As you guys know from the videos, the good folks at HBO were kind enough to give us a screener of The Normal Heart days before it premiered. God knows why they saw fit to reach out to us, but I’m so happy that they did.
I should also add that, when I first heard that Ryan Murphy was directing a film adaptation of The Normal Heart, I was not exactly thrilled at the news. I hadn’t seen Larry Kramer’s play, but I knew that it was intense. I’m also not a fan of Ryan Murphy. I hate Glee, and felt a bit lukewarm when I watched American Horror Story. The only thing he’s done that I enjoyed is Nip/Tuck, which is a far cry from what I would imagine The Normal Heart to look like.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, The Normal Heart tells the story of Ned Weeks, a writer and reluctant activist during the the initial outbreak of HIV and AIDS in Manhattan. Weeks starts off as your standard quirky Jewish writer protagonist. But as the conflict escalates and as more people keep dying around him, he gets perpetually angrier and more hostile. The play is writer Larry Kramer’s semi-fictionalized account of his own personal struggles with the HIV epidemic and Gay Men’s Health Crisis. A friend of mine described the play this way: “a third of the play consists of monologues that are screamed into empty space.” It’s been called a “blunt instrument of a play,” that’s “designed to push people out of their ignorance, complacency and seats to demand justice, and funding, for all.”
I’m happy to say that my reservations about the film adaptation were all for nothing. Murphy’s adaptation turned out to be as moving as it was intense. It’s a well-made film, thanks in no small part to some fantastic performances by Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, and Matt Bomer’s skeleton (seriously, they made him look rough in this film). Every character bursts onto the scene with a strong personality and a distinct voice, some of which take a little getting used to. They don’t bother trying to get you to like them, they simply are who they are, and are unapologetic to a fault. But nonetheless, their struggles are compelling, which makes the film’s ending extremely hard to swallow…and that’s the point.
I must say, it’s pretty appropriate that Ryan Murphy’s other work includes American Horror Story. If there’s ever a story that deserves that title, it’s this one. While this film is technically a drama, there are moments in this film that are far more horrifying than any fictional terror that Hollywood could ever make up. There’s one montage in particular centered around Taylor Kitsch’s character that left my stomach and my jaw on the floor. Of course, what’s most disturbing about the whole story is that it really happened. Sure, the people may be slightly fictional, but everything that takes place in this film is something that really happened to actual people a little over thirty years ago. It’s so surreal to see how evolved our society pretends to be about stuff like LGBT rights and HIV prevention when there are all these skeletons in our closet from our frighteningly recent past. AIDS was a terrifying disease, but the general public’s apathy was an even more sinister killer. Even worse, in our hurry to put such frightening days behind us, a whole new generation seems poised to make similar mistakes, what with infection rates on the slow rise once again.
This is one of the big reasons why I feel like The Normal Heart is an essential film to watch, and not just for LGBT people. HIV isn’t a gay disease. Thus, while a vast majority of these characters are gay, their cause is a universal one, as is the overall message of their story. Furthermore, it’s an incredibly important historical and cultural document for the LGBT community. It’s already difficult enough to learn about LGBT history in any sort of academic setting. Meanwhile, this period in our history is one that should always stay with us in the back of our minds, both in honor of the thousands of too-short lives that we lost and to ensure that we don’t make any of the same mistakes. Not to mention, for someone like me, it helps me get to know the giants whose shoulders I get to stand on, and if you’re at all involved with the cause of equal rights, you should too.
I actually got to meet Larry Kramer earlier this year during the premiere party of BOYS: An Anthology. The thing is, I was giving a reading that night, and so I was too busy worrying to even realize exactly who he was. Even then, I still hadn’t seen The Normal Heart, so I had no way of knowing how important his work is. Well, to Larry and to all the other incredibly courageous souls who survived that harrowing time, I would just like to say thank you for all that you’ve done. Those of us who get to enjoy the fruits of your work will be forever in your debt.