Skin Lesions that Induce Empathy:

Jared Leto's KS in "Dallas Buyer's Club"

As an HIV positive transvestite in “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” actor Jared Leto is getting well-deserved Oscar buzz. The film is set in the late 1980’s, at the dawn of treatments for AIDs. Leto works with HIV infected cowboy/ entrepreneur Matthew McConaughey to rustle up and sell non-FDA approved treatments.


Leto lost significant weight and sheared his flowing locks to protray this spunky character. Leto and the film itself are already winners here at for depicting his Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS) realistically and sympathetically.  Usually, when makeup or CGI is used to create the appearance of abnormal skin, the effect is to illustrate evil.  Think Freddie Krueger, Scarface or various Bond villains.  Leto’s character is not portrayed as evil, rather as a flawed but feisty faux femme.  He and McConaughay navigate an antagonistic bureaucratic system, fighting not just for their survival, but for others with the disease.

Kaposi’s Sarcoma is a form of blood vessel cancer. It can be deep red or purple, as seen here. We now know that it is the result of infection with the human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8), which is separate from the viruses that cause AIDs (HIV) and lip and genital herpes (HSV).  While many may harbor HHV-8, healthy immune systems keep the virus suppressed.  Infection with HIV damages the immune response, allowing bruise-like lesions to develop on the skin and internal organs.  Now with treatments for HIV, it is possible to put KS into remission.  Because of this, KS is much less common since treatment for HIV has become available.

In the movie, the presence or absence of KS lesions are used to show patients either responding to treatment or succumbing to AIDS.  Of interest, we are aware of no movies that have used KS to identify a purely malicious character.  Oscar winners who have had roles featuring KS include Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie and Javier Bardem.

While there has been, and continues to be ignorance about and prejudice directed toward those infected with HIV, film makers have consistently depicted complex individuals coping with a life-threatening condition.  Props to Leto and “Dallas Buyers Club” for continuing this tradition.


Runner up:  Skin Lesions That Induce Empathy:

Daniel Brühl's scars in “Rush”

In Ron Howard’s flick about actual 1970’s Formula One drivers, Daniel Brühl plays Niki Lauda, dramatically burned during a racing accident. Though Lauda's social skills do not match his ability on the track, he is not portrayed as wicked or immoral.

His survival instinct, ambition and tenacity generate cheers from the crowds. Note also, the accurate depiction of Lauda's deformity. Actor Brühl is on the left and Lauda himself is shown to the right. Brühl finishes this race with a worthy second place on the Skinema podium.

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