Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart opened in New York in 1985, and although I didn’t know exactly what it contains until I saw Ryan Murphy’s new HBO film, it feels to me I’ve been aware of it almost as long as I’ve had any adult cultural awareness. I distinctly remember a period in the 1990’s when film magazines like Variety, virtually on a weekly basis, reported on Barbra Streisand’s progress toward filming the material, an effort which eventually petered out. More recently, the play was revived on Broadway, winning several Tony awards, and then Murphy finally managed to get it on screen, albeit not on the big screen, but it hardly matters now. Kramer’s late-in-life softening (he’s now 79, and has apparently had some serious health close-calls) was reportedly a major factor in this – he’s expressed complete satisfaction with the result.
The Normal Heart
Watching the HBO film, I couldn’t help wishing we had Streisand’s version to compare it to – if only because of the passage of time, the differences would surely be instructive and fascinating. The film revolves around Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a protagonist with much of the back story and many of the attributes of Kramer himself, active at the heart of the gay community at the time when the “gay cancer” is initially identified. Weeks is instrumental in organizing a response to the escalating crisis and in lobbying for public funding and attention, but his aggressive methods cause conflicts with his fellow activists. At the same time, he has the most meaningful relationship of his life with a New York Times journalist, who’s eventually infected with the disease.
It’s hard to watch the film without thinking back to the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague (I said the same thing when I was writing here about Dallas Buyers Club, so it’s clearly entirely reshaped my sense of that piece of history), not just because Kramer was one of the interviewees there. The focus is a little different though: where How to Survive focuses on the specific efforts toward finding a cure, The Normal Heart is anchored a little further back in the assimilation process, still overwhelmed by lack of comprehension that such a thing could be happening, struggling toward meaningful personal or collective coping strategies, with discussions of effective treatment anchored more in hope than in articulated research. Still, that aside,, although I certainly don’t hold any views on the inherent superiority of documentary films over the other kinds, in this case the comparison doesn’t particularly work to the benefit of Murphy’s film.
I say this for mostly unsurprising reasons. The play has been “opened out” in the usual ways, adding exteriors, additional secondary characters, and so on, but the ways in which it adheres to the source material, including its focus on a small group of core people, still seem limiting; it contains numerous extended monologues that impede the sense of naturalism; the character of a wheelchair-bound doctor who’s one of the first to recognize what’s happening (played here, rather monotonously, by Julia Roberts) may have been an effective counterpoint on stage but seems like a leaden device here. Although the film is more physically frank than a 1990’s Streisand version would likely have been, and articulated without the Hollywood gloss one imagines she would have painted on it, its overriding purpose is no different - simply to record Kramer’s landmark work for posterity, even if every passing year can only possibly add distance, reducing the odds that the underlying anger can be transmitted intact.
Somewhat offsetting that though, Murphy’s film is a fascinating encapsulation of America’s changing conversation about being gay. The opening stretch of the film emphasizes how the community at that time, in Weeks’ assessment, is overly dependent on promiscuity and demonstrative exuberance to define itself; when the Roberts character counsels taking a break from sex until they know more about the disease, many see that merely as a route back into the closet. At the same time though, the gay community can barely interact openly with the big world around it, and political leaders still perceive no moral need to extend even trivial mercies toward homosexuals, let alone any practical advantage; if the political leaders themselves are closeted, one perceives, they’re only less likely to do anything that might undermine their own security.
Looking back, it wouldn’t have been so surprising if the reaction to AIDS had broken in such a way – as many doubtless feared at the time that it would – as to fortify the disinterest or disgust of the rest of the world, and leave gay people in the ghetto forever. Instead, it’s possible to see its devastation as the start of the slow (but in recent years rapidly escalating) climb toward equality. The most thrilling parts of The Normal Heart now – and it has quite a lot of them – are the heated debates about fundamental identity and status; for example, Weeks’ insistence to his (straight) brother, the most important figure in his life, that he nevertheless won’t speak to him until he accepts Ned’s sexuality as being fully equal to his own, something the brother finds impossible. If the brother thereby seems like a symbol of expired attitudes, we should recall that it’s only been two years since President Obama was willing to support same-sex marriage, thus ending his own support of a fundamental institutionalized prejudice. Murphy’s film arrives at a time of astonishing realization of dreams: by no means fully achieved of course – maybe that’ll come when it ceases to be news that yet another second-level celebrity isn’t actually straight, or when a trashy website like TMZ can no longer get mileage out of pouncing on the homophobic slurs of the rich and unimportant (the ongoing interest in which seems to speak to a profound lingering insecurity, among other things).
In this light, one of the film’s most meaningful elements is the presence of Jim Parsons, playing the executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (a part he also played in the Broadway revival). Parsons seemingly slid easily into public acceptance as an openly gay man playing a nominally straight role; in The Normal Heart, he retains his familiar speech patterns and mannerisms, but as an increasingly exhausted mechanism of resistance. It’s not just that he gives the film’s most moving performance (from a strong line-up) but that by his very presence he embodies the ultimate triumph over potential decimation, and clarifies the film as a declaration of victory. Barbra Streisand’s mid-90’s version of the material would no doubt have tried to find some legitimate signals of long-term hope too, but it would surely have struggled to make them more than far-off aspirations.