This review has been contributed by staff member Stephen J. Finn.
After 30 years, Larry Kramer’s staggering The Normal Heart has finally been recorded for mass appreciation. HBO has, insofar
as aesthetically possible, taken the brutally honest and scathingly brilliant stage play and translated it to the screen. The story is the emotional and spiritual delineation of a period in the last century where nobody was right and everyone was wrong.
The AIDS crisis, which is still very much with us, began in the early ’80s. At the outset, the total failure of the government,
the medical community, and, as illustrated in The Normal Heart, the gay community, was incredible. The government dismissed
it, the medical community did everything it could to minimalize a problem it didn’t understand, and the gay community ignored the
growing proof that it was sexually transmitted and everyone played the blame game.
The ’70s brought to the gay community the sexual revolution, and it responded with a 10-year long orgy of sexual excess. At a time where gay people were also beginning to demand and win some sense of equality in the world, there was a further identification of the excessive sexuality with equality and freedom. This created a perfect storm for a sexually transmitted disease that would kill millions and destroy their future contribution to the arts, politics and philosophy of a period.
Kramer tells this story fearlessly and honestly, with a reality brought by his total participation in the movement to stop AIDS. The Normal Heart tells the story of Ned Weeks, a Doppelganger for Kramer, who discovers love and self respect in a journey through the deadly debate about the cause, cure, and the direction the community should take. And Kramer has hardly from a know-it-all position. The character of Weeks is loud, obnoxious, abrasive and more aggressive than almost any character in modern drama. Check out Kramer on Youtube.
That it should take 30 years for this work to make the leap from stage to screen is a smaller tragedy, to be sure, but one can’t help thinking of how many lives could have been saved over those years, of how many gay kids would have learned self-respect rather than suicide? Apparently, the rights were ensnared by an aging singer from Brooklyn who used to do Broadway and movies. Wanting to play the heroic lady doctor in the piece, brilliantly played by Julia Roberts here, the aging lady singer, famous for multiple farewell tours, decided that, well, after all, the depiction of gay sex disturbed her, apparently not believing that charity begins at home. Further, the Brooklyn song bird wanted to broaden the appeal. Since the text is obviously and patently a gay political screed, did the chanteuse want a Father Knows Best Which Dress to Wear sort of comedy? The mind reels at the ability of one person to hold up the production of such a brilliant play. Money was the excuse given, perhaps we all should Kickstart a program for new noses.
The film, however, directed by Ryan Murphy, fulfills all promises: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn. The cast is outstanding, and the sense of real love and community is so strong that, even early in the piece, tears come easily to the eye. As characters wither and die from this disease, no punches are pulled. The marks of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the life defying weight loss, the debilitating social rejection, loss of bodily control from all orifices, and the ultimate death are honestly and horrifically displayed.
The cast is breathtaking, we can tell that the characters played by Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons have all known and loved one another as AIDS fights with each one of them, and each one reacts differently. Julia Roberts is just great as the doctor who so fervently knows that she doesn’t know, but there is consuming death all around. The cast gives this brilliant script the honor and respect it so richly deserves.
Regardless of the professions that the author, Larry Kramer has had all of his life, he is first and foremost a teacher. Last June, he was 79 years old. When will his students pay attention?