The rom-com Fire Island, debuting June 3, is set on that coastal community off Long Island, favored by queer New Yorkers as far back as the 1930s. The scenic locale — free of cars and inhabited by a population of white-tailed deer — has served as a film backdrop before, most notably in Ryan Murphy’s 2014 adaptation of The Normal Heart for HBO, and before that in the 1989 ensemble drama Longtime Companion.
In both, Fire Island is depicted as a gay utopia, a carefree bacchanal soon to end with the appearance of a mysterious and deadly illness that seems to be targeting gay men. Companion — which was released as the AIDS epidemic was still raging, with seemingly no treatments in sight — was a breakthrough in every sense of the word.
Written by playwright Craig Lucas and helmed by theater director Norman René, it was only the second mainstream film to address AIDS (the first was the 1985 TV movie An Early Frost). The title referred to a euphemism employed by The New York Times for surviving partners of AIDS victims. And the film, which spans the first eight years of the epidemic, begins with its cast of then mostly unknowns — including Dermot Mulroney, then 25, Campbell Scott, 27, and Mary-Louise Parker, 24 — relaxing on Fire Island and discussing a Times report identifying a “rare cancer” in “41 homosexuals.”
Patrick Cassidy was 26 when he was cast as Howard, a soap star who loses his partner to AIDS. “I lived in New York City from ’81 to ’86 straight,” Cassidy recalls. “I got to know what it was all about. We knew we were doing something very important [with this film].” Cassidy remembers audiences “audibly weeping” at early screenings — particularly during Bruce Davison’s bedside goodbye to his dying partner, in a role that earned Davison an Oscar nomination (the Academy’s first recognition of AIDS, predating Philadelphia by four years).
Audiences wept for the finale, too, a fantasy where the dead and living reunite on Fire Island’s shores. “I lost some of my greatest friends to AIDS,” Cassidy says. “It changed me.” René, who died in 1996, was one of them.
This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.