, who plays a mother losing her son to the still-mysterious “gay cancer,” sees the film as surprisingly optimistic.
“There is a hopeful message,” she says. “It’s all right, you can be who you are. You can be questioning. You can be nonbinary. Whatever your identity is, you can stand strong in those shoes.” That may seem a buoyant takeaway from a movie built on so tragic a premise. The film, directed by Yen Tan and starring the recently out Cory Michael Smith in the lead role of Adrian, follows a closeted young man returning home to Texas from New York to share with his family that he’s dying. The film premiered at South by Southwest, has since screened at the Sarasota Film Festival, and will play at the Dallas International Film Festival in May.
The period in which the film takes place corresponds to Madsen’s days as a young actress in Hollywood. And while she enjoyed fame from roles in films like Dune, she also remembers the tragedy of the era, losing friends and family to an ailment no one yet understood. “It was terrifying, just because nobody knew anything,” she says. “If you had a friend who had those marks on his skin, it was like, ‘It’s going to happen,’ and there was nothing I could do but put my arms around them.”
Madsen lost family to the disease as well. Her uncle Chicky, who moved to San Francisco when Madsen was a child and become largely estranged from the family, died in 1989. The official line to the world was cancer, but it fell on Madsen to explain the truth to Chicky’s mother. “She didn’t know,” Madsen recalls. “She wondered, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ I just talked to her a long time and told her what I knew. I’m sure she would have loved to have been there.”
The 20th annual Sarasota Film Festival ended over the weekend with an awards presentation and red-carpet ceremony at the Sarasota Opera House, which featured appearances by Steve Guttenberg, Virginia Madsen and Rory Kennedy. The last three also participated in Q&A sessions at the Florida Studio Theatre.
Virginia Madsen expressed her thanks for the award, noting that independent films like the festival’s 1985, in which she appears, “are about 98 percent of what I do.” “Every director is very different in the way that they work,” Madsen said. “David [O. Russell] has a different style from Francis Ford Coppola and it’s very exciting to be able to go with that, ‘cause I don’t like just being left to my own devices ‘cause, man, I’ll milk it you give me a chance. I’d rather have a strong director. I prefer really working hand in hand because if they are a very good director, then you know what they want. And they’ve gotta figure out how to get it out of you.” “It’s usually the script first,” she stressed. “I work with a lot of first-directors ‘cause most of the movies I make are very small, independent films. So I have to look at their material and then be in conversation with them to see how they visualize the film. And since most of the time I’m more experienced, I sort of want to be able to help them to make this come to reality.”
Photos from three days that Virginia attended the Film Festival have been added to the photogallery. For more festival information, you can visit the official website at www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.
Actors Steve Guttenberg and Virginia Madsen spoke honestly and openly Saturday about the ups and downs of their careers in show business during two separate “In Conversation With” events as part of the 20th annual Sarasota Film Festival in the setting of Florida Studio Theatre’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre.
Virginia Madsen, who grew up in Chicago, told her audience for the Conversation that “acting was all I ever wanted to do… I was a performer, probably, from the time I was crawling.” Interviewed by SFF creative producer Joe Neumaier, Virginia Madsen said of herself as a child, “If I went to a movie, if it was 90 minutes, I’d then take 90 minutes when I got home to act out the entire film. My mother [with whom she years later collaborated on a documentary about women in their older years] was very patient.”
Spending her childhood fascinated by older, black and white movies, often silents, she was also drawn to the classic monster movies starring actors like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney. She’s appeared over the years in a few herself, including the acclaimed Candyman but says it can be hard to find good scripts in the genre today, adding that recent hits like Get Out and A Quiet Place might change that.
Virginia Madsen recalled the the rollercoaster rides of her career with candor. After starting out in David Lynch’s epic Dune, she then spent time filming Electric Dreams in Europe. “I was living the dream,” she said ruefully. “But it didn’t stay that way for a long time.”
Virginia Madsen expects when many Sarasota Film Festival goers see the AIDS drama 1985, they will remember lost figures in their own life who were claimed by an epidemic at a time when so little was known. But she also hopes a new generation of filmgoers will consume the period piece. “I would like this film to be there for very young people,” Madsen tells SRQ. “I don’t think the dad in this movie would watch this movie, but I think very young people could be empowered by this story and recognize themselves.”
Madsen in the film plays the mother to main character Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a closeted gay man who returns to his conservative family to tell them he’s dying. The 56-year-old Madsen in real life was a 24-year-old actress in Hollywood in the year 1985, and knew too many people facing the same struggles and fate. She even had an uncle, one largely estranged from family, who died in the AIDS era, and Madsen had to explain to older family how he died. “There was so much fear and misinformation out there, and so much of people in front of you dying,” she says. “It was terrifying.”