"Did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who's responsible for winning World War II?" asks Mark Ruffalo's Ned Weeks during one of many emotional high points in Ryan Murphy's HBO movie adaptation of The Normal Heart. "His name's Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans' Enigma code. After the war was over, he committed suicide because he was so haunted for being gay. Why don't they teach any of that in schools? A gay man is responsible for winning World War II. If they did maybe he wouldn't have killed himself and you wouldn't be so terrified of who you are."
This summarizes why we need The Normal Heart. We need gay people to tell us gay history because if they don't, no one else will.
The Normal Heart movie was written by Larry Kramer, the same man who wrote the 1985 play on which it is based. It is an autobiographical account of the early days of AIDS and Kramer's activism, which involved loudly condemning the pervasive promiscuity that was, for so many in the early '80s, defining gay male culture, and forming the Gay Men's Health Crisis, the earliest AIDS service organization.
Kramer's egocentrism is as obvious in Murphy's film as it is in the play. Ned Weeks is Kramer's barely fictionalized avatar and the only character who possesses much depth at all. All the rest of the characters file in and out as symbols—the victims, the lovers, the semi-closeted charmer whose great beauty supersedes politics and lands him the role of GMHC president (Taylor Kitsch as Bruce Niles), the guy who finally provides the monologue to explain why gay men were so willing to give up fucking even when it meant certain death (Joe Mantello as Mickey Marcus), the apathetic straights. Ned, like Kramer, is a brilliant hothead, a self-described "asshole" whose conviction and righteousness are thrust in your face at every turn.
"That's how I want to be remembered: as one of the men who won the war," says Ruffalo's Ned in a line that has been altered from the original play for impact and self-righteousness ("That's how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war," is how it read originally). And with that, Kramer has written his own obituary. He's not wrong, and if he didn't, who would? Kramer's egocentrism is well-earned and, in fact, crucial. The Normal Heart is as much a tragedy as it is an expression of pride.
When AIDS hit, it hit the gay community and no one cared. Not straight people, and not even a lot of gay people at first (until everyone around them started dropping dead). Major news outlets avoided the topic until it was clear that the disease had potential to ravage heterosexuals, as well, and those stories—in Newsweek, on ABC—focused on straights. As Jim Parsons' Normal Heart character Tommy Boatwright puts it during a eulogy: "Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us? And here's the truth. Here's the answer: they just don't like us."
We are at a point where compassion for gay people is de rigueur for anyone with a healthy amount of sense, and so now is a good time to revisit The Normal Heart in the form of an event TV movie on a holiday weekend. It's a good time to witness what was so easily ignored the first time around by mainstream society, which regarded gays as inherently lesser.
It's a good time for people—any people, gay, straight, or whatever the kids are identifying as these days—to think about the utter horror of a nameless, sourceless killer sweeping in and chewing through an already disenfranchised community. It's a good time to think about what it would be like if you spent your entire life hating yourself and being hated and then hating yourself more as a result of being hated only to find a group of people that accepted you and made love a possibility...and then started to drop dead, one by one. It's a good time to think about the strength of gay men, who have been wishfully regarded as weak by the ignorant, and how time and time again, they have saved themselves.
Murphy's The Normal Heart is regularly weepy and melodramatic, with broad performances from everyone involved (Julia Roberts plays Dr. Emma Brookner like she has placed an actual stick up her ass for the sake of method acting). Its declarative one-liners are so pat they often sound action-movie corny ("We have to do something. No one else will."). The movie is essentially a Cliff's Notes of the plague years, and the generality is so palpable it's practically an aesthetic.
But it works as a 130-minute history lesson, and I think the subject ultimately calls for something as broad as The Normal Heart. When it hit, AIDS was (mostly) inconceivable. As much as any force that humankind has faced in the past century, it was larger than life. It follows that this movie is as well.
Murphy's Heart zips and lags and zips and lags. It covers several years and lots of political fighting (the GMHC had to practically break down the door to get a meeting with anyone in the office of the mayor, Ed Koch, a shamefully closeted homosexual), but also spends a lot of time driving home Ned's relationship with Felix (Matt Bomer). These scenes begin to feel repetitive, but this, too, is forgivable—that relationship was doomed by a malevolent force beyond human control. By cultivating that relationship, even in doing something as simple as having Ruffalo and Bomer cuddle on the couch while eating ice cream together, we understand how AIDS made the political personal in the most intimate way.
Even in our age of antiretroviral medication, in which AIDS is no longer considered a death sentence but a chronic ailment, there's a lot to relate to here. Shame and apathy continue to hinder gay men from joining the fight for total equality. Clear voices that criticize the community, or merely point out its truths, are met with attempts to silence them. There's a scene early on in The Normal Heart, in a prologue set on Fire Island that wasn't part of the original play, in which Ned walks down the beach and a bitchy queen calls out to him, "Weeks, you suck. Why do you even come here anymore? We don't want you."
Kramer received similar open hostility in the wake of his 1978 novel Faggots, which satirized the wanton promiscuity that Kramer witnessed as a participant in gay male culture. Kramer was roundly criticized for his perceived Puritanism, for giving away gay men's secrets, for daring to question what so many other gay men did not. Kramer's words reverberated for years—a sure sign of their power. In 2000's The Trouble with Normal, Michael Warner describes Kramer as a "ranting moralist" whose rhetoric can be reduced to: "If others are having sex—or too much sex or sex that is too deviant—then those people have every reason to be ashamed." I don't think that Warner's wrong here, and my contemporary views are much more aligned with his than Kramer's.
And yet, I cannot deny that Kramer was right, especially back then. When a bottom's mortality is considered during a climactic fisting scene, Faggots predicts an imminent reckoning. That was not an overreaction; it was an appropriate reaction, it turned out just a few years later. Kramer's early fury at heterosexuals' apathy about AIDS, as captured in The Normal Heart, was similarly appropriate. As Christopher Bram writes in his history of gay writing, 2012's Eminent Outlaws:
In terms of what was known about the illness at the time, Kramer was overreacting. Yet he turned out to be right. His sexual anxiety enabled him to see things that others were not yet ready to recognize, just as a color-blind person can see patterns not immediately visible to the color sighted. And his injured pride and loose-cannon temper enabled him to say what others were slow to express. His anger was partly a rhetorical device, but one that put him back in touch with real anger…
Today, gay men's situation isn't as dire. Things aren't perfect—as Kramer rightfully pointed out in this week's Times profile of him, "We have achieved very little…We have no power in Washington, or anywhere else"—but they've gotten much better, and in the process, young gay men have become less considerate of the struggle. The great irony is that were it not for those like Kramer who struggled, the young gay men wouldn't be able to have that apathy. They might not even be alive to have it.
Gay men today have so many options, due in no small part to the ones who came before us and cleared the path. That so many of the last generation are no longer here has perhaps created more options. Unlike in the heterosexual world's squeaky clean nuclear family, there is no model to aspire to. You can settle down at 20 and find a way to have kids. You can get married and be open. You can act like an 18-year-old at 50. Other gay guys are going to judge you, sure, but society as a whole still doesn't have any idea what to do with you and isn't breathing down your neck with obligation. Historically, gay men have succeeded on their own accord, using self-generated inspiration. If you don't understand this or feel somewhat deficient in your general knowledge of gay history or just need a refresher, close your apps, put down your phone, watch this fucking movie, and be so grateful that you live the life you do.