As the great Cynthia Ozick once observed, “In saying what is obvious, never choose cunning. Yelling works better.”
In the early 1980s several things were obvious to writer Larry Kramer. Gay men were literally dropping dead and neither the government nor the medical establishment seemed to be doing much to stop it. Moreover, no one, outside of other — increasingly terrified — gay men, seemed to care.
So Kramer wrote “The Normal Heart,” a blunt instrument of a play debuting in 1985 in which his thinly disguised avatar, a New York writer called Ned Weeks, watches friends die, helps form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center and does a lot of yelling. About homophobia and the Holocaust, about the perils of the closet, about society’s unforgivable hypocrisy and gay men’s own self-destructiveness.
“The Normal Heart” was a howling call to action, designed to push people out of their ignorance, complacency and seats to demand justice, and funding, for all.
Now, after years of languishing in development purgatory, it has been turned into a film. Directed by Ryan Murphy, who worked with Kramer on the adaptation, and featuring a remarkable cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina and Jim Parsons, “The Normal Heart” debuts Sunday night on HBO.
It is a moment of fury and grace and wonder that this “Heart,” in which a brutally specific story is deftly re-tailored for another medium and time, loses none of its original passion or pointedness. Where the play sought to make the personal political, this “Normal Heart” steps back enough to make room for characters to develop as fully as the message. The political comes full circle and is personal once again.
When “The Normal Heart” first debuted, Kramer’s refusal to choose cunning, to cloak his rage in metaphor or sneak up on the audience with sentiment, offended many. It will no doubt do so again.
As in the original, Kramer excoriates the Reagan administration, then-mayor of New York City Edward Koch, the medical community and the New York Times for their slow response to the crisis. But Reagan, who famously did not refer to the disease by name until 1987, also blamed gay men themselves, particularly activists, for their circumstance since they refused to change their sexual behavior.
Time, and rewrites, have softened some of the play’s stridency. More important, the romance between Weeks (Ruffalo) and his lover, Felix (Bomer), is given a more prominent role as is Felix’s death spiral, giving the story power both broad and intimate.
Indeed, the casting of these two men alone gives the play new life. Ruffalo is a performer of such depth he could, and did, infuse the Hulk with soul. Meanwhile, Bomer’s fine work on “White Collar” has proved him the actor Hollywood believed for decades could not exist — an openly gay man who can still make women swoon playing a straight lead.
Here, the pair are just heartbreaking.
The film opens on Fire Island, where Weeks is clearly uncomfortable with the summer bacchanal, and not just because he (like Kramer) has written a book criticizing the post-Stonewall gay movement for focusing so exclusively on sex. He is just not into it. The sun is shining, the music’s playing, the boys are beautiful and it is difficult not to see Weeks’ bleak outlook as prophetic. For soon many of these beautiful men will start dying.
Which they do, to the seeming consternation of no one save Dr. Emma Brookner ( Roberts, reminding us that she doesn’t have to own the story to own the screen). A polio survivor now bound to a wheelchair, Brookner understands the fatal flukes of disease. When she realizes that it is only gay men who are dying from illnesses that their bodies should have easily fought off, she seeks a leader to rally the gay community into a program of abstinence and education.
Weeks does what he can, which is not all that much. In saying what is obvious — that this is an epidemic, which the authorities and potential victims should do everything they can to end — he is met with doubt, silence and resentment.
Officials don’t want to hear it, and neither do gay men who fought so hard to achieve sexual freedom. As with any whistle-blower or prophet, Weeks is told that change takes time and diplomacy works better than demands. Which Kramer does not seem to accept any more now than he did then.
With the many recent shifts in legalities and attitudes — fittingly, “Normal Heart” debuts just days after Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) tie the knot on “Modern Family” — it’s tempting to view “The Normal Heart” with pained nostalgia, as a cinematic monument to an Unfortunate Period in Our History.
It is not that at all.
Despite the wonders of “Modern Family” or Murphy’s own groundbreaking “Glee,” the closet still confines Americans of all ages. Yes, let’s celebrate Macklemore’s Grammy win for “Same Love,” but as the song says, many still suffer often fatal physical and emotional abuse. AIDS too, is alive and well and claiming millions of lives worldwide, as a bit of alarming text at the end of the film makes clear.
In the film, just the sight of Kaposi’s sarcoma on men who soon dwindle to bone and ashen faces triggers memories of a terrible time and all those lost. And, yes, the TV audience can now comfort themselves with a silver lining — the gains made by the LGBT community most certainly arose from the crucible of AIDS.
But the themes Kramer shoved in our faces almost 30 years ago are not matters of history. In one of the story’s most effective, and affecting, subplots, Weeks confronts his brother (Molina) for refusing to admit that being gay is not a defect, for loving Weeks despite who he is, an attitude still prevalent today among even those who consider themselves enlightened.
Those disenfranchised for whatever reason remain at risk of being harmed or dying in great numbers before society, or the world, reacts. Silence can still very much equal death, and body counts alone don’t ensure action.
Sometimes yelling is required.
‘The Normal Heart’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)