Features

Coming To America

Or, how it took 12 years for an Angel, Ethel Rosenberg, Roy Cohn, and a few Mormons to make it to the big screen

PLOT Picture spending seven hours inside the imaginations of the smartest, funniest, most politically agitated gay men you've ever met, and you have the experience of ''Angels in America.'' The year is 1985. Ronald Reagan is President and Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) has AIDS. This terrifies his politically liberal boyfriend, Louis (Ben Shenkman), who begins a dalliance with a politically conservative Mormon, Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson), a protege of Republican power player Roy Cohn (Pacino), himself AIDS-stricken. When he isn't hallucinating encounters with Pitt's despairing wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), Prior believes he's being visited by a feisty angel (Emma Thompson), who proclaims him a prophet. Prior's visions trouble his ex-drag queen buddy -- and, coincidentally, Cohn's nurse -- Belize (Jeffrey Wright, reprising his Tony-winning Broadway role). But Prior finds a believer in Hannah Pitt (Streep), Joe's frosty mother.

OR IN THE WORDS OF THE CREATOR ''It's like a bunch of atoms in a cloud chamber, crossing, colliding, and changing each other,'' says ''Angels'' writer Tony Kushner.

WAITING FOR ALTMAN In 1991, after persuading Kushner to let him turn ''Angels in America'''s two plays -- ''Millennium Approaches'' and ''Perestroika'' -- into films, executive producer Cary Brokaw asked the playwright about ideal directors. High on Kushner's wish list: Robert Altman. What a coincidence! At that moment, Brokaw was wrapping Altman's ''The Player.'' The two set up ''Angels'' at Fine Line Features. But ultimately Altman chose to concentrate on making ''Short Cuts'' and ''Ready to Wear'' instead, and eventually parted ways with Brokaw and Kushner. ''Bob has his process of making everything he does a Bob Altman film,'' says Brokaw. ''That step never really took place.''

THE P.J. HOGAN EXPERIMENT In 1996, Hogan (''Muriel's Wedding'') worked with Brokaw and Kushner on converting seven hours of theater into 180 minutes of film. Translation: ''Let's see what happens when we cut the s -- - out of it,'' laughs Kushner. ''There had always been this suspicion: Does it really need to be this long? We found it does.'' Ultimately, Hogan was offered ''My Best Friend's Wedding'' and left. A very brief flirtation with ''Nurse Betty'' director Neil LaBute followed, but he too didn't stick. Kushner thought: This is over.

IT'S NOT OVER While producing Mike Nichols' adaptation of Margaret Edson's play ''Wit'' for HBO in 2001, Brokaw talked up ''Angels'' to the Oscar-winning director of ''The Graduate'' and HBO Films president Colin Callender. Hallelujah! ''Angels'' finally had a helmer and a home. ''The first thing I loved were the acts of kindness. Acts of kindness [in the world today] are so rare now,'' says Nichols, who shot ''Angels'' throughout 2002 in New York and Rome. Grueling? You bet. ''I bitched all the time,'' says Nichols, 72. ''But the truth was, I loved every minute.'' HBO approved a $60 million budget, plus a six-chapter structure allowing ''Angels'' to air as a miniseries. Kushner, natch, was -- is -- thrilled: ''It was like being produced by Medici princes.''

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