I’d been putting it off. HBO’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart premiered on May 25th but I kept dragging my feet about watching it. I commented to a couple of friends on social media that I’d watch it but I’d “given myself permission” to hold off for a little while. I started to watch it a couple of times but stopped. I decided to wait a little longer. I might still be waiting were it not for HBO. It was not going to be available “On Demand” after June 30th. Time had run out. I watched it this evening.
I don’t remember exactly when I first saw The Normal Heart. The play premiered in 1985. I first read it sometime in the late 1980’s. I didn’t see a production on stage until the early 1990’s. I saw another production a few years later. I remember rereading the play in the early 1990’s as well. A friend was staging a local production of the play’s sequel, The Destiny of Me and I was playing Ben, the older brother of Ned Weeks, the Larry Kramer character.
Like all of Kramer’s plays, The Normal Heart is as much polemic as drama. It is structured as a traditional two-act play but where other plays might offer more dialogue, this offers rants, lectures, judgments and condemnations from the playwright voiced by his alter ego. One of the reasons the play is a landmark of its time is it straddles the world of theater and politics. It draws a clear, even brutally clear, connection between “coming out” as a personal and political rite of passage and the deaths of so many. The phrase “Silence = Death” never appears in the play, that would come later, yet it permeates every scene. I can’t say the play is dear to my heart. It’s more that it articulates a time that was important to me better than anything else I can think of.
I struggled with the coming out process. I’m often a little jealous of people who came out earlier than I did. In some ways they began their lives much sooner. I don’t spend too much time dwelling on that, however. The path I took was my path and it led to where I am. I different path would have led me somewhere else. Maybe it would have been better, maybe worse, but wherever that path led I would not be the person I am now having traveled it.
I came out when I did because of the AIDS epidemic. “Silence = Death”. I believed that. There wasn’t much I could do but, at the very least, I could speak up. In the face of so much pain and grief concerns like “what will my friends say” or “how will I tell me mother” started to seem ludicrously insignificant.
I knew watching The Normal Heart would be an emotional experience. I love Tony Kushner’s plays, Angels in America but, while transcendent and moving, they are more abstract. It is easier to distance myself from them. The Normal Heart reminds me of what it was like in those days, seeing people grow ill, the real-life horror stories of paramedics who refused to treat or transport people with AIDS, hospital emergency rooms that would refuse admittance, and, of course, the funerals. It’s seems unreal that people would sit over coffee and discuss Karposi’s Sarcoma, pneumocystis carinii, and cytomegalovirus. I was a banker for heaven’s sake. There is no reason on earth why I should need to know about such things. But I did need to. And I did.
At a time when the Tea Party folks fall all over themselves to grovel at the altar of President Reagan, the play reminds me there was a time when the official position of his administration was; “Nobody cares about a bunch of dead fags.”
HBO’s adaptation, with screenplay by Kramer, is very well done. There is an additional scene early on with the character played by Julie Roberts. At least I don’t recall it in the play. There are additional scenes at the beginning that provide context for some of the relationships that are not as clearly defined in the play. There is an added coda at the end. It softens the ending by creating a bit of distance from the play’s final scene. It is effective.
The performances are outstanding, almost across the board. Mark Ruffalo is terrific in the lead. Matt Bomer is also good as his love-interest Felix. A special shout out to director Ryan Murphy for giving us one of the most realistic gay love scenes I have seen.
I was a little disappointed in Jim Parsons’ performance. It was subtle and had verisimilitude but I kept seeing too much “Sheldon Cooper” in his more awkward moments. Special kudos to Joe Mantello in the role of Mickey. His scene is the GMHC offices is so real it is almost painful to watch.
The Normal Heart is worth seeing. I was afraid it would be dated and it is not, at least not to someone old enough to remember those years. I thought it would make me cry and it did. I thought it would make me think of lost friends and it did that too. Neither of those are bad things.
I feared it would make me feel a little hopeless. Infection rates are up. Millions have died. In many ways the political environment is even more divisive now than it was 30 years ago. But it did not make me feel hopeless. Mostly I feel proud of the difference those people made. I still have friends and loved ones living with HIV. But the operative word is living. In 1985 I could not have envisioned that would be true 30 years later.