The Normal Heart (which airs May 25 on HBO) is the story of a great love. Not just the one between Ned (Mark Ruffalo) and his boyfriend Felix (Matt Bomer), who’s dying of AIDS, or the one that finds both men fighting to keep their friends alive during the early 1980s, before anyone really knew what this so-called “gay cancer” was. It’s the one that starts with the HBO project’s creator, Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story), and his infatuation with something he read back in college.
Murphy was first introduced to Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart as a student at Indiana University. First staged off-Broadway in 1985, more than a year before President Reagan publicly acknowledged AIDS for the first time, and later revived on Broadway in 2011, The Normal Heart is not only remembered as powerful theater, but also as an important work of advocacy. Kramer based the character of Ned on himself, semi-fictionalizing the years he spent forming the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that helped educate the gay community about AIDS and lobbied for government support. Many other characters were inspired by real people too — the fantastic 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague tells some of their stories — which made it feel both personal and political. When the play first premiered, it sparked so much discussion that there was soon talk of making it into a film, though it took decades for that to happen. Maybe producers worried that no one would pay money to see a feature about gay men dying of AIDS. Now, Murphy has solved that problem. After acquiring the rights in 2009, he largely funded the project himself, directing and co-writing it with Kramer, and wisely bringing the result to HBO, which has already helped raise AIDS awareness with groundbreaking adaptations like Angels in America and And the Band Played On.
Known for lending a spotlight to gay teenagers on Glee and giving a voice to misfits of all stripes with American Horror Story, Murphy seems like the ideal champion for a story about a group of social outcasts who refuse to stay quiet. Still, his affection for heightened drama and a color-saturated, Rococo filmmaking style threatens to turn this all-too-real tragedy into the stuff of fantasy. His version of Normal Heart begins with a scene that’s not in the play: Ned gets off a ferry in Fire Island, where he’s surrounded by men who are built like Grecian statues. (Murphy even films one of them from the neck down, like some headless Apollo.) Ned has come here to join his friend, Craig (Jonathan Groff) and Craig’s boyfriend Bruce (Taylor Kitsch), at some bacchanalian party where pretty young things sunbathe naked in deck chairs. That night, Ned is wandering through the blue-green woods when he comes upon four men, who are tangled up together like some multi-headed mythological beast. The next morning, on the ferry home, he finds this headline in The New York Times: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” Before long, Craig is dead.
Many characters in The Normal Heart die very quickly, before we really get the chance to know them. In some ways, that lessens the emotional impact of losing them. When Craig collapses on the beach, the camera even swoops up into the air, as if we (or maybe the gods?) are willfully turning away. Of course, maybe that’s the whole point. By the time Ned forms the Gay Men’s Health Crisis with his friends — including Bruce, Felix (who is a lifestyle reporter at The New York Times when they meet), and self-proclaimed Southern “bitch” Tommy (Jim Parsons) — it seems that Murphy is deliberately trying to make us care about complete strangers, showcasing the anonymous men who lost their lives back when most people refused to fight for a cure, because they didn’t know anyone personally who’d died from the disease.
This is part of what makes watching The Normal Heart such a frustrating experience: Its biggest dramatic flaws are often politically justifiable. Julia Roberts is embarrassingly miscast as Emma Brookner, a polio-stricken doctor who fights to save AIDS patients — she’s all faux-dowdy hair dye and pursed-lip straight-talk, like Erin Brockovich in a wheelchair — but this movie probably couldn’t have gotten made without her name attached. Characters make long, passionate speeches that sometimes fail to register because they feel like lectures — though maybe Kramer’s message shouldn’t be so easy to hear. One scene finds Felix staring at a lesion-ridden man on the subway, and there’s so much carnivalesque imagery, Murphy threatens to turn this sick man into a sideshow freak. It’s a questionable choice for a director who often uses grotesquery as satire. (Remember Kathy Bates using human blood as anti-wrinkle cream on American Horror Story: Coven?) And yet, the scene is probably an accurate reflection of how the world looked at AIDS patients back then, when the shocking death toll no doubt felt surreal.
Murphy might not handle the grand gestures well, but he gets the smaller ones right. He captures the physical horror of sickness in a close, intimate way that a play never could, zooming in on body sores and flesh that wastes away to bone. Bomer lost 40 pounds for his role, and it’s impossible to tear your eyes away from him, not only because he’s so skeletal, but also because his delicate performance is quietly devastating. Other details are spot-on too: the trash heaps on the sidewalk from the 1981 garbage strike, the contact-high hedonism of the discos, the loneliness of hospital rooms where no nurse would dare touch an HIV-positive patient, the guilty-pleasure allure of the bathhouses. The only misstep? Felix’s memory of his first hook-up with Ned is recast as a cheesy 1980s commercial for a bathhouse, which threatens to turn their whole romance into a bad joke.
The New York that so many people remember is here, but Murphy also wants to remind us of what we’ve forgotten. One of the best parts of The Normal Heart is how well it preserves the debates that divided the community back then. When Dr. Brookner tells a group of gay men that they should stop having sex until AIDS has been contained, some argue that she’s forcing them to relinquish the rights they fought so hard to gain. Even within the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, there are arguments over whether it’s wise for Ned to publicly criticize the government, considering that the organization needs federal grant money. For anyone who didn’t live through those years, these debates can be illuminating, if only to show what issues have become outdated in this age of safe sex and research.
The Normal Heart is clearly a product of its time. Some critics have wondered why Murphy would want to revive it today, now that AIDS isn’t the public health issue it once was, and a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. For his generation, which came of age with sex education classes and free condoms in restrooms, there’s a worry that Kramer’s struggle might soon disappear from the collective memory. And the fact that Murphy and The Normal Heart‘s stars, both straight and gay, are trying so hard to honor that fight is hugely admirable. But this flawed version of The Normal Heart already feels destined to be forgotten. Who knows, maybe that’s progress. If this story of heartbreak and paranoia is no longer quite so timeless, that just proves Kramer did something right. B-