Most of HBO’s “The Normal Heart” is a pretty decent adaptation of the 1985 stage script, with some good things added, including an effective pre-credit section set on Fire Island in 1982.
By Gerald Peary
Call it the Camille syndrome. Whenever a character in a play or film starts coughing, that figure eventually will die. When it comes to Greta Garbo, a cough is never just a cough, something to keep you from work for a couple of days. It’s always the signal of a fatal disease. And so when a gay man in a bathing suit drops into the surf, coughing away at the beginning of HBO’s The Normal Heart, expect the worse. The next we see him, it’s his birthday party, and he gets fatigued blowing out the candles. Then he coughs. The last we see him, he’s being wheeled into a hospital unit, dying of AIDS.
As with the 1985 Larry Kramer play on which it is closely based (Kramer contributed the teleplay), The Normal Heart boils over with melodrama like the scenes above. It’s never ashamed of (pardon my shameless writing) wearing its normal heart on its sleeve. There are big speeches galore, brothers – one gay, one straight – shouting at each other, hugs and tears and screams, and, of course, during the years that the play covers (1981-1984) homosexual men are collapsing of AIDs-related ailments every few minutes.
The original drama, which played off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, was strident, but it was aptly applauded. In 1985, everyone needed to know, clear and very loud, that the AIDS epidemic was being mostly ignored by Reagan’s regime in Washington. Even more egregious, New York Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, was doing nothing about AIDS in his city, where half of America’s cases occurred, for fear of revealing his own closeted gayness. The Normal Heart addressed all this, with anger and venom, blasted out through a megaphone. Kramer joined a forceful tradition of polemical playwriting which includes Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
But what about doing The Normal Heart on film in 2014? Should some of this speechifying be toned down, almost thirty years later? Or is AIDS as much a heated concern as ever? Glee’s Ryan Murphy, the director, decided to stick with Kramer’s full-throttle oratory, a bit of a mistake. Three decades do matter. As is almost always the case, soliloquys and long harangues which work on stage seem artificial on celluloid.
Far worse, the 2014 version of The Normal Heart adds new schmaltzy scenes to the scenario, accompanied by drippy music. How was Kramer conned into writing an episode in which Julia Roberts’s polio victim doctor gets out of her wheelchair and dances? Even more objectionable, in order to make the decades old tale relevant to today, there’s a faux gay marriage, with Roberts as the faux minister, and everyone crying around a hospital bed as a dying man with AIDS weds his partner. Cloying!
However, most of The Normal Heart is a pretty decent adaptation, with some good things added, including an effective pre-credit section set on Fire Island in 1982. Roberts is actually OK as a gruff, righteous female doctor who is one of the first to grasp the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic. But I had troubles with Mark Ruffalo, cast as Ned Weeks, the lead character, an AIDS activist based very directly on Kramer himself.
Ruffalo, a fine actor, is just too sweet-natured and mellow a guy to play Weeks. Kramer created a nice tension in his drama by creating an alienating protagonist. He wrote Weeks to be much like himself: an irritating, know-it-all asshole who estranges everyone via his big big mouth, his insistence that he’s always right, and by his stubborn refusal to compromise with anyone, including his more moderate gay allies. Kramer in the mirror. But when Ruffalo gets mad, he’s never off-putting. We always agree with him. It’s too easy. What’s needed is Molière’s impossible misanthrope unleashed in The West Village!
A postscript: Among its considerable virtues, The Normal Heart will lead any audience member to think back on who he or she has lost through AIDS. I consider my film critic profession and ask that these first-rate thinkers about cinema be remembered and honored: Gerald Mast, Stephen Harvey, George Morris. Stuart Byron, once of Boston’s The Real Paper. And, of course, Boston’s David Brudnoy.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.