In the darkest days of the AIDS pandemic, two very different women – Hollywood superstar Elizabeth Taylor and research scientist Dr. Mathilde Krim – joined forces to create amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research), America’s first AIDS research foundation. The fight against HIV/AIDS would never be the same again.
Directed by Rob Epstein (HBO’s Oscar®-winning “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt”) and Jeffrey Friedman (HBO’s Emmy®-winning “The Celluloid Closet”), and executive produced by iconic New York fashion designer and amfAR chairman Kenneth Cole, THE BATTLE OF AMFAR tells the story of the unlikely pairing of these extraordinary women, who came together to fight the disease.
In 1981, research scientist Dr. Mathilde Krim learned of unusual cancer cases, all of which involved gay men, that were showing up in the medical practice of a friend. A politically and socially active New Yorker, she was eager to learn all she could about the disease, and when people began to die, the potential magnitude of the problem became a concern. In response, Dr. Krim and a few colleagues committed their own money to gaining a better understanding of the disease.
AIDS research found an unlikely ally in Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor, who was devastated by the loss of her good friend, actor Rock Hudson, to the disease. When Dr. Krim called Taylor to see if she would be interested in getting involved with the cause, the actress agreed immediately, and amfAR, the first national organization to mobilize the scientific community in the fight against AIDS, was born. As they started speaking out about the disease and the need for research, Krim recalled that Taylor “was terrific. She was moving. The public responded to her.”
While Dr. Krim focused on energizing the scientific community through her professional, political and social connections, Elizabeth Taylor worked alongside activist groups and supported groundbreaking legislation such as The Ryan White CARE Act, leveraging her celebrity to bring media attention to HIV/AIDS.
Taylor delivered emotional testimony before Congress, declaring, “No one is safe…It is not just a minority disease. It belongs to all of us. I ask here and now for the national leadership that is necessary to fully appropriate this bill. Because I will continue to come and ask for it again, and again…And I will not be silenced, and I will not give up, and I will not be ignored.” She pressured President Reagan to acknowledge the existence of HIV/AIDS as a worldwide pandemic and convinced him to speak at an amfAR fundraiser.
Both women were leaders, sharing an activist spirit. “Dr. Krim was very impatient about what she saw as red tape, and Elizabeth was too, and I think that’s what they had in common, that activist spirit,” notes Taylor’s former publicist, Sally Morrison, who was an early amfAR employee.
By the mid-’90s, AIDS was the leading cause of death for Americans age 25 to 44. In 1996, research partially funded by amfAR led to lifesaving new drugs that made HIV/AIDS treatable, a diagnosis that no longer guaranteed a death sentence. Facing the prospect of patients requiring lifelong therapy to survive, however, amfAR continued its diligent search for a cure.
In addition to recent and archival interviews with Krim and archival footage of Taylor, THE BATTLE OF AMFAR features interviews with amfAR chairman Kenneth Cole, AIDS activist Richard Berkowitz, philanthropist Aileen Getty (Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter-in-law), journalist Regan Hofmann, New York University microbiologist Dr. Nathanial Landau, AIDS researcher Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, researcher Dr. Mario Stevenson and Black AIDS Institute founder Phill Wilson, among others.
Since its inception in 1985, amfAR has invested more than $366 million in HIV/AIDS-related research programs and awarded grants to more than 2,000 research teams worldwide. Elizabeth Taylor passed away in 2011, but Dr. Krim and amfAR continue their quest for a cure. Someone is infected with HIV in the U.S. every ten minutes, and an estimated 30 million people have died from AIDS since the epidemic began. Although the war against AIDS is not over, the great victories in the history of research could not have been won without these two women, who stood up for the good of truth and human dignity in the face of illness and fear.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s previous HBO credits include the Oscar®-winning “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” the Emmy®-winning “The Celluloid Closet” and “Paragraph 175.” Epstein also directed the Oscar®-winning film “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
For more information, visit: http://www.thebattleofamfar.com; Facebook: facebook.com/hbodocs; Twitter: @HBODocs #BattleofamfAR
THE BATTLE OF AMFAR was directed and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; executive produced by Kenneth Cole; produced and written by Sharon Wood; edited by Michael Palmieri; music by Jeff Beal.