The 1980s have enjoyed a recent surge in relevance, from the spectacle of Ready Player One to the nostalgia of Stranger Things. But the era remains one marked in sadness in the history of HIV, a time when the still-misunderstood virus claimed countless lives.
Actress Virginia Madsen launched to stardom in the mid-‘80s thanks to roles in Dune and Modern Girls, becoming one of Hollywood’s sexiest stars. Even as her fame rose, she was well aware of the growing tragedy. Now, as she promotes her new film, the nostalgic AIDS drama 1985, Madsen remembers the loss of life, telling press and film festival audiences about the deaths of close friends — and an uncle she never got to truly know.
“It was talked about in hushed tones,” she recalls. “People were trying to hide when they were terribly ill. If somebody developed a bad respiratory infection, people wanted to move away. Nobody knew anything. They wondered, could you get it from touching or from tears?”
Families, including her own, suffered irreparable ruptures. She recalls her uncle Chicky, who moved away from the family’s small Illinois community while Madsen was just a child.
“I didn’t know him well, but remember him as a little kid because he was extraordinarily beautiful,” Madsen says. “But he had to leave and move to San Francisco. I was robbed of knowing him because no one could accept who he was in our community.”