Film and TV | Mark Ruffalo | Matt Bomer | Nathaniel Rogers | Ryan Murphy | Taylor Kitsch

Weekend Movies (on TV): 'The Normal Heart'

Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer find love in a hopeless place in "The Normal Heart"


It's time for that other most-famous AIDS play to have its moment in the television sun. Larry Kramer's "THE NORMAL HEART," arrived Off Broadway in 1985, a half decade or so before Tony Kushner's long since canonized "Angels in America," but it's taken a longer and more circuitous route to mainstream fame. It's HBO to the rescue again with a television adaptation, which, as with the fate of Angels, came on the heels of a long gestating but never-meant-to-be movie version. (Barbra Streisand tried for years to mount a film version of The Normal Heart giving herself the plum role of Emma Brookner a.k.a. 'Doctor Death')

Though it rarely does Kramer's 'Heart' any favors to compare it to the later masterwork, it's hard not to. They're linked in time structure, setting, historical record, and now in HBO incarnations. Think of The Normal Heart as Angels in America's angrier cruder earth-bound cousin. It doesn't bother with symbolism, poetry or spirituality - whether that's through lack of ability, desire, or bilious rejection of the escapist side of the fantastical who can say? Instead, it finds its power in fragile bodies and righteous rage in the face of mundane defeats and every day humiliations.

Which is why it's a little surprising at first to begin with the elemental: the open air, the sun and a glide over the water (supertitle: "1981") as we head to Fire Island.



We're on a ferry with Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo as Larry Kramer's surrogate protagonist) and his friends. Most notably in these early scenes, that's All American blonde beauty Bruce (Taylor Kitsch) and his boyfriend Craig (Jonathan Groff). We even get a god's eye view or two when Craig collapses on the beach, violently ill for reasons none of the friends can initially fathom but for that "gay cancer" we see Ned reading about on the Ferry. The Fire Island intro is surely an attempt to 'open the play up' which often happens when filmmakers bring famous plays to the screen but it works against the movie at first, since the material collects it power through its avalanche of claustrophobic scenes of men fighting in tiny rooms, apartments, offices and hospitals. Movies are often better at showing then telling, but in this case, let them tell. The Normal Heart's power is not in its grand vision but in its testament. Its power comes from the shrinking suffocation of a tight knit community. To Kramer's credit, The Normal Heart shows both the good and the ugly of communities in crisis who are just as likely to turn on as support each other. We see both and simultaneously, too --that's just how people are.

One of the most effective threads in The Normal Heart is the confusion and betrayal the characters feel and argue about regarding their own sexual behavior. The very thing that they had to claim for themselves in an unfriendly society and the very thing that liberated them (sex) they're suddenly told may destroy them. 

Screen shot 2014-05-24 at 8.46.13 PM

As a time capsule and polemic, The Normal Heart is absolutely essential, and as play, at least, it is blisteringly angry. It's hard to imagine just how potent it must have felt in 1985 when people couldn't even bring themselves to say the word "AIDS" (as President Reagan wouldn't for years), but here was this stage play shouting it out over and over again. Time has not necessarily dulled its power. The recent revival on Broadway was so popular that it surely led to this movie. But as a television movie it's a somewhat mixed bag. It's oddly paced, for one, both rushed (montage!) and slow to build. Some scenes in the play felt like stacked weights falling heavily on top of one another, and it was just crushing to watch. One of the most volatile scenes, when Ned is fired by the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which he co-founded, should have the weight of the inevitable but because we've been distracted by the falling-in love sequences with Felix Turner (Matt Bomer, doing beautiful romantic work) it seems to come from out of the blue. Mark Ruffalo is great in that particular scene, and captures the obstinate charisma of the self-aggrandizing role  (Larry Kramer's play is, at least in part, about how awesome and loveably "difficult" Larry Kramer is!). But honestly I think Ruffalo pushes a bit to make it "gay"... something that Taylor Kitsch, for example, doesn't do. Kitsch doesn't absolutely destroy your heart like Lee Pace did on stage during Bruce's final horrific monologue about a dead lover but he's quite good. While we're on that topic of straight actors playing gay, can we congratulate this movie for actually casting gay actors in at least some of the gay roles. That shouldn't be so rare.

In one of The Normal Heart's best scenes, a complete nervous breakdown in motion occurs when Mickey (Joe Mantello, who played Ned Weeks on Broadway) lashes out at Ned before the celibate peacemaker Tommy intervenes. Jim Parsons, wonderfully reprising his Broadway role, gets one of the play's best, truest, funniest, and saddest lines:

Look, we're all really tired, you hear me? We got ourselves here a lot of Bereavement Overload."

But, then, The Normal Heart  is always at its best when it completely loses its decorum and turns hysterical. Which is why Ryan Murphy, who we can all surely agree is prone to excess, seemed like either a dangerous choice or a special one in the director's chair. Turns out this is his most restrained outing but restraint is a really weird fit. The material stubbornly sparks back to life here and there anyway, as in the paper flinging monologue from "Doctor Death"  (Julia Roberts, low-key and grim throughout) when a government board won't fund her AIDS research or Ned's rants when he feels he's been disrespected (which is roughly all the time; he's a handful) and especially in Ned's ultimatums with his brother Ben (Alfred Molina is fine as the not-quite-evolved-enough sibling).

Still for all its uneveneness as a movie -- turns out it's hard to bottle lightning -- there's absolutely no denying the emotional and prescient force of its finale; an impromptu wedding that earns all the tears. Every drop.  As a time capsule and polemic, the play is nothing less than essential; a crude and angry screaming into the void, despairing that there's no one listening. Here, then, an irony and great justice. 29 years later, the voices might be quieter, but people continue to lean in and really hear them. 


Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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  1. I just can't watch it. I would love to but my own heart can't bear the sadness of it all.

    Posted by: Cary Chauvet | May 25, 2014 12:15:36 PM

  2. I just don't know why a straight actor has to play a gay person, kissing Matt Bomer of all things! Mark Ruffalo is a good actor, but this play calls for a gay one, at least in this role.

    Posted by: Ken | May 25, 2014 1:00:08 PM

  3. I am seeing this with friends tonight and I am dreading it. I have done my share: APLA then, other things now, and I am just not up to it.

    Posted by: TM in LBC | May 25, 2014 1:03:18 PM

  4. We're having dinner with another couple.
    I bought tissues.
    And extra wine.

    Posted by: Qj201 | May 25, 2014 1:15:50 PM

  5. Don't forget, HBO also brought us And the Band Played On. Angels in America, And the Band Played On, and now The Normal Heart. HBO should really be applauded for helping bring these stories to mainstream America (along, obviously, with the many people who wrote these stories).

    Posted by: Tony | May 25, 2014 2:41:33 PM

  6. A lot of straight actors have played the lead role in this play with Larry Kramer's blessing. In fact, his first choice for the original Off-bway production was Al Pacino; it went to the then-closeted Brad Davis when Pacino turned it down. Joel Grey succeeded Davis in that first production. Both Martin Sheen and John Shea played Ned in the first London staging, and Richard Dreyfus played it in Los Angeles. Kevin Bacon did Ned in the famous 1993 benefit reading. I don't think being gay is required to succeed in the role.

    Posted by: Profe Sancho Panza | May 25, 2014 4:13:59 PM

  7. i'll be watching with friends who like me lived through this era. it will be difficult to revisit that time, but i'll be thinking of those friends we lost. remembering them.

    Posted by: ian | May 25, 2014 4:30:41 PM

  8. The play IS lightning in a bottle and it is virtually impossible to translate the intensity of a live theatrical experience to the screen with all essence intact. But the movie is devastating and while I also found the opening scenes clunky (not because it wasn't effective at opening up the play to the screen but because I was distracted by it reminding me of Longtime Companion), I think it is a very effective film version. You don't have to look far to find plays that failed to make an effective transfer to film (August Osage County, for instance). We shouldn't let perfect be the enemy of good and this adaptation is very, very good.

    Posted by: Derek | May 25, 2014 6:09:43 PM

  9. It's a powerful play and for those of us who came of age during this period a very grim reminder.

    Posted by: jarago | May 25, 2014 6:17:48 PM

  10. Regarding the play vs. the film. There's a great likelihood that many people will *never* have the opportunity to see TNH on stage.

    Posted by: Joseph Singer | May 25, 2014 9:09:08 PM

  11. I'm with you, Cary - the trailer, alone, is heartbreaking...

    btw: enough with the insistence on gay actors. It's ACTING; not a documentary. Orientation-blind casting is, imho, a positive thing; assuming integrity.

    Posted by: Kile Ozier | May 25, 2014 11:00:06 PM

  12. I think HBO doing the movie is great. I grew up in a small town in the South and did not find out about HIV/AIDS until I saw And The Band Played On in 1993. Seeing the movie led me to finding the book and wondering how I could be in high school and not know about this.

    Posted by: Lane | May 26, 2014 1:23:59 AM

  13. Never saw the play, so I am freed from the natural desire to compare. I thought the movie was amazing. Heart wrenching, went through many tissues. But there was more than sadness; humor, love, and a sprinkling of character development that rounded out this wonderful film. I also loved the opening, from a documentarian point of view. As a 40 yo gay man, I felt like I was whisked back in time, to a magical island full of newly liberated people. And I thought it served the movie well, in that the "defiance" of cultural norms and behavior is later contrasted with costs fear and hiding of the gay community. You are not truly free if it is only behind closed doors, or in this case, an island.

    Posted by: Dave | May 26, 2014 10:05:45 AM

  14. I also cant watch it, at least not right now. I recorded in case I ever decide I can.

    Posted by: BlahBlahBlah | May 26, 2014 10:25:23 AM

  15. "The perfect is the enemy of the good" someone once said. This is not a perfect movie; it is, however, very, very good--oftentimes searingly good. When it ended, not a single person in my living room spoke until the credits finished. Expect a passel of Emmy nods and a few wins (Bomer, Parsons, or Mantello are all front-runners for Supporting Actor in a TV movie right now).

    Posted by: Dback | May 26, 2014 11:18:50 AM

  16. I saw the film last night and was very moved by it. I just have one point with which I disagree with Nathaniel Rogers and that's about the opening sequence. I think the opening sequence was wholly appropriate as it illustrated how open to life and living the revelers were. With the advent of AIDS and the closing in of their world the film, rightly, became darker and more claustrophobic.

    I thought the actors were terrific.

    Posted by: DHM | May 26, 2014 12:49:34 PM

  17. I thought it was great. Really moving. I was "there." What bothered me, though? The shaving and the six-packs. No no no no no. That time was all about chest hair and REASONABLE bodies!

    Posted by: Michael in Toronto | May 26, 2014 1:04:56 PM

  18. Brilliant production with earnest and often extraordinary performances. Most importantly for me, the film eschewed bathos (excepting the deathbed nuptials) in favor of fury and indignation over official indifference to a "gay" plague. Kudos to HBO.

    Posted by: Richard | May 26, 2014 2:36:22 PM

  19. Michael in Toronto, you're right on--I was looking at the guys when they got off the boat onto Fire Island, and though there were some great-looking bodies (Hellooooooo Jonathan Groff), they were definitely more "built" and smoother than they would've been circa 1980. (It's amazing how skinny people were now when you watch stuff from the 70's; a "lean" man was a lot more prevalent than a "built" man!) But I definitely went with the idea of F.I. as a kind of "last gasp of Paradise" before the Plague descended. (Kramer was also, from what I've heard, dead-on about the casual cruelty or dismissiveness that could greet you there if you weren't the right "type" back then--good looking enough, hunky enough, monied enough, famous enough, etc. Ethan Mordden has written about that, too.) No wonder someone like Ned Weeks would've been scoffed at by some of the shallower types.

    Posted by: Dback | May 26, 2014 4:20:26 PM

  20. As someone new to the material, I thought the opening scenes at the Pines were pretty essential to establish the times of the sexual revolution as a fun and joyful counterpart to what tragically followed from those times. There was a wonderful image on the beach a little later, when Taylor Kitsch was spreading his lover's ashes in the ocean and a long shot caught the spray of the waves below a cloud of tossed human ash. It was beautiful and immediately struck me as something that could not have been portrayed on the stage.

    I think the cast was excellent, I thought the pacing was fine and the build-up of the plot worked well. I teared up about a dozen times and I didn't find the film too preachy nor Murphy's direction too lead-footed. I was very impressed and immensely moved. Great work. I hope it is widely seen.

    Posted by: Zlick | May 26, 2014 4:27:08 PM

  21. DBACK: It was a sort of paradise, in retrospect. I was 25 in '81, the right "type," and having a lot of fun. As for the casual cruelty or dismissiveness, isn't always the case? Gay men can be shallow, so what else is new? ;-) I don't think it was worse back then. In fact, the whole perfect body thing makes it worse now.

    Posted by: Michael in Toronto | May 26, 2014 4:57:30 PM

  22. I count myself lucky that I somehow dodged infection. Lord knows I "got around."

    Posted by: Michael in Toronto | May 26, 2014 5:01:20 PM

  23. So good, so good, so good, so good, so good. I was in 7th grade when the word was first uttered, upon which it was immediately turned into, simultaneously, a punch line and the boogeyman, after which it just became a fact of life.

    Two things in particular stuck with me from this movie:

    1) Men running running running through the streets of New York with their friends and lovers literally dying in their arms, with no place to turn and no idea what was going on.

    2) The screaming, howling pain of the elderly mother trying to get her dead son's body into the backseat of her car, after he'd been wrapped in garbage bags and dumped in an alley behind the hospital.

    Posted by: NaughtyLola | May 26, 2014 9:04:03 PM

  24. I'm 40 now and I vaguely remember hearing about AIDS in the mid 80's when I was in middle school. I kinda remember the first time I jerked off (I was 16 or 17, really) and I thought I would get AIDS from that, so naive. I never had sex or had a drink or went to a bar until I was 25 (my first time was with 2 friends that picked me up at a bar and I've only been with men.) I was never really closeted but I just was innocent and naive. I really liked this movie; better than Angels for the most part. I got very emotional, also in 2001 I took care of my boyfriend and stayed with him when he was in the hospital and dropped to 90lbs (not from AIDS but Crohn's disease) and he almost died. I'm sure I would be more a Ned Weeks type of guy if I lived through those early days. I so love the opening scenes, I've been to some similar type events... I also think the "bathhouse" scenes were very realistic; I'll probably show that to my straight guy friends that I've tried explaining about bathhouses. Yes, I have some open minded friends!

    Posted by: Adat | May 26, 2014 10:56:00 PM

  25. All the anger and heartache came rushing back. I hope nobody ever has to go through something like this again.

    Posted by: Mike in the Tundra | May 27, 2014 7:21:29 AM

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