Larry Kramer’s shattering play The Normal Heart opened Off-Broadway nearly 30 years ago, yet this blistering indictment of public and bureaucratic indifference during the early years of the AIDS crisis had to wait until this Sunday to make its transition to the screen, via HBO’s star-studded new TV movie.
Maybe Kramer’s play – part poignant personal drama, part furious polemic – was deemed too hot to handle by most film and TV producers, although some power players including Barbra Streisand tried to get Kramer’s Heart transplanted long before now.
At any rate, HBO’s stunning adaptation – directed by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) from a screenplay by Kramer himself – was worth the wait. To some degree, watching this story at such a remove from the actual events of the play diminishes some of the piece’s power and urgency, but the human drama that remains is riveting in its own right.
Drawn primarily from Kramer’s own personal experiences, The Normal Heart opens in 1981 as gay writer Ned Weeks (Kramer’s alter ego, played by a very fine Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers) and his best friend, Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights), arrive on Fire Island, a gay vacation mecca, for a weekend of partying. Although spirits are running high among most of the participants, we quickly notice that Ned is odd man out, his presence evoking outright hostility from several visitors. Turns out Ned recently wrote a very controversial book that was, among other things, a scathing denunciation of the promiscuity that was embraced by many gay men in those early days of gay liberation.
Ned, a schlubby, socially awkward 40-something who never has had a successful relationship, is regarded as a sour party-pooper by many of his gay peers, so when he starts trying to call attention to a mysterious new disease that seems to target homosexuals, much eye-rolling ensues.
His curiosity piqued, Ned turns to Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a flinty physician who is one of the few doctors treating most of this syndrome’s early victims. She admits that, while she suspects the disease is contracted during sex, she can’t prove it.
After Bruce’s current boyfriend (Jonathan Groff, Glee) falls ill, Ned persuades Bruce and several other closeted gay men in the upper echelons of New York society to help him form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but Ned is dumbfounded to discover that many of these “discreetly gay” gentlemen are so paranoid about their personal lives being made public that they don’t even want the name of their new organization to appear on the outside of fund-raising envelopes.
As Emma struggles in vain to raise public awareness and receive more – or, indeed, any – financial support to study what is starting to look terrifyingly like an epidemic, Ned, Bruce and their stressed-out inner circle are chronically at odds over how to be most effective, exacerbated by Ned’s tactless, confrontational style. It’s here that The Normal Heart really soars, making tangible all these years later how chaotic and acrimonious the early ‘80s were for the New York gay community, as a dearth of reliable medical information and a surfeit of public and governmental callousness left those at ground zero to fight relentlessly among themselves, when they weren’t attending memorial services for young, talented friends cut down in their prime.
“We’re losing an entire generation,” sighs GMHC executive director and hospital worker Tommy Boatright (Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory, in the TV movie’s most endearing performance). “Young men, at the beginning, just gone. Choreographers, playwrights, dancers, actors: all those plays that won’t get written now, all those dances never to be danced. … I keep screaming inside, ‘Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us?’ “
The seamless ensemble contributes one remarkable performance after another. Ruffalo, best known as a romantic leading man in other movies, doesn’t shy away from Ned’s often abrasive, in-your-face personal style, while Matt Bomer (White Collar) reveals new depths as Felix Turner, the patient New York Times reporter who falls in love with Ned. Roberts, strenuously glammed-down, gives an appropriately testy and vanity-free performance as Dr. Brookner. Kitsch also shows unexpected range as a golden boy and former Green Beret forced by fate to become a completely different kind of hero, and Joe Mantello – who played Ruffalo’s role in a recent Tony-winning Broadway revival of Kramer’s play – has an unforgettable scene in which his character, GMHC board member Mickey Marcus, suffers a complete breakdown from the relentless pressure he and his peers are enduring.
If you were lucky enough to see The Normal Heart during its original 1985 theatrical run in New York or, as I did, in one of the many regional theater productions that quickly followed, you probably remember feeling that you were witnessing something historic, an artistic event firmly plugged into a chilling and still-unfolding real-life crisis that had no resolution on the horizon.
Watching the same story at home, three decades later, with AIDS now regarded as a somewhat manageable health condition, The Normal Heart no longer screams with quite the same unfettered rage. As a time capsule of a truly harrowing time in recent American history, however, it’s close to perfect.