Will Ryan Murphy's The Normal Heart Mean Much to Today's Gays?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 22 2014 4:21 PM

What Does The Normal Heart Mean in 2014? 

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Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) and Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) dance in The Normal Heart.

Photo by Jojo Whilden

J. Bryan Lowder: Well hello, June. I must say, after watching Ryan Murphy's take on Larry Kramer's loud and moving and blunt and unrelenting old play, I am acutely aware of our relationship as gay man and lesbian woman—your people are, after all, the ones who were so crucial in helping mine get our shit together during the AIDS crisis, so thanks for that. And I am also thinking a lot about generations: You lived through the events depicted here; I was born in 1987, two years after The Normal Heart first ran off-Broadway. AIDS has certainly been a presence in my life as a gay man, but it is not defining for me in the way I know it is for older queers. There are a lot of things to talk about with an object like this film—it's a work of art, a historical document, a piece of propaganda, and one fairly narcissistic man's memoir all at once. I find it very difficult to appraise without reams of caveats and sidebars. Perhaps a place to start: Did you think this movie worked as a movie? When we left Ned Weeks crying and smiling at the Yale gay dance, what was your primary feeling?

June Thomas: Bryan! I'm excited to represent lesbians of a certain age in this dialogue, the way that the efficient butch who whips the GMHC telephone hotline into shape in The Normal Heart stands in for all the lesbians who put in time, energy, and tears during the height of the AIDS crisis.

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I confess to a bit of nervousness here. If I admit to being curiously unmoved by this film, am I showing myself to be some kind of cold-hearted monster who doesn't care about the terrible plight of gay men in the early '80s? I found the movie very watchable—the actors were attractive and impassioned, and I was entertained for those two hours and 10 minutes. But I wasn't driven to write a check or put down my remote so that I could go out into the world and do something for our people. It is, as you say, a historical document at this point, and I don't think that the film told me anything new about New York at the dawn of the AIDS crisis ... nothing that I hadn't read about or heard about or seen in other movies. (Or lived through, sort of. Mine was something of a separatist existence at the time, though I wrote about the crisis for the radical feminist paper I worked at.)

But I guess I'm not the target audience, and I don't know if you are, either. I suppose the idea is that Jim Parsons (the star of America's favorite comedy) and Mark Ruffalo (the thinking woman's man-crush) and handsome Taylor Kitsch and gorgeous Matt Bomer will draw a different crowd to watch this on HBO on Sunday. Folks who haven't seen or read or heard all this before.

Bryan: Yeah, that may well be true. I should confess going into this that I was not exactly hopeful about this film's impact: I found the Broadway revival of the play from a few years ago so flat as a work of theater that my partner and I both left at intermission. I just really resented the implication that reverence for the dead or for Kramer's trademarked brand of un-nuanced fury should trump our judgment as consumers and critics of art. But that's a complex discussion for another time; I share it only to throw into relief the fact that I did find this movie to be pretty effective on the level of film.

As you say, the acting was good and certain moments—especially the scene at the fundraising dance and the exchange between Felix and Ned's brother in his office—to be deeply moving. But I think the movie still suffers from the play's primary problem: There is no arc, no crafting of the tragedy into a managable story that we can comprehend. Kramer's interests are clearly on the world-historical level, and so the individual humans he creates are really just mouthpieces for various points of view better fitted to a sermon than the stage. You end up with an unrelenting barrage of tirades that come on about every seven minutes, some of which are powerful and others empty bluster. But in the end, you feel exhausted more than inspired to do anything useful. Of course, you could see that critique as being part of the play in the way Ned's version of activism is ultimately rejected, but then I'm left wondering what purpose this film is supposed to serve now, especially after more interesting and unfamiliar representations like those, for example, in Dallas Buyers Club.

Also, I think it's worth noting that we may have seen enough film versions of the AIDS experience of upper- and middle-class white gay men. HIV is overwhelmingly a disease afflicting women of color at this point, and I can't help but wonder why Murphy didn't spend his money and time on film addressing that—the reality of AIDS today—rather than a story that anyone who cares should at this point know at least the basic outlines of.

June: Yes! The question of purpose is a profound one. I understand the need to keep reminding people—young 'uns who weren't alive back then, and those who were alive and didn't care enough to do anything—that many, many people stood by while literally hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans died. And personalizing the story, showing a man fighting to keep his dignity when the body of his lover is dumped into a plastic bag and so on, is effective. But it's always tricky when fictional characters become the face of a real-life horror story. At the end of the movie, there's that beautiful scene you mentioned before, where Ned's lover Felix, close to death, goes to consult with Ned's straight brother, a lawyer, about his will. But I got all distracted, and kind of mad, wondering why Felix was leaving his worldly goods to Ned—yes, the love of his life, but also a well-off man who apparently didn't have to worry about money, a guy who could afford Fire Island and a beautiful beach property—instead of his son. That has nothing to do with the story of AIDS in America, but I was off on that story spiral instead of focusing on the horrendous injustice. In other words, that scene worked wonderfully as drama, but for me at least it seriously undercut the agitprop value, which was probably more important to Kramer.

Bryan: That's a great observation, and I think one that shows how poorly drawn some of these characters are—or rather, how they are used in the service of "Making a Point" instead of given the complexity of human beings. In any case, your use of the phrase "horror story" reminded me of another thought I had while watching: I understand and appreciate that Murphy wanted to be very frank in this movie—about gay sexuality and about the awful deaths these men experienced. But I felt that at a few moments, Murphy tipped from the frank over into the lurid. I'm thinking specifically of the antiques dealer, in a fit of dementia, asking for his dog in the hospital, and the scene on the subway where Felix sees an emaciated fellow sufferer. These both feature scoring, lighting, and other cinematic choices that would have been right at home in American Horror Story, but they felt a little gratuitous here. Is seeing a man covered in lesions and wasting away in the normal train light not enough of a horror?

June: OK, so this film didn't give me any fresh insights into the early days of AIDS in America, but it did make me ponder one eternal question: What is the role of assholes in social justice activism? Larry Kramer has been profiled a lot in the last few months, and in all of those pieces from Frank Bruni's column to the New York Times interview from earlier this week, there's no attempt to disguise the fact that he was a terror for a very long time, wielding the telephone or the typewriter like a weapon. That seems acceptable and maybe even admirable when we tell ourselves that his orneriness saved millions of lives—and Peter Staley, who was in ACT UP during those dark days, used that exact phrase in his conversation with Outward’s Mark Joseph Stern. But assholes don't always save lives. Sometimes they just drive people away from organizations. Sometimes they prevent breakthroughs from happening by pissing off politicians and bureaucrats. Are we making a mistake by conflating Ned Weeks/Larry Kramer and all the bull-dozing, monomaniacal activist types?

Bryan: As much as I personally can't get with Kramer's style, there's no question that he saved lives and did good in the world. But yes, I agree that the lesson should not be that self-righteous single-mindedness and a “screw everybody, I'm a prophet” attitude will cure all ills. In fact, Ned Weeks strikes me as a rather petulant, almost juvenile figure whose obsessiveness and tantrums happened to get latched to a cause at a moment where that kind of rabble-rousing proved useful, at least as a part of a larger strategy. But it could equally well have been directed to something where that was NOT the most effective route to take. Peter Staley's interview is a good thing to bring up here, because he mentions that Kramer's version of HIV prevention and gay politics in general seems stuck in 1992. Have you read his 2004 polemic, "The Tragedy of Today's Gays"? It's insufferable and, in this case, also ineffective. Gay people today are not interested in solidarity or "gay identity" in the same way that people were in the ’70s and ’80s. Kramer/Weeks' "the chosen people are being murdered" argument made some sense then, but now liberation has resulted in a generation that has different priorities and responds to different incentives. Screaming at them to stop bare-backing (which they should) out of some duty to "gay citizenship" or telling them that using Truvada is "for cowards" isn't going to work, mainly because we are not really interested in a "leader" anymore, I don't think. And leadership, of course, is the obsession at the center of the film.

June: Staley's point about every generation needing its own activists and its own style of activism seems so right. I remember my first exposure to Frank Kameny—who I now realize was a towering presence who had a massive impact on the life of every LGBTQ person living in America today. At the time, though, he seemed like an old-fashioned, shouty guy in a horrible suit. (I also realize that he was probably younger at the time than I am now!) Older me is ashamed of my shallow, callow response to the guy, but it's part of the circle of life. And while I'm glad that Kramer is being appreciated—in some ways as a proxy for all the men who died in the '80s and ‘90s, who could've written other, maybe better, plays and polemics and novels—I don't think young gays pay him the slightest bit of notice. And maybe that's as it should be.

Bryan: That's really eloquent, June. I hope my feelings aren't the result of callowness, but I'll allow that it's possible. I mean, I want to engage with and relate to Kramer's work, but I think he is too concerned with the morality and fate of the "gay race" as a whole to really mean much to gay individuals at this point. But, as you say, maybe that's fine; his is one of the few voices from that period that we have left. My hope is that this movie educates and inspires those who are not already steeped in this stuff—our TV critic Willa Paskin certainly found it powerful—but I think it might be more useful to take it as a final gesture of gratitude to a complicated and passionate man who truly did make the world a better place. He deserves at least that much.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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