‘Normal Heart’ beats with outrage

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Taylor Kitsch and Mark Ruffalo in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, now available on HBO. Photo: HBO

A long time in the making (Barbra Streisand held up the screen rights for years), the movie adaptation of Larry Kramer’s difficult early AIDS-era play The Normal Heart finally premiered May 25 on HBO. It was a fitting start for the Memorial Day Weekend, as there are so many friends, family and loved ones who must not be forgotten.

The Normal Heart opens in 1981 with the arrival of Ned Meeks (an impassioned Mark Ruffalo in a career-high performance) at Fire Island Pines, the epicenter of the nation’s gay sexual revolution and recreational drug use. A semi-autobiographical character, Meeks is, like Kramer, a writer who (also like Kramer) has pissed off more than a few of Fire Island’s regulars for his negative views on promiscuity, especially those he published in a book (Kramer shook up the gay world with the novel Faggots). While he remains aloof to the scene, Meeks is far from chaste.

The occasion for his visit to the Pines is the birthday celebration for Craig (Jonathan Groff), lover of closeted ex-marine/current Wall Streeter Bruce (Taylor Kitsch, who is hereby forgiven for all of his past bad acting choices). The festive atmosphere, however, is short-lived.

Beginning with the 1981 article in The New York Times about a rare cancer that appeared to affect only gay men, The Normal Heart beats hard, fast and erratic. Sanford, a shop owner who recognizes Ned at the doctor’s office, has lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma — a rare form of cancer that was prevalent during the early years of AIDS.  Dr. Emma Brookner (an unglamorous, wheelchair-bound Julia Roberts in the most impressive performance of her career) tells Ned that she’s seen several patients like Sanford. But she’s frustrated by the lack of response from gay organizations, which she needs to help her get out the word about the yet-unnamed disease.

Brookner enlists Ned, and his notorious big mouth, to enlighten New York’s promiscuous gay community about the possible link between the cancer and sex. Ned organizes a meeting with Brookner and members of the community. It goes badly, beginning with Brookner’s startling announcement, “You’re all going to infect each other and you’re all going to die.”

The men, not ready to give up their new-found freedom, jeer as they quickly flee Brookner and her dire prophecy. Ned welcomes her to “gay politics.”

In pursuit of getting journalistic coverage, Ned meets handsome, closeted New York Times writer Felix (Matt Bomer) and a romance develops. But this glimmer of joy is overshadowed by the increasing number of deaths, the mistreatment of hospital patients with GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, as the disease was then known), the lack of government funding and closeted New York Mayor Ed Koch’s refusal to deal with the disease out of fear it would lead to outing him and high-ranking members of his staff. 

The 1982 formation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, with Bruce as president, is a turning point. Executive director Tommy (a brilliant Jim Parsons) becomes the voice of reason (and much-needed humor) during some of the film’s most heated moments. Ned’s short fuse and sharp tongue continues to vex him, and by extension the organization. Making matters worse, Felix discovers a KS lesion on his foot. If you haven’t already cried a few times at this point during the movie, check your pulse and be sure to have a box of tissues handy.

As a director, Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) is no Mike Nichols, but he holds his own. Some of his trademark visuals work quite effectively. To his credit, Murphy doesn’t shy away from the sex, some of which is depicted graphically. It’s a necessary component of the story.

As with HBO’s award-winning adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America (directed by Nichols), The Normal Heart is finding its audience not in movie theaters, but in people’s homes. In some ways, that’s preferable, as The Normal Heart is a draining tear-jerker that raises a lot of difficult questions that still warrant discussion. 

With young gay and bisexual men, particularly of color, continuing to disproportionately represent new cases of HIV, The Normal Heart should be required viewing for millennials. For many of the rest of us, it’s an accurately bleak trip down the memory lane of horrors that formed the backbone of our later political succsses.