This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
In a struggle still relevant today, Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, premiered its third revival on May 25th, 2014. Twenty-nine years after its success at The Public Theatre in New York City, — and three years after its critically acclaimed Broadway production, — American director Ryan Murphy breathes life into the public health advocate’s work once more. The heartbreaking story of the HIV–AIDS crisis in the early 1980’s is a jarring perspective to how far society has come with regards to awareness of the still-incurable condition. Equipped with a stellar cast, the 133-minute HBO television film extends beyond the exclusive confines of the theatrical stage, and reaches into our homes to remind us that the combat for a cure needs to continue.
“The Normal Heart” opens in 1981 on the way to a summer party over at New York’s Fire Island Pines. A nervous but excited writer, Alexander “Ned” Weeks (played by Mark Ruffalo), steps off the boat and toys between confidence and nervousness. Moments later, the host, Craig Donner (played by Jonathan Groff) brings him over to a beach house. When there, Ned greets Craig’s boyfriend, Bruce Niles (played by Taylor Kitsch), and they exchange pleasantries before the latter partakes in a mildly amusing hijink.
Later, during a series of games and sports taking place in the sun, Ned and Micky Marcus (played by Joe Mantello) stroll down the beach. The two have a catch up on each other’s lives, and parts of their exchanges imply previous sexual tension between selected members of the circle. After a brief glimpse into Ned’s image among his brethren, Craig collapses onto the sand after a spell of light-headedness overcomes him. People rush to his aid, and he walks off the beach with Bruce by his side. Later that night, Craig blows the candles off his birthday cake with moderate difficulty. Shortly after Micky’s remark about his singlehood, Ned spends an evening watching minglers at a party from the outside, but a chance encounter during a solitary stroll implies that he may have had anonymous pleasures of his own. On the boat ride back to the mainland, Ned stumbled upon an article in The New York Times titled “Rare Cancer Diagnosed in 41 Homosexuals”, which prompts him to get in touch with Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Julia Roberts) for more information on the condition.
What was supposed to be an question-and-answer session in a casual visit to turned into a full-fledged examination by the curt, but well-intentioned doctor. In the waiting room shortly before his physical, Ned has a brief conversation with a man named Sanford (played by Stephen Spinella), whose purple lesions from Kaposi’s sarcoma and gravity of his situation are already apparent. They both absorb the harrowing reality that it may already be too late for him. Ned learns about what is currently known about this mysterious cancer and the fact that he doesn’t exhibit any of the dreaded symptoms. Dr. Brookner, after learning of his reputation in the gay community through her assistant, Buzzy (played by B.D. Wong), requests his help to spread the word of this illness. Ned responds with some insights about the politics that go on within, and she is less than sympathetic. Just as she dismisses him, a convulsing Craig is brought into the clinic by Bruce and Micky. Dr Brookner recognises Bruce as the former partner of another patient who had only succumbed to the illness just three weeks prior. Hours later, the terrible cycle would repeat itself.
Craig’s death is enough to drive Ned to organise a meeting of local gay men in his apartment. Dr. Brookner is given the floor. She tells them that while evidence of the possible perpetuation of this disease is through sexual transmission, her requests to confirm this theory is currently subjected to funding bureaucracy. Her subsequent appeal for them to stop having intercourse in the meantime does not bode well with those in attendance. Many remind her of their numerous trials to be accepted as fully-realised members of society. The reaction quickly reaches fever pitch, and she leaves. Ned is aware that many have gathered that night in hopes of finding sexual gratification, but proceeds to announce his plans to start an awareness organisation and help centre. Many walk out on him. So, he reaches out to Felix Turner (played by probably the most perfect-looking man on the planet, Matt Bomer) for a signal boost in the media. Despite his pleas being rejected on the grounds of angering mainstream demands, a relationship blossoms between the two. It doesn’t stop Ned from pushing forward. In the grassroots level, charity drives and independently published newspapers are given a lukewarm reception. On a trip back to Fire Island, the friends throw Craig’s cremated remains into the ocean, supposedly a gesture marking the very last time he had beckoned a new year of his short life — or had celebrated anything.
After making his initial request to his brother, Ben (played by Alfred Molina), for legal support, Ned goes with Dr. Brookner to visit the additional patients that have been discreetly admitted under her care. By then, the condition has been crudely labelled “GRID”, or the Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease. There, he sees Sanford again, but this time, the disease has rapidly progressed and he is afflicted with dementia. By then, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or GMHC, — have enough members to formalise their existence. The faces of GMHC now include fashion model Albert (played by vague Matt Damon look-a-like, Finn Wittrock) and Tommy Boatwright (played by Jim Parsons), and they all meet to coordinate their first public appearance. The group choose Bruce as the organisation’s president, after a majority express their reservations towards Ned’s aggressive approach. There is visible tension between Ned and Bruce, supposedly stemming from Craig, but the two are willing to put aside their differences in methods. During a night about the town, Bruce, who seen more than his share of dying lovers, expresses his feelings for the now-infected Albert. Ned declares that he is enamoured with someone, too. The drunken confession ends messily in the middle of a cold shower, and the fundraiser takes place soon after, to rousing success.
However, the initial USD 53,000 made would not prove to be enough. Ned’s belligerence in television interviews jeopardises the organisation’s initial impression, and brings forth the frustrations of the by many closeted who are forced to acclimatise with societal majority for their own safety. Meanwhile, Ben’s homophobia nearly costs him his brother, and Ned witnesses the true horror of AIDS when it takes root in his very own reality. The two strongest members of GMHC continue to disagree, and each conflict proves to be more embittered than the last. In the midst of the escalated voices and calls for change, the amount of people dying from AIDS continues to rise.
Heart-wrenching and an imperative watch. What was supposed to be just over two hours of my time turned into a six-hour emotional rollercoaster and hard look at my conscience. Despite searching for the answer, I never found out why Larry Kramer would name his work “The Normal Heart”. But I’d like to think that it would require precisely and only that to be moved by it. Many have claimed the newest adaptation is a far cry from the impact of the original format, which I haven’t personally seen yet, but the entire cast appears to have done an incredible job in their respective roles.
The several faces from the 2011 Broadway run who have re-appeared for the 2014 version have put forth a new dimension to the story. Jim Parsons reprises his role as activist Tommy Boatwright, and succeeds in removing himself almost completely from his most renowned role as “The Big Bang Theory”‘s Sheldon Cooper. Some quirks remain, such as the natural halting gait familiar in the socially awkward theoretical physicist, but he is anything but. He lays on the profanity, demonstrates a capacity for affection… and throws in an impressive punch, too boot. Joe Mantello, who played Ned Weeks in the previous theatre production, takes on the role of Micky Marcus. He is stellar as the character, and delivers a heartbreaking performance of a man enraged by the inactions of his country, whose very identity is causing doors of opportunity to close around him. It is safe to say that Micky’s emotional breakdown and his near-attack of Ned is my favourite bit of acting in the film.
Mark Ruffalo and his take on Ned may seem too brash and almost purposeless for some. I’ll admit, it is also how I felt at the first watch. However, after a second run, I realised that with every major social issue struggling to be heard and valued — AIDS awareness, included — a hard voice is a necessary inconvenience. The words of Ned Weeks may have been irreverent for a community still struggling to gain the most basic of rights, but his refusal to compromise does not form out of thin air. More than thirty years on, science has witnessed break-throughs that only those living around the time of the outbreak can only dream of seeing. This includes a possible cure for HIV. Yet, many groups continue fighting to live properly. Things may be markedly better, sure, yet the long-time targets of disenfranchisement — women, children, immigrants, homosexuals (still), to name a few — still need to push through the many glass ceilings the frightened, misinformed segment of society continue to erect.
Catapulting any social justice issue right into the public eye begins with deciding between a non-confrontational approach and bellowing at the majority with complete abandon. Deep inside, we all hope for the uninhibited second option. But to start a revolution means to have been hurt enough.
We need more Neds out there.