The Normal Heart is a 2014 HBO film written by Larry Kramer based on his 1985 play of that name and directed by Ryan Murphy. The cast includes Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Groff and also Joe Mantello, who starred in the original theatre production.
The movie portrays the rise of the AIDS epidemic in New York between 1981 and 1984 and rages against the forces that failed to act or even speak up during the epidemic’s early years. A generation of young gay men lost their lives to a combination of AIDS, social stigma and political indifference
The movie also depicts the rise of GMHC and later ACT UP as this ground zero generation was forced in the face of stigma and indifference to turn to one another in solidarity to fight for themselves and one another, redefining modern activism in the process.
Mark Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a role based on Larry Kramer’s own life at the time of the movie’s action. Ned is an openly gay writer and he has just seen one of his friends keel over due to unknown causes when he happens to read the infamous New York Times article, “Rare Cancer Diagnosed in 41 Homosexuals.”
Concerned, he visits Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), who does not find in him any of the symptoms she’s been seeing in gay men but she knows he’s a writer and wants him to help get word out to gay men about the sickness that seems to target them exclusively. Together they visit a hospital where several of Dr. Brookner’s patients are staying in rooms which many hospital staff will not enter.
There’s a lot more to the story than I’m going to try to relate here and I won’t enumerate the sundry hardships and indignities suffered by the ill and their loved ones during these years when AIDS was an unknown quantity, not even known as AIDS yet. It was a time when the disease continued to spread and claim lives for years on end and none of the powers that be seemed to care much, until it was realized that straights could get it too.
Some have criticized The Normal Heart over the quasi horrific lighting and mood of some scenes but I found this completely appropriate. There is a very special creep out factor in knowing a) that you’re ill and b) that you’ve been cut loose, whether for reasons of ignorance, malice or indifference by the people you thought were your government, your friends, your family - by a part of the culture that considers itself the norm and you an aberration.
The cast do a wonderful job of bringing the story and characters to life. I particularly enjoyed Julia’s portrayal of Dr. Emma Brookner. The role is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, the doctor and early HIV researcher who, in collaboration with Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, published the first article linking AIDS with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Left paraplegic by polio and living in a wheelchair, it was said of her, “She was sicker than most of her patients but didn’t let it stop her.” She even made house calls.
Roberts plays her with the energy of a tightly coiled spring, just on the brink of snapping. I love the scene where she finally does lose it with the government funders, to the point of chucking her binders full of notes at them.
Mr. Kramer was instrumental in the creation of both GMHC and ACT UP and has been a relentless activist over the years. This movie goes far deeper into the sexual politics of that era than most HIV movies I’ve seen and it has a side that’s just a stone’s throw away from being a horror movie about HIV and human behavior. Yet it remains above all a story about human beings and love and human rights. And this is one time when it really is essential viewing.
This movie should be seen by everyone, but I’ll warn you that you might find some of what you see extremely triggering. And as is de rigueur when viewing HIV films, you’ll want some tissues handy. OK, maybe a towel or something.
We stand, as they say, on the shoulders of giants. I would add that we also stand on their bones and that there are reasons for that; it doesn’t do to forget them or to take for granted the advances we’ve made or to let slip the solidarity we’ve forged.
Prejudice and stigma are still very much with us. Let those old enough remember and those young enough be educated and forewarned.
Fantastic movie, really.