Comfortably Numb | Randal Kleiser | Randal Kleiser

Comfortably Numb 
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, December 2009
CINEMAQUEER.com

Over 10 years have passed since I saw It's My Party on its first release. Out director Randal Kleiser's well made weepie about AIDS and suicide packed an emotional wallop in 1996 and it still does today. My initial reaction to the film was complicated but one's politics evolve over the years and the movie's then-perceived flaws no longer seem important to me. It is a personal film that captures a moment in time, much like The Boys In The Band did in 1970.

Heading up the all star production is Eric Roberts as Nick Stark. His relationship with Brandon (Gregory Harrison) is perfect until he learns that he has AIDS. The opening scenes from a marriage, at first idyllic, coldly climax with Brandon throwing Nick out of the house they built together. A year passes and Nick is forgetting things, dropping weights at the gym and losing his peripheral vision. A head scan reveals Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy. In plain English, there are lesions on his brain and he has perhaps only a few days left before going completely blind and losing all motor control. Rather than become an invalid and suffer for months like a friend did from the same brain infection, he decides to commit suicide while he still has his faculties intact. It's time to go out in style and he invites his family and friends to a big send-off party.

The party stretches out to two days to accommodate a few latecomers. It is an exuberant and awkward affair as all of Nick's loved ones try their best to be upbeat and make the guest of honor happy. Family members are in denial and Nick has to constantly reiterate that there is no hope. He would rather say good-bye to everyone now before he becomes a vegetable. The guests' moods range from reluctant acceptance to resentment and anger. The drama really clicks into full gear when Brandon makes an unexpected, and unwelcome, entrance.

It's My Party is, as it should be, a tearjerker of the first order. Based on actual people and events from the director's life, it documents a time before the advent of protease inhibitors and cocktails when an AIDS diagnosis was often an immediate death sentence. AIDS still kills but today there are a number of treatment options that both prolong life and make HIV's complications more manageable. This was not the case during the period in which the film is set. (Kleiser talks at length on the DVD's commentary track about how much of the film is based on his friend, and ex-lover, Harry Stein's farewell soiree in 1992.) It's My Party was the first, and only, Hollywood studio release to examine the theme of AIDS patients dying with dignity.

It's My Party is filled with details that define its era. Occupying a small room in Nick's house is a shrine dedicated to all of his friends who have died and there are at least two dozen photographs adorning the wall. When Nick prepares his invitation list to the party, he cynically goes through the names in his phone book and says "dead... dead... dull... dead... might as well be dead..." His best friend, Tony (Paul Regina), is a doctor who worked in an AIDS ward but bailed because he was burned out. He has "helped" a few friends who wanted to die and he will be at the party for support - and in case anything goes wrong. A guest, at one point, calls him Dr. Kevorkian.

One of the film's most controversial scenes is a flashback in which another of Nick's friends took an overdose of pills. When Nick, Brandon and Tony went back the following morning, they found their compatriot lying peacefully in bed. The tragic tableau's sadness is suddenly broken when the man begins to snore. Perhaps this scene is in questionable taste because it is actually quite funny when we hear the snores and the others react in terror and panic. But gallows humor can also be an effective dramatic device and it's up to the viewer the ponder the ethical implications when the dying man's friends are forced to "finish the job."

The theme of assisted suicide and dying with dignity is a volatile subject for some. What it boils down to is a matter of individual choice and that, rather than longwinded debate, is the film's emphasis. This isn't ancient history yet and so most readers should still remember the distasteful episode in 2005 when President Bush and the Republican-run Congress intervened, in what should have been a family matter, and tried to prevent the removal of life support from a Florida woman named Terri Schiavo who had been in a vegetative state for over a decade. While the controversy over suicide isn't argued at any length in It's My Party, Roddy McDowell's character is a devout Catholic who objects to Nick's decision on moral grounds. He finally makes such a pest of himself that he is asked to leave.

But back to the party. The guests include Nick's mother, his estranged father and an assortment of friends. When Brandon arrives, everyone is hostile to him and tries unsuccessfully to get him to leave. Brandon refuses. His presence provides much of the film's dramatic tension. Guilt-ridden, he knows that his past actions were inexcusable. He also realizes how much he still loves the man he abandoned. So much to say, and so little time. He isn't alone; Nick's alcoholic father never accepted his son's homosexuality and hasn't seen him in years. He also has two days to make amends. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

Events at the party swing from drunken revels to introspective talk. A comment or a memory triggers many flashbacks, most of them recalling both the good times and the bad times that Nick and Brandon shared. Idyllic images of skiing and horseback riding contrast with ugly confrontations in which they argue over the house and their dog. A reviewer shouldn't give away the conclusion but we all know how this one is going to end. Watching Nick and Brandon finally re-connect is both heartfelt and bittersweet, knowing how little time they have left together.

Although director Randal Kleiser has always been out, this was his first contribution to queer cinema. His eclectic career goes back to the 70s and his oeuvre includes Grease, The Blue Lagoon and a host of family movies. Having helmed numerous blockbusters provided the clout necessary to get this film made. The A-list cast features Lee Grant, George Segal, Bruce Davison, Olivia Newton John, Bronson Pinchot, Margaret Cho, Marlee Matlin and Christopher Atkins. Paul Regina (Tony) played the gay sibling in Showtime's oddly forgotten 1980s series, Brothers. Blink and you'll miss Greg Louganis as a video photographer. The acting, for the most part, is exceptional. Eric Roberts and Gregory Harrison both give heartfelt and convincing performances. Roberts, playing against type, is especially noteworthy and he dominates every scene in which he appears.

It's My Party is, without question, a three hanky movie but it is deeply sad without being maudlin. Melodrama is kept to a minimum and much of the film is surprisingly restrained. There is a beautiful scene in which Nick asks a friend's gay son if he practices safe sex which is not in the least pit preachy. Comments like "Let's have a drink. Or two. Or six" help to break the tension. Most of it works splendidly but there are a few bumps along the way too. McDowell's moral protests are a bit forced. Pinchot's character, at times, is an even more annoying bitchy queen than Michael in The Boys In The Band. The horses at the end were a bit much too. But the minimal missteps are forgotten by the time the tragic conclusion is reached. Nick and Brandon's last kiss is a heartbreaker. I bawled my eyes out at the epilogue the first time I saw it and I did so again last night. You would have to be made of stone if your eyes don't water when Brandon picks Nick up and carries him to his bed so his family doesn't see him die.

Born from personal experience, It's My Party is an honest film that resonates on both visceral and cerebral levels. The awkwardness of the situation is superbly conveyed, as is the range of emotions from the participants. A number of rude online columnists called the film version of Rent "dated" because of the AIDS storyline. Balderdash. I suppose the opera La Boheme is dated too because the heroine dies from Consumption. Because It's My Party's scenario was one that may been more common two decades ago, call the film a period piece if you like. Call it a shameless, manipulative tear jerker if you want too. But It's My Party, warts and all, is a devastating portrait and remains a vital piece of the queer cinema canon. 

© Randal Kleiser Productions 2015