Beyond the red ribbons Hollywood slowly pulls AIDS out of the shadows TO YOUR HEALTH

December 22, 1992|By Jessica Seigel | Jessica Seigel,Chicago Tribune

Los Angeles -- Everyone acted calm and sympathetic when Burt Pearl, a television writer, pulled aside each of his 13 office mates at Columbia Pictures to tell them he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

After all, this is Hollywood, where being sensitive to the AIDS issue has become vogue, like being seen at star-studded galas that have raised millions of dollars for the cause.

But as Mr. Pearl learned, the public spectacle doesn't always match the private truth. Colleagues stopped hanging out on the couch near his desk. His coffee mug was left out of the dishwasher when other dirty dishes were loaded. People were ** avoiding him.

"I felt like a leper," said Mr. Pearl, 35, who now is working on a network pilot. "I realized I had to do more than just tell them I was HIV positive."

Though Hollywood is awash in a sea of red lapel ribbons showing sympathy for victims of the epidemic, Mr. Pearl still had to explain to his colleagues that AIDS can't be transmitted through casual contact. Now he leads workplace seminars about AIDS as one of 18 trained educators for a group founded a year ago to combat homophobia and AIDS discrimination in the entertainment industry.

The latest addition in a long line of show business organizations focusing on AIDS, Hollywood Supports was created in response to the dying words of actor Brad Davis ("Midnight Express"), who kept his illness secret for fear he would not get work. In writings published after his death, he accused Hollywood of hypocrisy for throwing money at AIDS programs while at the same time discriminating against people with the virus.

The moguls who created Hollywood Supports gave a decidedly mixed report when they met last week to assess the group's impact over the past year. As one example that the entertainment industry has yet to face the devastation in its midst, many pointed to Anthony Perkins' death this fall. He kept his illness secret as well.

Whether unknown or famous -- some would say it is worse for the stars -- people living with AIDS can face a difficult time in Hollywood, an industry based on youth, illusion and heterosexual romance.

"There's still enormous fear," said Barry Diller, former chairman of 20th Century Fox, who co-founded Hollywood Supports. "There's still a lot of ignorance, which continues to surprise me. How can we not be doing more than anyone else? We should be on the cutting edge."

Supports co-founder Sidney Sheinberg, president of MCA, said he has been disappointed that only one other company, Viacom, has followed his lead this year in extending health benefits to the domestic partners of employees.

Domestic partner benefits "are a very important status symbol to gay people that they are being treated fairly. I keep hearing other companies are going to do it manana," Mr. Sheinberg said. "People are very generous in terms of money [donations], but I don't know if things have moved as fast as they could have."

Extending health benefits to domestic partners allows people to get treatment who might otherwise not be covered. Trying to keep the illness secret, as was the case with Rock Hudson, Davis and Perkins, may dissuade people who are sick from seeking the best treatments available.

"If Brad Davis had been able to be open, he probably could have prolonged his life," said Rich Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, which has a $320,000 yearly budget and a full-time staff of three. "The stigma [of AIDS] is definitely diminishing, but it's not gone."

Hollywood has changed since the death of Hudson, when Elizabeth Taylor first took the lead in raising funds for AIDS research. In those days, homophobia and fear of AIDS were so intense that many men in the entertainment industry felt they couldn't even discuss the subject without being pegged as gay.

In keeping with the nationwide successes in the gay rights movement, homosexuals in Hollywood are feeling more comfortable about coming out of the closet, helping lessen fears about being associated with AIDS. Last month, for example, recording tycoon David Geffen publicly disclosed that he is gay at the $3.9 million AIDS Project/Los Angeles Commitment to Life fund-raiser.

As dramatic subject matter, AIDS only recently has worked its way onto the silver screen. Theater and television have led the way in this regard with plays like Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" and programs like "St. Elsewhere" and more recently "Life Goes On." The only films made so far about AIDS were small independent studio releases, "Long-Time Companion" and "The Living End."

In the past, major movie producers have felt AIDS would repel audiences, but that thinking has changed as executives have green-lighted a wave of big-name films about the epidemic.

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