‘The Normal Heart’ Shows Terrors of AIDS Crisis With HBO Flare
It’s 1981 and everyone is naked at Fire Island. Ned Weeks, played by Mark Ruffalo, is timid in his pursuits as he witnesses the Bacchanalia style love-fest which surrounds him. His friends beg him to join in on the fun, but it’s not until a lonely walk leads him to an anonymous hook up in the woods that Weeks gets in on the action.
It’s the first 5 minutes of HBO’s small-screen version of the Larry Kramer play The Normal Heart and I’m not sure how to feel.
HBO is not exactly known for its subtlety and the same criticism is relevant for this movie which premiered this weekend. Full frontal dongs fly around before the title screen pops up. There’s lots and LOTS of vocal drama between the characters.
But it’s probably a fairly accurate portrayal of post-70′s gay life when anything that could happen did and, as one character put it, “promiscuity is the only gay political platform.”
Sadly, this message replaced the weekly showing of Game of Thrones, so the straight audiences who tuned in for their GoT fix were probably disappointed to see stereo-typical loose gay-sex party leading to HIV/AIDS.
Not exactly the messaging we need as a nationwide effort seeking marriage equality, but before long The Normal Heart finds its ground between some heavy-handed story telling and scene-munching acting.
There are a number of stand out elements in The Normal Heart. Julia Roberts plays the polio ridden New York City Dr. Emma Brookne who is the only medical professional willing to treat or even see the victims of the “gay cancer” as it is called for the first 20 minutes of the film.
I found myself wiping tears away when one of the lead characters dies of AIDS and the story of his passing is retold through flash backs- hospital employees refusing to take the body, watching his lover and his mother carry the body in a trash bag out of the back door of the medical facility, being shunned by a funeral home operator unwilling to have a proper service for the AIDS victim, and finally his mother sobbing, holding the clear sack of ashes which used to be her son.
There are some incredibly heavy moments in this movie as you watch a community of (in true HBO fashion) incredibly attractive gay men become sickly, covered in wounds and marks, and finally die. Models in a fashion show use heavy makeup to cover AIDS related sores. Matt Bomer, who plays Ruffalo’s love interest Felix, lost 40 lbs for the role and his emaciated look pulls hard at heart-strings.
It’s a sobering vision of a tragic time in history which has led to 36 million deaths; a plague which nearly killed off a generation of gay men.
The Normal Heart is worth the watch if you want to see a version of how bad things were – ignored by city and government officials, the grass-roots effort to inform the gay community about HIV/AIDS is show from its infancy. One of their first fundraisers is held at a club and those speckled with sores or actively on IV drips dot the party crowd. It’s terrifying and inspiring at the same time
But it’s also a HBO movie and it’s based on a stage play – the morals and messages are less spoon fed and more often shoveled. I enjoyed the film, but I found myself relying on the emotional roller coaster and losing interest when people stopped yelling at each other.
Personally, I find myself usually avoiding most LGBT specific movies, but Ruffalo’s genuine and committed performance melted my heart. Seeing a reputable actor in a romantic embrace with another man is all I really hope for in a movie, even if it’s fake.
It feels good to see such man-on-man expression in a less-sexualized way, even if dramatized.
Admittedly, I’m from a generation seriously removed form the HIV/AIDS crisis. It’s certainly not as present or visible as it was some 30 years ago.
The success of this movie is bound to rely on the feedback from those who lived through the story in real-time. Will those who lost so many to HIV/AIDS rally around The Normal Heart?
Let me know via twitter – @bradkutner
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