Emotionally riveting history

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday May 20, 2014
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The long-awaited feature film based on Larry Kramer's envelope-pushing AIDS drama The Normal Heart will premiere on HBO on May 25.

In 1981, Kramer, who at the time was known as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, was considered something of a pariah in the gay men's community. His 1978 novel daringly titled Faggots questioned the community's rampant promiscuity, which he felt was preventing gay men from finding love and leading enriched and fulfilling lives. It's at this point that viewers of The Normal Heart meet Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a barely fictionalized version of Kramer. After attending a friend's birthday party, he reads in The New York Times about a "rare cancer" that has stricken 41 "homosexuals."

A few days later, the birthday boy (Jonathan Groff) is taken ill and dies in a matter of days. Only a few days after that, Ned knows of 10 more gay men who have died from this bizarre and terrifying new illness, which has never been seen before. Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a paraplegic physician, is the only doctor in town willing to treat the patients. All the doctor can do is try and keep them as comfortable as possible while their bodies waste away right before her and Ned's eyes. No one survives. They die so quickly, one after the other, that it becomes unimaginable.

This was the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, which decimated much of an entire generation of gay men. Kramer wasn't going to put up with it. In his own inimitable style, he screamed his head off, at gay men for not taking the crisis seriously, and at a government that obviously didn't care. He screamed, shouted, pointed fingers, and kicked open doors in a manner that few in our community ever did, co-founding the clinic and advocacy group Gay Men's Health Crisis, and ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a radical activist group that stood up to government apathy.

The Normal Heart is a fairly accurate dramatization of what happened during those terrifying years of death and rage. It may be the most brutally honest gay theater-piece ever written. Kramer adapted his play for the film's screenplay. Openly gay Ryan Murphy directs, with many openly gay cast members seen in pivotal roles.

No one is spared Kramer's well-deserved wrath. On a 1980s television interview, Weeks accuses the government of intentionally ignoring the epidemic. He yells at gay men who don't have the courage to come out, telling them to "get their shit together" and come out before they're dead. He courageously illustrates the longstanding habit of gay activists to turn against each other, showing how self-destructive and counterproductive such behavior is. He cuts his brother (Alfred Molina) out of his life "until you can say we're equals."

Kramer also acknowledges a rarely spoken truth. In one of the film's most riveting scenes, a lesbian named Estelle (Danielle Ferland) shows up at Gay Men's Health Crisis' newly opened office. "My best friend Harvey just died," she says in tears. "I want to help."

"We need someone to run a hotline," says office manager Tommy (Jim Parsons), as he embraces her.

"I don't know how to do that," she says.

"Let's go get coffee and figure it out," says Tommy, as they weep and hug. We often forget that lesbians were among the first, if not the first, AIDS volunteers to come from outside of the gay male sphere. Kramer didn't forget, and he reminds us.

Few films are as powerful as The Normal Heart, because few real-life stories are as terrifying as what happened during that first decade of the AIDS epidemic. Only those who were there can understand how horrible the sheer volume of death among gay men was. Few stories are as inspirational as the tales that the survivors can tell of how people stood up and fought back. The Normal Heart is a gut-wrenching tribute to the memories of lives lost, and to the people who screamed, "Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!" It's also a history lesson for the generations that follow them. The film will premiere on HBO on Sunday, May 25, at 9 p.m. Other airings will follow. The film will also be available at HBO On Demand.