By 1987, AIDS had ravaged America, claiming 40,000 lives. But many politicians, including President Ronald Reagan, refused to even utter the four letters in public. That all changed with Elizabeth Taylor, who, through her newly formed organization, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, devised a plan: She'd have amfAR bestow her with an honor at its third International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., and invite her longtime pal POTUS to award it to her. And so on May 31, 1987, Reagan got onstage and spoke, finally forced to address an issue he'd been avoiding for an eternity.
It's an amazing piece of history, and it's the highlight of The Battle of amfAR, a new HBO documentary about the work of the group's unlikely co-founders, Taylor and Dr. Mathilde Krim. "We remember how infuriating it was that Reagan never so much as acknowledged the epidemic," says Rob Epstein, who directed the film with his frequent collaborator Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk). "That Taylor was able to get him across this threshold speaks to her relentless determination to make AIDS part of the national conversation."
Though Reagan wouldn't broach the topic again before the end of his presidency, the speech was instrumental in starting a global dialogue about AIDS, one that Taylor helped lead for the next 25 years.
The Battle of amfAR is now available on HBO. Watch the trailer below: