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?
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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