The Normal Heart
What would you do if you were told by a doctor that engaging in a fundamental human activity – sex – could become a death sentence, so that it would be wise to refrain from doing so?
In the case of a group of gay men in 1981 New York, the overwhelming response to this pronouncement – delivered in a gathering at one man’s home by a female doctor – was one of vociferous anger, punctuated by some fear.
For something, undeniably, was beginning to kill the denizens of the gay community, a mystery illness then referred to as “the gay cancer,” and those numbers were beginning to mount.
The onset and early years of the AIDS/HIV crisis in New York is powerfully recounted in that scene and many others in the HBO film The Normal Heart, which is based on the 1985 Off-Broadway play by writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer, written by Kramer and directed with unflinching conviction by Ryan Murphy.
A 2011 Broadway production won the Tony Award for best revival of a play; the film won two 2014 Emmy Awards for outstanding television movie and non-prosthetic makeup, of 16 nominations.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, an openly gay writer who is determined to do something about the situation. Matt Bomer is Felix Turner, the closeted New York Times writer whom Ned asks to give exposure to the growing emergency, and who becomes the love of Ned’s life. Julia Roberts plays Dr. Emma Brookner, herself a survivor of once-epidemic polio, a warrior in a wheelchair whose early patients and research have led her to believe that the illness is sexually transmitted.
Other cast members include Taylor Kitsch as Bruce Niles, a closeted former Green Beret who with Ned becomes the co-founder of the social service-advocacy organization the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); actor-director Joe Mantello, as early fighter Mickey Marcus and Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright, GMHC executive director.
Mantello played Ned on Broadway; Parsons reprises his Broadway role. Alfred Molina plays Ned’s attorney brother Ben, who offers his legal services but has a harder time offering support for Ned’s lifestyle.
Ned’s activism style is brash and combative, relentless and blunt as he goes after politicians and their minions in an attempt to gain funding and recognition, first from New York City Mayor Ed Koch and then President Ronald Reagan, who did not mention the word AIDS until his second administration. Ned is ultimately forced out of the GMHC by those who prefer a quieter approach.
There are other compelling in-your-face scenes, among them Ned’s confronting brother Ben and pleading for his acceptance, and Mickey’s tearful outburst about not giving up the hard-fought right to publicly love whomever he wishes.
The quieter moments pack their own devastating, emotional punches.
Ned tenderly cares for Felix after Felix contracts AIDS and grows visibly weaker – Bomer famously lost 40 pounds to more convincingly portray the ravages of the disease. In the hospital shortly before Felix dies, he and Ned are “married” by Dr. Brookner. Tommy’s speech about all the artists whose work will never be created leaves an indelible impression.
And then there is Bruce’s telling of taking dying lover Albert home to see his mother once last time, where the refusal of hospital doctors to examine the body and issue a death certificate leads to an orderly removing Bruce’s beloved from the hospital in a garbage bag, followed by a $3000 bill for cremation.
There’s a lot of love in those quiet moments; as Kitsch told the New York Post, “The movie’s not really about the sexuality of these guys. It’s a love story. Universally, everybody loses people or fights falling in love and pushes it away.”
Everyone’s heart is “normal” in that way.
“Normal,” too, no matter what the era. Set in the 1980s, the movie remains relatable to contemporary audiences.
As Ryan remarked on a TCA press tour panel, "Larry wrote that play with the idea that silence does equal death. When people were writing about it, there were no solutions. It ends in '84, but what it's about feels modern to me, with gay marriage in the news and people fighting to be loved and accepted for who they are. It's still very modern and very applicable to the way we're living today."
For its uncompromising look at a medical crisis and the men and women who stepped up to fight, and its exploration of the human heart no matter in whose body it beats, The Normal Heart is a worthy recipient of 2015 Television Academy Honors.
Produced by HBO Films in association with Plan B Entertainment, Blumhouse and Ryan Murphy Productions
Watch The Normal Heart on the HBO website.
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