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.”