HBO’s The Normal Heart may have won the Emmy award for Outstanding Television Movie last night, but it was Larry Kramer, outspoken gay activist and author of the 1985 play, who garnered a standing ovation as he slowly made his way to the stage along with director Ryan Murphy and members of the film’s cast and crew. It was good to see Kramer, who is said to be ill, at the event, wearing his ACT UP hat and being honored. After thanking the academy and HBO, Murphy pointed out that “we’re only here because of one person, and that’s Mr. Larry Kramer. We did this for him.”
Considering his centrality to the win, it was strange not to hear Kramer speak—rare is the microphone he’s passed up in his decades of work as an (often controversial) activist on HIV/AIDS and gay issues. However, Murphy’s dedication of the film to “all the hundreds of thousands of artists who have passed from HIV/AIDS since 1981” was surely consonant in spirit—if not delivery—with what Kramer himself might have said. The most striking part of Murphy’s speech came when he called on young people to “become Larry Kramers … find a cause you believe, that you will fight for, that you will die for.”
Murphy’s call is well-taken, but his earlier comments about the film being “for” Kramer echoed the sentiment with which a number of critics (including me and my colleague June Thomas) walked away from the movie: While a perfectly good film, The Normal Heart reads at this moment in time more as an act of hagiography and historical preservation than as an effective way to raise awareness or inspire action around a crisis in which the challenges and affected communities have shifted significantly since the 1980s. That said, memory is important, and we should all join Murphy in commemorating the lost generation of gay artists, thinkers, activists, and everyday people for whom Kramer’s work must serve as a monument.