‘The Normal Heart’ and How a Story Evolves

The Normal Heart, HBO, Larry Kramer, Jane Pauley, The Today Show, NBC, Harold Jaffe, AIDS, HIV, early AIDS, 1983, early TV report about AIDS

Watch this Today interview with Larry Kramer from 1983. Fascinating and frightening.

It’s lucky for “The Normal Heart” that it took almost three decades for the play about early AIDS activism to get made into a movie.

That gift of time lets the movie present something Larry Kramer couldn’t have imagined when he wrote his fact-based play: This was the moment when everything changed – not only in the fight against AIDS, but in the emergence of gay power and visibility we know today.

From a storytelling point of view, it’s a fascinatingly meta mix of drama and journalism, history and activism. We can watch the thinly fictionalized version of how those changes were wrought – many by the unknowing characters in the play, which was written by one of them … as it was all unfolding.

There would be no gay marriage, no gays in the military, no gays in the NFL – none of it – without AIDS, Larry Kramer and what we see in “The Normal Heart.”

That adds a richness that was missing when I saw a stage production in 1986. It struck me then as a series of long, angry speeches more than a story, with lots of yelling and tantrums, even some milk throwing. Its power was oddly muted by the this-is-happening-to-me-right-now intensity of the time.

But I was curious to see the movie, which premiered on HBO this week. How would it be adapted? How would it hold up? How would my reactions be different now, since I’m not only older but also happily adjusted to being gay myself?

The Normal Heart, HBO, AIDS, Larry Kramer, Mark Ruffalo, Ned Weeks, New York, mayor, an example of how stories evolve over time

Mark Ruffalo, as Larry Kramer’s alter ego Ned Weeks, tries to speak with the New York mayor in HBO’s “The Normal Heart.”

Watching Monday night, I was struck to see gay characters treated cruelly and indifferently, completely marginalized by society and the institutions of power. I shouldn’t have been, since I remember those days. But in the intervening decades, we’ve all become used to gays having a seat at the table that simply was not allowed before AIDS.

When horror entered the vacuum, grassroots groups like the one Kramer formed – as he depicts in “The Normal Heart” – fought to care for the sick, to demand government and media attention, and to educate their community amid its own turbulence. The infrastructure they invented out of despair and necessity virtually gave birth to gay American life as we know it.

The filmmakers turned down the hysterics and tightened the story somewhat. They effectively revived images not seen in ages of emaciated men covered in purple lesions and gasping for air. And of a hospital maintenance worker refusing to fix a TV in the room of a “contagious fairy;” and of the New York City mayor and U.S. president dodging the issue and any association with homosexuality; and of masses of closeted gay men cowering in fear of being “found out;” and of the news media, even The New York Times, shrugging it off as long as possible.

Hard to imagine? Important to remember.

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11 thoughts on “‘The Normal Heart’ and How a Story Evolves

  1. Cristin Bowman

    The movie is still so relevant. The law may be leaning to our side, but perceptions and attitudes still have a long way to go. Thanks to Larry Kramer’s determination and anger, so much is now possible for the LGBT community. I hope he has some happy in his life.

    Reply
  2. Bill Golden

    Great blog, Jay. I saw the original play in 1985 in NY as well, and it had a profound effect on me both then and now, but in different ways. We were so right in the middle of it then that we were shell-shocked, and frankly, we didn’t think things would ever change. Watching the movie now was very powerful in that it brings to light a time that most folks don’t really know about and most can’t even imagine. It does make me more appreciative now of Larry Kramer than I was at the time. He may have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but I think of him now as a true and necessary hero.

    Reply
  3. Missie Baker

    It’s impossible to watch this movie and not be emotionally leveled by the truth it reminds us of—we all need love and support to survive and thrive. Nice review. I lived through these events as well in San Francisco, lost a friend. My brother made it through, a lot of his friends did not. What a terrible, terrible time. Hope everyone, esp. the younger generation has the means to view this film–too important to miss.

    Reply
      1. Missie Baker

        Do you follow Twitter? from Kyuwook: re: her “friends, classmates, and teachers”…last night’s #TheNormalHeart screening revealed that half of us at school didnt know that story at all. reactions were pretty much amazing. <—There's your answer, Jay. Look at the data re: highest infection rates on AMFAR–13-29 age group. Those who most need the education.

  4. Joshua

    I am 20 years old and as a Texan boy born and raised, it was so important to see what had been hidden from my generation. And it made me angry. I remember the moment I finished watching it that I felt so cheated, and lied to by my education system. They swept the facts under the rug and pretended these things didn’t exist. We often face tragedies, and we memorialize them, and then forget about them. I am just so thankful that there are people out there who fight to ensure that we never forget Truth. I thought I knew AIDS, the history and the dangers, but this made it real, and showed me that I really didn’t know anything.

    Reply
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