HBO’s ‘The Normal Heart’ Is a Flawed Film — But an Important One


Larry Kramer wouldn’t shut his mouth. It’s probably because of his outspoken nature, the bridges he burned and the politicians he pissed off, that the government’s recognition of the AIDS epidemic — an acknowledgement that didn’t come soon enough — turned what for years was misunderstood as a plague that only affected a small population of unfortunates (i.e., gay men) into a disease that the average American knows does not discriminate based on sexuality or race. Kramer’s work in the early ’80s, both as a founding member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the author of the monumental off-Broadway play The Normal Heart (which had its New York premiere in April 1985, nearly 15 months before President Reagan publicly acknowledged the crisis for the first time), was an indelible asset to the early days of HIV/AIDS awareness. As his autobiographical play, now getting the star-studded HBO film treatment, asserts, Kramer’s efforts were, for years, overshadowed by his rabble-rousing and the government’s indifference to the disease that was affecting millions.

The Normal Heart is reminiscent of another play, Henrik Ibsen’s oft-produced An Enemy of the People. Ibsen’s play follows a doctor who discovers that the local health spa, upon which the town’s economy relies, may have contaminated water in its baths. The doctor naturally speaks out, publishing his findings in the local newspaper, but the powers that be shut him down, ruining his reputation, branding him, per the title, an enemy of the people. While Ibsen’s play has comic elements that demonstrate its irony, The Normal Heart is a sadly serious affair, and in the years since its first production and the recent history it dramatizes (the very early AIDS cases in New York, the founding of GMHC and Kramer’s eventual ousting), it’s remained painful. Unlike An Enemy of the People, a fictional story that ends with the ruin of the good-natured doctor, The Normal Heart is absolutely true, and the events that take place after the curtain falls at the end of the second act only prove that Larry Kramer was right all along.

Of course, The Normal Heart is “fictionalized” — Kramer’s alter ego, Ned Weeks, is an infamous writer, known for a novel that critiqued the sexual revolution among gay men (very clearly Kramer’s 1978 novel, Faggots) and at least one screenplay (a nod to his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Women in Love). He comes from privilege, is Yale-educated, and struggles with his own self-hatred as a member of a generation of gay men who were the first to proudly and publicly accept their difference from mainstream society while still wishing for all of the heteronormative trappings of love and marriage. He struggles with intimacy and self-acceptance, the latter very clearly depicted in his relationship with his brother, Ben (inspired by Arthur Kramer, founding partner of the Kramer Levin law firm).

It’s the staggering number of gay men around Ned that sparks his understanding of his purpose: to demand that local and national governments recognize the growing plague and take action. He organizes a group of friends and colleagues into a GMHC-like organization (in the film, the real-life organization’s name is used). He also demands awareness from his community, suggesting that the promiscuity among gay men is what is spreading the virus — advice he receives from Dr. Emma Bruckner, one of the very few doctors in New York who is treating AIDS patients with compassion and seriousness. Just 15 years after Stonewall, however, the notion that gay men should curtail their newfound sexual liberation is received with derision from his community; that, and Ned’s caustic, outspoken personality, get him barred from the organization he helped create.

The Normal Heart is about fighting, but it’s also a tragedy: history tells us that the men at the center of that fight lost for many years while the government and medical community did very little to prevent the spread of AIDS. It’s interesting, then, to view The Normal Heart in the context of its original production in 1985 and its revival, first as an acclaimed Broadway production in 2011 and now as a Ryan Murphy-directed HBO film. Its original iteration served as a wake-up call to its audience, with Larry Kramer-as-Ned Weeks screaming from the stage about the absolutely intolerable treatment — or lack thereof — those early AIDS patients received simply because they were the members of a marginalized and despised community. Today, however, The Normal Heart is a period piece, an almost-nostalgic look at a dark era of American history in which, while the country thrived economically, many turned an unconscionable blind eye to their fellow humans who were dying of an infectious, and preventable, disease.

It’s commendable, then, that this glossy version of The Normal Heart sees an HBO airing, complete with A-listers like Mark Ruffalo (as Ned Weeks), Julia Roberts (as Dr. Bruckner), and Matt Bomer (as Felix, Ned’s lover). There’s a lot to applaud about it, as well. Ryan Murphy, who is no stranger to brutal imagery in campy, lighter fare like Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story, pulls no punches when it comes to dramatizing the horrors of AIDS. There are the now-familiar sights of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the dark purple lesions seen on an actor as famous as Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. But Murphy doesn’t shy away from the even more uncomfortable images of a dying body — the wasting away, the shit and the blood. For an audience that may be blissfully ignorant of the disease’s effects on the body, it’s as shocking as Ned Weeks’ screams and shouts were on the stage of the Public Theater in 1985. Additionally, the film includes a rarity: a pretty realistic sex scene between two gay men, which is a feat even for HBO, considering its most recent depictions of gay sex were either played for laughs (as in last year’s Behind the Candelabra) or just felt sterile and lame (as on Looking).

The film, however, feels a bit like a rush-job, and I believe Murphy is to blame. There’s the atrocious direction and editing, with a manic camera zooming in and out and all over the place, scenes shifting locations in the middle of lines of dialogue without real purpose. It also includes a pretty recognizable trope within the first three minutes: a gorgeous, shirtless Jonathan Groff coughs on the beach at his birthday party, and immediately everyone can tell something bad is going to happen. It has the subtlety of a Michael Bay action film, complete with obvious music cues. That the film ends with a somber Mark Ruffalo looking reflective and portentous while Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” overscores the scene is particularly groan-inducing. And while there’s a commendable attempt to make Julia Roberts seem plain as the polio-afflicted, wheelchair-bound doctor, it very obviously doesn’t work. It’s still Pretty Woman in a motorized scooter, after all.

It’s difficult to adapt a stage play to film, especially one as dialogue- and monologue-heavy as The Normal Heart. Working from Kramer’s own adaptation, Murphy makes the natural choice to dramatize events that are being spoken of by his characters, most notably in the second act; Bruce, the closeted Citibank executive who serves as the GMHC president (played by a very blond Taylor Kitsch, who resembles the vampire Lestat more than a former Green Beret turned gay activist), tells Ned about how he carried his dying lover on a flight home to visit his family. On stage, this monologue is stark and devastating; in the film, however, Murphy doesn’t give his audience the chance to imagine the pain and misery Bruce, his lover, and his lover’s mother experience as his lover dies and is discarded, like an insignificant piece of trash, into the garbage. Kramer isn’t a particularly subtle writer, so one would imagine a pairing with Murphy would be appropriate. But Murphy has the tendency to pander to his audience — it is, after all, what he’s best at: giving the audience what they want rather than making them work for it.

When I saw the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, I remember sitting in the back of the orchestra in tears, hearing the familiar sounds of sniffles and hushed sobs coming from the seats around me. When I watched Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart, I didn’t shed a tear. Is it because I’m jaded, and I knew what to expect from the story, having already had my emotional catharsis three years ago? Or is it because I couldn’t force emotions when I was told, by Murphy’s heavy-handed direction, that I was supposed to feel bad about what I was seeing? That is, of course, my own subjective experience of watching it, a movie that serves — and achieves — a purpose: it will no doubt enlighten an audience about the hell that was those early days of the epidemic. I hope that the film also inspires the realization that the fight isn’t over, that even though the worst of the AIDS epidemic may be behind us, the disease is far from being eradicated. The Normal Heart is only part history; if Ryan Murphy’s adaptation does anything, I hope it shows that the story didn’t end in 1985.