On Oct. 4, the documentary film Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner will open in several cities around the country. The title comes from Kushner’s most famous work, Angels in America, considered one of the defining dramas about the AIDS epidemic.
A central image in both the stage versions of Angels in America (which is actually two plays) and the HBO films is Bethesda Fountain in New York’s Central Park. Set in the heart of the park at 72nd Street, the fountain, which is surrounded by a sweeping terrace, depicts the Angel Bethesda, who is considered a healing angel.
“It’s iconic,” said Sara Cedar Miller, historian and photographer for the Central Park Conservancy. “People are automatically drawn to fountains. Here is this gorgeous fountain at the very core of Central Park. I think the reason people are passionate about it — aside from how beautiful it is — is the fact that it really is a symbol of the park.”
Bethesda Fountain is the work of sculptor Emma Stebbins, whose brother, Henry, was the president of the board of commissioners and the chairman of the Standing Committee on Structures, Architecture and Fountains. When she decided to pursue art as a career, Stebbins moved to Rome to study, and that is where she spent the majority of her time. Her influences were Greek and Roman. The theme of the eight-foot gilded bronze statue is the story of an angel with healing powers who touched its foot down in Jerusalem. There are also four smaller four-foot high figures symbolizing temperance, purity, health and peace.
Sculpted in 1868 and unveiled in 1873, Bethesda Fountain: The Angel of the Waters is done in the neoclassical style and was generally panned by art critics of the day.
“By 1873, a lot of the sculpture in America had become a real American school. They threw off the shackles of European suggestions and tried to have more realistic sculpture, like the Indian hunter that’s down at the other end of the mall from the angel,” noted Cedar Miller.
There are 51 sculptures in Central Park, but perhaps none have received more worldwide exposure than Bethesda Fountain. It has appeared in countless movies, and in the films Godspell and Angels in America it actually became a character.
“The scene in Godspell is about baptism,” explained Cedar Miller. “It’s Saint John the Baptist who is baptizing people in the fountain.”
The first part of Angels in America, the play Millennium Approaches, premiered in 1991, at the height of the AIDS crisis. The second part, Perestroika, debuted 18 months later. Both use the Bethesda Fountain as a central backdrop, as the lead character, Prior Walter, describes it as his favorite place in New York.
“This angel, she’s my favorite angel,” Prior said. “I like them best when they’re statuary. They commemorate death, but they suggest a world without dying. They are made of the heaviest things on earth — stone and iron. They weigh tons, but they’re winged. They are engines and instruments of flight.”
Although she lived more than a century before Kushner’s plays were written, Stebbins had a great deal in common with the theme and with the gay community. Not widely known is the fact that she had a female lover, a renowned American actress by the name of Charlotte Cushman, whom she met in Rome. As Cedar Miller wrote in her book, Central Park: An American Masterpiece, Cushman introduced Stebbins to a community of American expatriate artists.
“Did Stebbins fashion her angel with an image of her love in mind?” Cedar Miller wrote. “Perhaps. Theologically all angels and archangels are male, though Stebbins specifically refers to her angel as a female.”
Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1869 and healing was very much on Stebbins’ mind. Cushman died in 1876. Today, the famous breast cancer fundraiser, Race for the Cure, runs right by the fountain, as does Race to Deliver, which benefits God’s Love We Deliver, a 20-year-old organization that delivers hot meals to homebound people with AIDS.
In 2003, when HBO Films created a six-hour miniseries version of Angels in America, the producers knew they would use Bethesda Fountain to even greater visual effect. The opening title sequence is meant to resemble the flight of an angel. It begins at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and then travels through the clouds. Salt Lake City is shown, because Mormonism is touched on in the play. Then Chicago is seen. Then the visual point arrives in New York, starting at lower Manhattan and — filmed from a helicopter — makes its way over the treetops of Central Park. Bethesda Fountain comes into view.
“Then there is a visual effect dissolve to what’s called a spider cam, which is a computer generated camera that is on a 250-foot crane,” said producer Celia Costas. “The camera is literally lowered on a winch all the way down to within six inches of the angel’s face. It ends on a close-up of her face. Then there’s a visual effect of her turning around and looking straight at the camera and the eyes open.
“It’s a great sequence and I cannot tell you how much trouble it was to make,” she continued. “I did the entire thing from beginning to end and figured it out. It’s very effective.
“It’s representative of so many of the metaphorical issues that are dealt with. When we were trying to figure out what to do with the title sequence, we decided this was the integral image in the entire movie. That’s why we arrived at that angel flight across the country — beginning in San Francisco and ending on the angel’s face. Then dissolving into the story.”
Even after all this time, Costas speaks passionately about Angels in America. She recalled a recent conversation with the film’s director, Mike Nichols. “We spoke about how we were making a movie about something that we feel is so important, so interesting and so transcendent in terms of time and place,” she said. “The issues that are important in life everywhere and to everyone.”
The play and the film both won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony, the Emmy and the Golden Globe. The crew of Wrestling With Angels was present at the final day of shooting for Perestroika. Costas also recalls another day of filming at Bethesda Fountain, where a couple was waiting to get married after they were done.
Cedar Miller said that it is estimated that there are 25 million visits a year to Central Park; this includes many people who come repeatedly. There are approximately six or seven million tourists, many of whom visit Bethesda Terrace.
“Because it’s an angel and it’s hovering as a guardian angel, I think that really touches people,” said Cedar Miller. “She’s become much more than a work of art. She’s really a symbol of the park itself.”