Imagine that your friends and loved ones were dying from some unknown cause, and society didn’t seem to care. What would you do? Would you get angry and shout and raise hell until someone paid attention, even knowing that you might be alienating the very people whose help you needed, or would you be more respectful, politely asking for help that might never come and trying to do what you can on your own, even though you don’t have the resources or tools to do very much? Now imagine that you and your friends and loved ones were a despised minority that people wished would just go away. That’s the dilemma at the center of The Normal Heart (2014, dir. Ryan Murphy, screenplay by Larry Kramer based on his 1985 play of the same name). When it made its theatrical debut The Normal Heart was the first major dramatic piece dealing with the AIDS crisis and it is today recognized as one of the most important gay-themed plays ever written. HBO’s prestige film version gave Kramer a chance to open the play up, transforming monologues into their own scenes and offering viewers a harrowing look at the early years of an epidemic that, 30 years later, is still with us.
In 1981, the New York gay community was still living in the heady days of post-Stonewall gay liberation. Gays and lesbians were still fighting for basic legal rights, such as freedom from police harassment, and the current successes of the gay marriage lawsuits were barely a fantasy for most of them. The Gay Pride movement offered gays an ideology of basic self-worth as an antidote to a society that largely ostracized them and viewed them as either mentally ill or morally degenerate and therefore a threat to society. Many in the gay community embraced a hyper-sexualized culture based on free love, partying, and drug use, thereby unwittingly creating ideal conditions for a disease that had been lurking unnoticed in the American population since at least the 1960s because it lacked the opportunity to spread easily.
When the film opens in 1981, its protagonist, novelist and playwright Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), is a dissenting voice within this community. He has just published a book criticizing the gay community, arguing that constant sexual activity makes finding actual love impossible, and he feels alienated from the hedonism of his friends. As a result of his detached observer status he is one of the first to notice that gay men have begun contracting a rare form of cancer known as Kaposi’s Sarcoma. He soon makes contact with the wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), one of the few doctors trying to understand what is happening to her gay patients. Soon he gathers a group of activist friends who slowly build a gay health organization that struggles to get the attention first of gay men, many of whom are too busy pursuing their sexual conquests to listen to the warnings of this new Gay Plague, and then of the New York and American governments, who seem completely disinterested in what is happening to a minority that no one really cares much about anyway. Much of Ned’s fury stems from his sense that no one will listen to him unless he shouts.
Ned and Emma represent the angry, fight like hell response to the problem. Ned’s friends, including Bruce (Taylor Kitsch), Tommy (Jim Parsons), and Mickey (Joe Mantello) represent the more conciliatory approach. They focus their efforts on organizing volunteers and trying to get meetings with various government officials to persuade them to fund their organization or Dr. Brookner’s research. They increasingly clash with the loud-mouthed, abrasive Ned, maintaining that his confrontational tone, which involves accusing nearly everyone in power of conspiring to kill gays and denouncing gays for having too much sex, is undermining their efforts to find sympathetic ears. But Ned can’t stomach what he sees as the hypocrisy of closeted gays in government and the media who are afraid to talk about the problem even though it’s hurting their own people. This dispute slowly alienates Ned from many of his friends and leads to his eventual ouster from the organization.
What makes the struggle personal for Ned is that as the crisis begins to develop, he falls in the love for the first time, with the closeted journalist Felix (Matt Bomer), who eventually reveals that he too has the disease. Over the course of the film Felix slowly changes from a gorgeous, physically vibrant young man into a skeletal figure covered in Kaposi’s Sarcomas who can barely control his bowels and legs. Bomer’s physical transformation (filming took a break in the middle so he could lose a whopping 40 pounds) is one of the most shocking elements of the film and it serves to dramatize the effects of AIDS for the audience.
The film chronicles the corrosive effects of the crisis, both physically and emotionally, on the main characters, who can barely endure the tragedy that is unfolding around them. Ned’s relationship with Bruce, his best friend, breaks down, driving Bruce to a profound betrayal of Ned when he leads the removal of Ned from the organization. This is a heavy film; given that it ends in 1984, with the AIDS crisis still building, the only light at the end of the tunnel is a promise of renewed strength for the struggle ahead.
But the film has the sense to avoid being one-sided. It wrestles with several sides of the problem. Ned and Emma’s solution to the disease is to advocate for celibacy and monogamy, but as Mickey explains in a powerful monologue, that feels a lot like a return to the idea that gay sex is dirty and abhorrent; he calls for a continued embrace of the idea that gay sex is a form of love. What makes the debate worse is that in 1983, there was still virtually no solid information available about how the disease operated. While we today understand the mechanics of AIDS quite well, the characters in the film don’t even have a good name for the disease yet and they can’t say exactly how the disease is and isn’t transmitted even though they’re basically the experts on the disease. Is kissing safe? Is oral sex? Will condoms stop it? Is repeated sex with the same person more or less risky than multiple encounters with different men? As Mickey points out, it’s possible that the problem is that having regular sex with the same person gradually overwhelms the body’s immune system through repeated exposure; if that’s how the disease operates, then Ned’s solution of monogamy would actually be the wrong answer. And until 1985, it wasn’t even certain that the disease was spread through sex at all. So Ned’s certainty about how to address the problem is contrasted with Mickey’s uncertainty about what advice to give scared gay men who want answers.
The debate of confrontation vs polite conformity echoes another debate still taking place in the gay community today, the debate over assimilation or separation. Many argue that gays and lesbians should assimilate to mainstream society by marrying and having children and emphasizing that they are just like heterosexuals; that’s a strategy that has had considerable success winning heterosexual support for gay marriage. But other gays argue that conformity will rob gay culture of its distinctive institutions, such as drag queens and leather bars and will force gay men to return to a stultifying sexual code that they rejected in the 1970s. If ‘gay is good’, then it should be allowed to stand on its own merits regardless of what straight people think of it. Are the benefits of assimilation to the mainstream worth the price of admission?
So How Accurate is the Film?
Sadly, it’s pretty damn accurate, with one major proviso. None of the characters in the film are real people. Instead, as Kramer has explained, most of them are modeled on various real people he knew. Ned is, for most purposes, Larry Kramer himself. The parallels between them are enormous. Both attended Yale and attempted suicide there; both were successful authors who alienated the gay community in their writings. Kramer was one of the founding members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, still today one of the most important AIDS advocacy organizations. In the original play, the organization Ned helps found is never named, but in the film it is explicitly acknowledged to be GMHC; Kramer was in fact ousted as a board member of GMHC. Both Ned and Larry had a contentious relationship with their older brother Ben/Arthur, a major theme in the film, where Ben is played by Alfred Molina.
Dr. Emma Brookner is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a childhood bout of polio. In 1982, she and another doctor authored a paper identifying the link between Kaposi’s Sarcoma and what would eventually come to be called AIDS, and she organized the first medical conference on the disease. In 1982, fully 1 in 4 known AIDS patients was a patient of hers. She died quite young in 1992 from a re-occurance of her polio.
Bruce Niles is based on Paul Popham, the first president of GMHC and later founder of an AIDS lobbying organization, the AIDS Action Council. Both Niles and Popham were Vietnam veterans and somewhat reluctant activists; his time in the military gave him leadership experience that GMHC badly needed. However, he was still closeted, which led him to adopt a more cautious strategy than Kramer could tolerate. When Kramer wrote the play, he intentionally made Ned more abrasive and Bruce more reasonable, as a form of contrition toward Popham. Popham died of AIDS in 1987, after having reconciled with Kramer; in his last conversation with Kramer from his hospital bed, he said “Keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting.”
Tommy Boatwright was inspired by Rodger McFarlane. McFarlane was not actually one of the founders of GMHC but established a hotline for those dealing with AIDS. Initially he ran the hotline out of his own apartment, but later merged it with GMHC. He was GMHC’s first executive director, and basically created the organization as it exists today. He went on to found or run several other AIDS organizations, including ACT UP (with Kramer), Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the Denver-based Gill Foundation, which funds various gay and lesbian organizations. He co-authored a book on caring for severely ill patients, based on his own experiences nursing his brother through AIDS. He also produced The Destiny of Me, Kramer’s 1993 sequel to The Normal Heart (a film adaptation of which is reportedly in the works). He committed suicide in 2009 after struggling for years with pain from a severe back injury. Kramer has gone on record as saying that McFarlane did more for gay people than any one other single person.
Mickey Marcus is based on Dr. Lawrence Mass, a physician specializing in addiction treatment who is another of the founders of GMHC; he wrote the first press reports about the new disease. Mass has said that his primary struggle was not, as Kramer depicts it, figuring out what to tell people, but rather trying to find the time and resources to enable him to do his unpaid writing work to get out the latest information about AIDS. Unlike Mickey, he was not a party to Kramer’s ouster from GMHC, although he subsequently agreed with it. He remains a friend of Kramer’s, although also one of his critics.
Of all the important characters in the film, the only one who is not based on any specific person is Felix. Kramer was single throughout the period depicted in the play. But while Felix is not a specific person, his story is entirely true when viewed as a representative of all the gay men who were ravaged by the disease in this early phase of the epidemic. Kramer felt that it was particularly important for audiences to see gay men loving and kissing each other. (The film develops this idea by showing Ned and Felix making love in fairly explicit fashion comparable to heterosexual sex scenes in many films.)
Many of those born after the 1980s have little sense of just how brutal the AIDS crisis was. This film is a good lesson for them. It spares few punches in showing just how poorly society treated gay men with AIDS. Emergency rooms that refused to accept gay patients and hospital staff that refused to bring patients their meals are two of the smaller examples. Bruce’s struggle to take his dying lover home to see his mother is a particularly gut-wrenching sequence that culminates in his being forced to bribe an orderly to stuff his dead lover’s body into a garbage bag and smuggle it out of the hospital as trash.
Mayor Ed Koch comes in for particular vilification. Kramer is unafraid to call him out as a closeted homosexual, a widely held though unproven claim; Koch consistently refused to comment on his sexuality, even after he was out of office. Koch’s administration largely ignored the mounting AIDS crisis, refusing to even meet with GMHC for nearly two years. It was the prospect of such a meeting that finally led GMHC to remove Kramer because they feared that his deep hostility to Koch would destroy any hope of getting support from the city. But it wasn’t until 1991, when Koch was out of office, that the city of New York truly embraced efforts to combat AIDS with education programs and the like.
Want to Know More?
If you have HBO, you can view it there, but if not, The Normal Heartis available on Amazon. If you’re looking to know more about Kramer’s work, read the play and its sequel, The Normal Heart and the Destiny of Me.
If you want to know more about the early days of the AIDS crisis (and if you’re a gay man, you should know more), one of the best things on it Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, 20th-Anniversary Edition. The facts will appall you.