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An Early Frost (1985) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

michael aids family peter

Principal social themes: AIDS, suicide/depression, homosexuality

NBC Productions. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Aidan Quinn, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Sylvia Sidney, John Glover, Terry O’Quinn, D. W. Moffett, Sydney Walsh, Bill Paxton, Cheryl Anderson, Christopher Bradley, Sue Ann Gilfillan, Don Hood, Barbara Iley, Scott Jacek, John Lafayette. Written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman based on a story by Sherman Yellen. Cinematography by Woody Omens. Edited by Jerold L. Ludwig. Music by John Kander. Produced by Perry Lafferty. Directed by John Erman. Color. 97 minutes.


An Early Frost was the first motion picture ever to deal with AIDS, It proved to be an artistic triumph, debuting on November 11, 1985, on NBC. The storyline focused on a young lawyer who developed AIDS, returning home to visit his parents and revealing both his condition and his homosexuality. Their varying reactions form the heart of the story, as well as the lawyer’s encounter with others who had contracted the disease. An Early Frost was one of the most acclaimed telefilms, receiving fourteen Emmy nominations that included five members of the cast. It also won a Director’s Guild Award.


An Early Frost opens as young Chicago lawyer Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn) visits his family in Pennsylvania. Michael is fearful about telling his loved ones that he is a homosexual, only revealing his secret to his sister. When he returns to Chicago, he tells his live-in lover, Peter Hilton (D. W. Moffett), that he was unable to tell his family he is gay. Feeling ill, Michael consults a doctor who informs him he has tuberculosis. Dr. Redding (Terry O’Quinn) does further testing and concludes that Michael has AIDS. The doctor probes the sexual histories of both Michael and Peter. He conjectures that Peter might be a carrier who does not have the disease himself. Peter and Michael argue and break up. Michael returns home to stay with his family. When he tells them the situation, his mother, Katherine (Gena Rowlands), is desperately worried, but Nick, his father (Ben Gazzara), is hostile and angry, almost striking his son. The reaction of other family members is unpredictable. His sister panics and refuses to see him again. His grandmother (Sylvia Sydney) is warm and loving, giving Michael his first whole-hearted embrace since he revealed his condition. Michael visits his father at his office, but finds him cold and unresponsive. That night, Michael has a seizure and passes out. The ambulance drivers refuse to transport him after they learns he has AIDS. His father is outraged and carries his son to his car, driving him to the emergency room. At the hospital, Katherine questions a flustered Dr. Gilbert (Don Hood), who says that the prognosis for surviving AIDS at the present time is remote, almost hopeless. But the patient must be encouraged to hope, since it is the only weapon he has. In an attempt to be supportive, Katherine invites Peter to visit them. Nick is distant, but as they discuss Michael’s character, he grows warmer. At the hospital, Michael starts to recover from his infectious episode. He meets with an AIDS support group, but walks out, unable to relate to them. One patient, Victor DiMato (John Glover), is very ill, but he tries his best to be humorous and upbeat. He talks with Michael, getting him to accept his condition. They become friends. When he is about to leave the hospital, Michael is surprised by his father, who comes to bring him home. Nick is becoming more tolerant and sympathetic to the difficulties facing his son. Michael and Peter reconcile, and when his lover leaves for Chicago, Michael promises to follow in another week. Visiting the hospital, Michael prepares a last will for Victor. When he returns with the will drawn up, he learns he is too late, that Victor passed away during the night. Katherine is horrified when she learns that Victor’s entire family had rejected him and he had died alone. She vows that their family will stand by Michael under any circumstances. She finally persuades Michael’s sister to reconcile with him. As he prepares to return to Chicago, Michael feels strengthened by the support of his family.


The topic of AIDS was still largely unfamiliar to the public at large, except for those immediately touched by the condition, when this telefilm aired. Considering this, it is amazing how much information writers Cowen and Lipman were able to include in the script without making it seem pedantic or forced. They did this by skillfully peppering the information throughout the course of the story, correcting one character’s misconception or answering another one’s question. Terry O’Quinn, for example, is sensitive and reassuring as he breaks the news of Michael’s condition to Michael and Peter, assuring them he is not being judgmental when he asks about their sexual history. Don Hood, as Dr. Gilbert, is brutally honest when he describes AIDS to Katherine, and it may be the most powerful scene in the film. Much can be learned from the crusty attitude of Nick, well played by Ben Gazzara. His attitude goes through many changes, from outright disgust and hostility, perhaps feeling it to be a personal insult that his son is a homosexual, to slow understanding and finally to compassion. Undoubtedly, the writers felt that attitudes of viewers might develop as Nick’s do, step by step. Gena Rowlands’s performance as Katherine is a less-compelling portrayal, but her honesty in learning about AIDS and bringing that knowledge to those in her family denying the condition is admirable. Of course, An Early Frost has to touch many bases, but it does so honestly, without seeming forced. Michael is still in the early stages of the disease, but this is counterbalanced by Victor, John Glover’s wacky but poignant character, who depicts the latter stages of AIDS. Finally, An Early Frost avoids being maudlin or sentimental, a very delicate balancing act. It carefully manages to avoid portraying Michael as having a “golden parachute” due to his family’s wealth and overall understanding. The film clearly suggests that Michael will face a terrible and ultimately losing battle. There is another AIDS film made for cable, In the Gloaming (2000), featuring Glenn Close and directed by Christopher Reeve. This film is very elegiac, focusing on a young man who returns to his parents’ home to die. This worthwhile production would make a splendid companion volume to An Early Frost , even if it covers some similar ground in the storytelling.

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