The Normal Heart Would Have Made Me Cry Even if It Weren’t Totally Great

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May 22 2014 2:05 PM

“By 1984 You Could Be Dead”

HBO and Ryan Murphy’s tremendously moving The Normal Heart.

The Normal Heart.
Matt Bomer, left, and Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart.

Photo by Jojo Whilden/HBO

The Normal Heart, premiering on HBO this Sunday, is a blunt, effective instrument, a handsome, walloping cudgel that begins in gay paradise on the eve of the apocalypse: Fire Island, 1982. In the film, directed by Ryan Murphy and adapted by Larry Kramer from his 1985 play, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), closely based on Kramer, disembarks a ferry stuffed to capacity with gorgeous, lithe young men and walks to a beach house where hard-bodies lounge on beach chairs in joyful, frivolous camaraderie. Ned is already something of an outsider. He’s self-conscious about his body, buttoning up his shirt as he gets off the ferry. (If Ruffalo being anxious about his looks strikes you as implausible, you should see the hunks here assembled.) A critic, like Kramer, of the hedonistic aspects of ’70s gay life, Ned is skeptical of sex as an act of political freedom. So his Fire Island trip is uncomfortable even before a young man, seemingly the picture of health, collapses on the beach. The plague is upon them, and it turns Ned’s pugnacious, outspoken qualities into useful weapons.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Ferocious, strident, bellicose, out of the closet, Ned is politicized instantly. He heads to the doctor (Julia Roberts, her smile stapled into a frown) treating the cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma popping up all over the city.  He lobbies his straight brother (Alfred Molina) for pro bono law work. He hectors Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a gay style reporter at the New York Times, for coverage, and falls in love with him instead. He helps begin Gay Men’s Health Crisis with a group of his more politic friends (Taylor Kitsch, Joe Mantello, the particularly scene-stealing Jim Parsons). He writes scathing op-eds that are taken verbatim from Kramer’s own famous 1983 essay “1,112 and Counting”:

I am sick of closeted gays. It’s 1983 already, guys, when are you going to come out? By 1984 you could be dead. Every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us.
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The Normal Heart is not subtle in its dramaturgy, but it is affecting. The only real cure, Kramer restates, is to live not in fear, but in fury, to demand resources, respect, equality; Ned’s anger feels urgent rather than merely repetitive. If Ned and some of his friends have to repeat their mission statement over and over again, well, when your life’s endangered you scream for help until someone hears you.

Murphy directs with straightforwardness and sincerity and none of the camp fireworks of Glee or American Horror Story. This adaptation could have been a quarter as good and still would have induced tears; if it makes one sentimental to cry at the gross indignity of having your corpse disposed of in a garbage bag because of whom you love, let us all be sentimental. If some of this material—scenes of lesions and deathbeds, of men being denied the right to say goodbye to their lovers—is becoming a part of the tragedy canon, so be it: It belongs. Murphy lays all of this on, but not overly thick; he pays as much attention to his characters’ bodies in health as in sickness, in love as in death.

The Normal Heart was first staged at the Public Theater in 1985. It is hard to imagine just how bleak it must have been to see it that year, when a major accomplishment was getting Ronald Reagan to say the word “AIDS” out loud for the very first time. In 1985, $50,000 seemed like a lot of money for research, and a recent point of debate had been whether Gay Men’s Health Crisis should have been passing out information suggesting the disease was sexually transmitted. Given all of this, it is remarkable not just how righteous Ned and Kramer’s fury was, but how right.

From 2014, the absolute certainty of Ned’s positions just seem prescient—not, as they would have in 1985, mind-bogglingly, inhumanly, hubristically assured. Ruffalo, ever lovable, softens Ned further, as does the love story between him and devoted, hot, maritally inclined Felix. The fact—and complications—of Ned’s mulishness, necessary as it may have been, gets lost. It takes a late speech from Mickey (Mantello), shaking, infuriated, lunging at Ned for calling him a murderer, to remind us of the audacity of Ned’s now-vindicated position. But even this speech is not quite enough to make present-day sense of how Ned came to be kicked out of GMHC for being embarrassing and uncontrollable, with his former friends saying they were “more angry at you than ever towards anyone.”

The movie ends with Ned, alone and grieving, visiting Yale, where as a freshman, convinced he was the only gay student at the whole university, he tried to kill himself. It’s Gay Week, and the room is full of young men dancing cheek to cheek; from 2014, the moment feels hopeful, presaging a world where young gay men and women are free not just to dance but to marry. But in 1985, those college kids were about to enter a world in which a solution of any kind was still very far away. Kramer was two years from founding ACT UP (which, as the great documentary How to Survive a Plague shows, took years to be effective, though it began agitating immediately.) Many of them would be dead before the decade was through.

And yet despite the distorting distance of nearly 30 years, The Normal Heart feels relevant. We have made progress on the problem of AIDS and the matter of inequality, but we haven’t cured either. The Normal Heart, set in the 1980s, is not yet a period piece—maybe someday soon.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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