by Kristin Thieling
A ferry pulls up to the Pines. The passengers are all men, mostly young, beautiful, and muscular. All are looking for a weekend filled with the sort of freedom only found on Fire Island: a world with no closets, no judgments, and virtually no limitations. The music of Sylvester fills the scene, as do more men, more beauty, and more possibilities.
The year is 1981: 12 years after the Stonewall Riots kicked open the modern gay liberation movement. The world sits on the precipice of the AIDS epidemic, but these men do not know that yet. It is the perspective of contemporary knowledge that makes the scene so aching. We know, as the modern audience, that the party is about the end. Even Sylvester – The Queen of Disco – will be lost before the decade is over. We know that the young man who collapses on the beach is not the victim of too much excess; he is sick and most likely dying of a virus that has yet to be given a name.
Filmed in 2013, in part on Fire Island, The Normal Heart premiered on HBO on Sunday, May 25 2014 to solid ratings. An estimated 1.4 million viewers tuned in to watch Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play documenting the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. An all-star cast, led by Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Julia Roberts, and Jim Parsons, brought the audience back to a time of uncertainty, fear, bigotry, and apathy, when AIDS was called “the gay cancer” and thought to deserve – and therefore receive – little to no attention from politicians, mainstream presses, the scientific and healthcare communities, and the public at large.
At the center of The Normal Heart is the story of Ned Weeks (Ruffalo), a character Kramer based heavily on himself. Weeks is angry – angry that literally hundreds of young men are dying, angry that the medical establishment offers nothing but passivity, angry that those in a position of power choose to ignore the growing epidemic. He is moved to action after watching a friend die in the office of Dr. Emma Brookner (Roberts), a doctor fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds to treat a disease that is barely on the radar of the entire healthcare community, despite her best efforts.
The story that follows is about struggle. The personal and private struggles of individuals coping with complex issues of sexuality and openness against serious social repercussions. The struggles of those living with a virus not yet understood or treatable. The struggles for public recognition against barriers presented by homophobia from both the straight and the fearfully-closeted powerful. And the struggles within a movement figuring out how to best gain necessary attention and acceptance.
It follows Weeks through his time founding, working with, speaking for, fighting against, and ultimately leaving the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). It shows the early reluctance of the gay community to accept that the disease killing so many of their own could be sexually-transmitted, not just because the hard-won victories for gay liberation included sexual freedoms that were, by themselves, a political statement (“Do you realize,” Weeks asks Dr. Brookner early on, “you’re talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity as their principle political agenda?”), but because it further fueled the fires set and fanned by the new Christian Right movement , stating that members of the LGBTQ community were fundamentally wrong, flawed, and to be feared. As GMHC founding member Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello) says, “We will be scapegoated worse than ever. The world will think we’re carriers, and the moral majority will have even more of a field day.”
It documents the growing frustration of a movement fighting not just against an immovable wall of political disinterest, but fighting amongst themselves for the best approach to break through that wall. As more and more die, the frustration grows, leaving answers almost too difficult to accept. Eulogizing yet another friend, Tommy Boatwright (Parsons) lays this bare: “We’re losing an entire generation. Young men, at the beginning, just gone… 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.”
And yet, The Normal Heart is also a love story. It follows Weeks’s relationship with the unquestioned love of his life, New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Bomer). From the highs of early love, to the appearance of the first lesion, through the devastation of Felix’s illness, to an impromptu hospital wedding, it shows that beneath the political, lie very real, very human stories of love, loss, and pain.
The Normal Heart is not a subtle or nuanced exploration. It is Kramer’s story, told by Kramer, with Kramer (as seen through Woods) as its hero. It screams for activism in the face of apathy; for those with a voice to scream out loud; and for closet doors to swing open, liberating the untold masses hiding within.
It is important to remember the setting into which The Normal Heart originally opened as a play. Its Off-Broadway premiere, on April 21, 1985, was still months before Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness: an event that began to change the national perception and recognition of the disease. (Shortly after Hudson’s death, a report in People magazine cited over $1.8 million in private contributions to support AIDS research – more than twice the amount collected the previous year.) The legal battles fought by Ryan White, an Indiana youth refused readmission to his public school after being diagnosed with the virus, had yet to reach – or outrage – the national conscious. It would still be a full two years before then-President Ronald Reagan would publicly say the word “AIDS,” by which time 21,000 Americans would died from complications of the virus. AZT, the first drug approved to treat AIDS, was new to the market, having been approved just one month prior to the play’s premiere.
America – and specifically New York City – was in the throes of an epidemic, but virtually no one would acknowledge that fact. At least not out loud.
So, Kramer’s lack of subtlety is understandable – and even important. It brings us to that time, gives us the ability to start to understand a foreign world that existed just 29 years ago. Now, living in an era when AIDS is not an immediate death sentence, when new and better treatments are being sought by researchers throughout the world, when politicians gladly stand behind global efforts of eradication, when AIDS is no longer seen as a “gay disease,” it is easy to forget the realities behind The Normal Heart. The devastation of the early AIDS epidemic has, in large part, simply escaped our social memory.
But, as this film so boldly reminds us, we cannot allow ourselves to forget.