Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Matt Bomer and Julia Roberts
Ned Weeks: All I said was that having so much sex makes finding love impossible.
Ryan Murphy’s take on Larry Kramer’s play, THE NORMAL HEART opens on a bright, sunshiny day. It is 1981 and the boys have all come out for a day on the beaches of Fire Island. Murphy does not hold back. It is boisterous, colourful; it is, dare I say, immensely gay, in the most celebratory sense of the word. The party is in full swing and, in just a minute, it is all going to come to a crashing end.
Amongst these strapping, young men, is a slightly older one, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer and activist, who is more or less based on Kramer himself, who was also a budding activist at the time. Almost immediately after disembarking the ferry, Ned is taken aback, despite having been plenty of times before, by how intensely sexualized this island is. Everywhere around him, he sees a chiseled torso or a bulging speedo, and he is reminded that, despite his being just as gay as all of them, he still somehow feels like the other. In some regards, this makes him the perfect voice to tell this story, from the inside yet still from the outside. On the other hand, it adds a slight bias that one cannot escape when watching the film critically.
Regardless, there isn’t time to ponder this as one of Ned’s friends (played by Jonathan Groff) has fallen to his knees, coughing, while throwing the ball around on the beach. It’s starting and now nothing will ever be the same. They try to push on, try to keep the party going but you can sense the shift that has taken place. Within a few weeks, Ned’s friend would be dead.
Murphy wastes no time in sobering his audience up by diving directly into the onset of the epidemic. They’re talking about AIDS but nobody knows that yet. In fact, they know little else about AIDS other than homosexuals are dying from it. This lack of knowledge is truly frightening and Murphy seems to suggest as much by framing this portion of the film like a zombie film almost. People with visible legions are shot in eerie lighting and from odd angles, just enough to hint at the birth of a plague in progress. No one knows how it is transmitted and no one knows how to protect themselves. Julia Roberts, a personal friend of Murphy’s, is the face of the medical community in the film, playing a variation on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first cases in New York City.
This is where THE NORMAL HEART truly gets interesting. Despite feeling hesitation to shake another person’s hand at the time, this did not stop the men from continuing to engage sexually. Even the threat of death would not deter the homosexual community from doing what many felt defined them on so many levels. If a gay man stops having sex with other gay men, is he still a gay man? They had fought so long for their freedom to express themselves sexually and they were certainly not about to give this up now. Little did they know though, they had a whole other fight coming and this one would require much more of them.
The central struggle then becomes how to get the world to start taking notice of this problem before it gets worse than anyone ever imagined. Ned wants to go loud because that is what Ned does; he overcompensates and gets in people’s faces until he gets what he wants; he antagonizes but he does so because he cares. Other people in his crisis group though, like Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons, reprising the role from a previous Broadway production), feel that the attention Ned brings is either too intense or too aggressive, and that maybe it does more damage than good. It certainly invites more eyes to look upon them then they are accustomed.
Outside of Ned’s activist role, he also starts a romantic relationship at about the same time as he helps to found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, with a New York Times reporter named Felix Turner (Matt Bomer). Bomer is one of a number of openly gay actors in the film and he gives more to this role than I can ever recall him giving in the past. While Ruffalo’s performance is sometimes a bit stagy, his scenes with Bomer are often emotionally charged, intimate and telling. You feel like they care about each other but you also feel that they understand how valuable that truly is, especially at this particular time in history.
The rest of THE NORMAL HEART is a series of mounting dramatic turns as the AIDS crisis worsens and the fight to be heard gets harder and harder. It is now more than thirty years later and one might ask why this story needs to be told at this time. After all, living with AIDS is almost manageable for so many now that so many other people no longer consider it a threat. THE NORMAL HEART serves as a reminder, a sometimes painful, sometimes flawed, but always necessary reminder that AIDS still exists and nothing this serious, that has done this much destruction, deserves to be treated as flippantly as some treat it today.
How many sheep would you give The Normal Heart?