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Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg Angels In America

Heart break is in the details.  Angels in America is a well known television mini-series based on the successful Broadway Show written by Tony Kuchner about the AIDS crisis. Roy Cohn a closeted gay man and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg are characters.  There are references to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed for espionage on June 19th, 1953.  This was always a controversial decision and in part manipulated by the scaremongering tactics of Roy Cohn who was one the of the primary prosecuters for the Justice Department.  

The plot is set in 1985: God has abandoned heaven, Ronald Reagan is in the White House, and death by AIDS is increasing. In Manhattan, Prior Walter tells Lou, his lover of four years, he's ill; Lou, unable to handle it, leaves him.  Prior does not cope well with his illness or lonliness, guilt invades Lou. Joe Pitt, an attorney who is Mormon and Republican, is pushed by right wing manevolent fixer Roy Cohn toward a job at the Department of Justice. Both Pitt and Cohn are in the closet homosexuals: Pitt out of shame and religious turmoil, Cohn to preserve his power and image and also apparently perhaps a complete sense of denial of who he is on some level;  and also likely a severe underlying personality disorder.

Pitt's wife Harper played by Marie-Louise Parker is strung out on valium, causing her to hallucinate constantly, and she longs to escape from her unhappy marriage.  I love watching Mary Louise-Parker nobody does spaced out distracted like her.  An angel played by Emma Thomas commands Prior to be a prophet. Pitt's mother and Belize a male nurse who is friends with both Prior and Lou, help Prior choose.

Pitt leaves his wife and goes to live with Lou, but the relationship doesn't work out as Lou sincerely cares for Prior and finally due to Lou's researching and reading Pitt's unjust court briefs rejects him unequivocally.  At this point Pitt beats and kicks Lou to the point that he could potentially kill him seeing a side of Pitt that is even uglier. Pitt initially portrayed as an innocent turns out to be a Roy Cohn in training.

Roy is diagnosed with AIDS early on and tells everyone until his death that it is liver cancer, and as his life comes to a close he is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg played by Meryl Streep who makes several appearances. As the film continues the good people reassemble (while Marie-Louis Parker is seen hurtling on a direct flight to the west coast), these lost souls come together to create bonds of love, loss, and loneliness and, in the end, discover forgiveness and overcome abandonment.  The last scene is Prior, Lou and Belize with Pitt's mother who seemingly has rejected her son for the time being, at a park fountain in the winter all waiting for the spring. 

I and my 17 year old step-daughter saw the mini-series and loved it.  She liked the male nurse Belize character and I liked Prior and thought he was particularily handsome.  We had found the DVD at our local library and watched the six one hour epidoses over several days.  We were thrilled by the interesting characters and dream sequences and the angels visiting are very impressive.  We loved it when Prior wrestles with the black angel played by Emma Thomas and  then the angel grabs Pitt's mormon mother who is at his bedside and by a lightening bolt delivered by god gives her a thousand watt organsim.  Good ole Emma and Meryl game for anything onscreen.

Overall there are about seven or eight main characters and some of the minor parts are also played by Meryl Streep and Emma Thomson.  For instance Meryl plays Ethel Rosenbergs ghost and Pitt's mormon mother while Emma Thomson plays a nurse int he hospital and the angels that visit Prior.  They both also play several other minor roles for example Meryl Streep plays an aged rabbi at the beginning and Emma Thompson a street person who directs Meryl Streep how to find the Mormon Center in Manhattan.

Interesting I think four languages are used at different times definately English, Hebrew and Yiddish and perhaps even Aramaic.   The series really struck me for the reason that as a teen I learned the history of the trial and know that the Rosenbergs had two boys ages 10 and 6 at the time of their executions.  Not to mention the time spent in prison before their executions taking them away from their children.   They were swiftly adopted by a nice family who cared for them. 

I always suffer immeasurable sorrow for the Rosenberg children and the loss of their parents but it seems particularily unjust the death of their mother Ethel.  It is still not certain how much involvement she had in this espionage case and I always felt it was a terrible injustice that she was executed.  It is likely due to Roy Cohn's insistance that they were given the electric chair rather than  life sentences.  I read that she talked of her children often in prison and thought of little else.  One can only imagine what she went through.  

This series brought back my deep caring for the history of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and I am very very grateful to Tony Kuchner to create such a compelling and controversial piece of work.  What I mean by that there is heartbreak in the details is that the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg in the series uses her maiden name Greenglass when she calls the ambulance for Roy Cohn and also refers to June 19th they day the Rosenbergs were executed.  Just incredible writing.   Plus it was a great education tool for my step-daughter to see gay issues and lifestyle and with so much creativity and vividness and imperfections of society and how we can change.

In American History in highschool I was first introduced to the Rosenberg trial and my first reaction was that American Justice was served as I still had an unquestioning attitude toward the decisions of authority.  Learning history tends to make a sceptic out of anyone I would guess.   I remember Mrs. Lovato writing furiously on the board although she had probally taught the subject literally six times a day for 10 years it was brand new to me.  I remember her tone of impartiality in describing the story and how that they at some point one of the Rosenbergs apparently carried a half of a cardboard Jello box face and the Soviet contact would sopposedly have the other half?  Mrs.  Lovato went to Stanford and I admire her as she returned to get her PhD in American History at the local University in her retirement.  She really felt passionately about American History.

I have followed writings in the New York Times about the topic and think within the last five or so years I saw an article were it was indeed verified that the Rosenbergs had spied for the Soviets.  I believe papers being released from the Russia substantiated this.  Although it appears that the level of information they passed was negligible and it is still uncertain the depth of Ethel's involvement.  In modern times many of the people caught up in the Rosenberg trial have admitted to lying to protect their own interests or to cover for extra-marital affaires etc.  It was largely due to Roy Cohn's aggressive seeking of the death penalty that the Rosenberg's were executed instead of life in prison.

I think in this article one of the children who was working in some sort of Civil Rights work reluctantly and with a far away demeanor said, yes they did spy afterall.  Although due to the McCarthy era and general hostility toward anyone with outside the mainstream ideas where given very serious consequences, death.  I remember reading that they did verify the spying for the Soviets and felt like Mrs. Lovato's work started in highschool had come full circle. 

Somewhere along the way I read that during the trial many references were made to Roy Cohn's closeted homosexuality.  For instance there was a camera called a Pixie also a slang word for a gay man of the time and there was a double sense meaning  brought up by the opposing side that Roy Cohn had a photo taken with a Pixie camera and this brought laughs in the court.  So although his public personnae was protected his homosexuality was highly rumored.  In addition to the unjustice of this notorious trial Roy Cohn also was a vehemently anti-gay publically.

Seeing Meryl Streep play the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg brought up so many thoughts about the USA culture and our development and history.  Roy Cohn does offer some explanation for his having sought the death penalty is he give this viewpoint that he hates traitors.  Although does not explain his relentlessness and backroom dealings in seeking the death penalty over life imprisonment. Likely just because the American Justice system allowed it and than people like Roy Cohn are everywhere.  

A very powerful scene is when Roy Cohn is laying in the hospital dying of AIDS and he asks the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg to sing to him because he is afraid and pretends that he is hallucinating  and fakes that he believes the ghost of Ethel is his mother.  So Ethel sings a Yiddish song to him and Roy Cohn opens his eyes wide and says "ha" I made you to sing for me, I know your not my mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, I win and immediatley dies. 

The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg pushes the nurse call light and Belize comes in the room and finding Roy Cohn dead calls Lou to take the remaining AZT medication of Roys' to Prior as it is hard to get and lifesaving at the time of the initial AIDS crisis. Lou shows up at the hospital room of Roy Cohn and Belize being a good hearted person asks that if he can say the Kaddish for Roy Cohn.  Lou being a secular Jew doesn't know all the words in Hebrew and stumbles along and than the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg softly says in Hebrew and giving the words to Lou in his head.  He is able to miraculously chant the Kaddish and knows all the words. 

Ethel's portrayal of quiet good moral values in the face of adversity demonstrated by singing Kaddish for Roy Cohn through Lou, despite his despicable character is just a heart break. The message that somewhere justice will prevail is a beautiful message if not in this world in the next.   What an important mini-series.  I give it a triple wow!