With Mad Max and the Terminator back and Jurassic Park reopening, plus a slew of sequels coming to theaters this summer, it seems like everything old is new again. I often hear complaints about remakes. In fact I seem to hear the same complaint about remakes over and over, which is funny when you think about it, but that’s another story. In principle I don’t have any problem with remakes. I’ve mentioned that my favorite movie is Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but it doesn’t bother me that I have to specify that I mean the 1956 version. There are things I like about the 1978 version, including the inside-joke-cameo by Kevin McCarthy.
The problem I have with the 2015 remake of Poltergeist isn’t that it’s a remake. The problem is the absence of Zelda Rubinstein. I’m sure Jared Harris is a fine actor, but let me be blunt: Zelda Rubinstein was perfectly cast in the original because she may have been physically small but projected being psychically strong. She carried herself with grace and strength. The original Poltergeist is full of strong women, but Rubinstein’s Tangina towers over all of them. The first time I heard her say, “This house is clean” I expected the credits to roll. I can’t imagine anyone would want to mess with her, but it seemed like anyone who did would regret it.
Maybe that’s why her work to fight AIDS in what only seemed like the disease’s early days—it had been around for years, but Rubinstein’s work began in 1984—was so powerful to me.
AIDS and HIV have only affected me indirectly. I can’t speak to, or even imagine, the horror suffered by those who lost those they loved, especially in the early days when the disease was so poorly understood. The closest I could come was someone else’s experience. A friend of mine who was a few years older lost his first longtime partner to AIDS. They had been separated for several years. It was the partner’s diagnosis and hospitalization that brought them back together briefly. One summer when I was home from college my friend told me the whole story. His partner had died only a short time before and I did what I could to help him through his grief. He never said so, but I knew from the way he described it that his time with his partner was the happiest time of his life. We’d go to restaurants and sit and he would tell me how they used to climb a hill overlooking Centennial Park and spend the night there just talking.
Even before I met him, even before I knew anyone I knew was gay the tragedy of AIDS saddened me. Kids I knew would make tasteless jokes about it and I hated them. Maybe it scared and saddened them too and that was their way of dealing with it, but I don’t want to let them off the hook. It was a scary thing to a teenage boy, even one who had almost no chance of being infected with HIV, but that doesn’t matter. Those of us who were hitting puberty during the AIDS crisis should have been able to sympathize, to know that joking about AIDS wasn’t wrong, but joking about the victims was. The subtext of every AIDS joke I heard at the time was “if you have AIDS you deserve it”. Sadly the kids who told those jokes were just repeating what they’d heard from adults, but as teenage boys we should have been smarter and more understanding. Our bodies were surging with hormones that were almost screaming at us to have sex, and the news was telling us “Sex can kill you.” The one AIDS joke that made me laugh was when a kid sitting next to me in math class leaned over and whispered, “I’m so scared of it I’m wearing a condom right now.” There was also a Bloom County strip that reflected the dating scene at the time that also tickled me.
Maybe that’s why when I thought about AIDS all I cared about is that it was a disease and it was killing people. Whom it killed didn’t matter to me. It did matter to others, though. It mattered enough that there was a stigma surrounding it that fed the fear. AIDS was popularly considered a “gay disease”, but the fear was directed at anyone who had it. When I was sixteen one of my teachers read a story to the class about a boy with hemophilia who’d gotten HIV from a blood transfusion. His neighbors drove past his house chanting “KILL HIM! KILL HIM!” This fear spread even to those who worked with or even knew anyone with AIDS.
Here’s my version of an 80’s AIDS joke: how do you find out who your real friends are? Get HIV.
It’s against that backdrop that Zelda Rubinstein took part in the LA CARES advertising campaign. I remember seeing one of the ads in a magazine and thinking, “Hey, that’s the lady from Poltergeist. She’s so cool!”
Hollywood, where, within a few years red ribbons would become ubiquitous, didn’t think she was so cool at the time. She didn’t work for a year after publicly speaking out about AIDS. In case you think there just might not have been any roles for her check out her IMDB page and note how much she worked, which makes the absence of any credits for 1985 very conspicuous.
Was Poltergeist about AIDS? Not intentionally, and not even unintentionally since it was released in 1982, and it’s probably a bad idea to even try to tie the two, but let me offer some thoughts. The film was called “Poltergeist”, suggesting a single entity, but the haunting is caused by a group of ghosts. We speak of a disease as a single thing but it’s the manifestation of a multitude of organisms. The Freeling family notices odd things at first, but they’re afraid to talk to their neighbors openly about it. They retreat into their home and only turn to professional help when they lose their daughter. They don’t do anything to deserve being tormented. And then there’s that tagline: “It knows what scares you.” (It’s been changed to “They know what scares you” for the remake.) Sexual contact is the most common way HIV spreads. I don’t care how casual a hookup seems. Sex is always intimate contact which makes HIV a disease shared by intimacy. It also forced people who’d kept part of themselves secret, who’d been afraid to admit to the world who they really were, to come out. And for others, like my friend, there was nothing more terrifying than losing someone he loved. So many lost their lives. So many others lost everything else.
On the other hand the Freeling family escapes in the end. People with AIDS often disappeared, but there was no escape from the disease.
Zelda Rubinstein, who worked to make the world a better place, was born May 28th, 1933. She passed away January 27th, 2010. She lived to see HIV infection become a treatable disease even if there still is no cure. There will never be another one like her.