‘The Normal Heart’

05.24.14

‘The Normal Heart’ and Hope in the Battlefield of AIDS

There was a sense of standing together on the precipice, but holding each other aloft by sheer will, conjoined by rage. A giant rollerball was decimating us. We had to push back.

For a lot of the 1980s, I wasn’t the most political gay in the world, spending most of my time at premieres and nightclubs (though celebrating all that in print from a flamboyant gay angle was a political act in itself, I guess.) But suddenly, in 1987, I found myself at an ACT UP meeting, anxious to get inside the fiery new group that had been formed to combat AIDS and its resulting phobias.

I was about to get serious, though typically, my political galvanization came about for relatively superficial reasons. Future gay pundit Michelangelo Signorile and I had been approached by a really hot guy—in a bar—and told about the organization and how vital it was, as it brought the community together to fight the horrific side effects (both physical and social) of the burgeoning epidemic. Well, we thought that guy and his friend were absolutely dreamy, so there we were, hoping for some kind of sexy social event (while also being fraught with despair over what to do about the growing crisis. We weren’t that superficial).

Well, maybe I actually was that superficial. In fact, I vividly remember walking into the meeting expecting to be cheered and asked for autographs! After all, I was a big presence on the club scene, where I couldn’t step in the door without getting photographed and praised. “Why wouldn’t the same thing happen here?” I piggishly wondered, anxious for a whole new scene to conquer. But I was quickly humbled, as AIDS activism trampled over all the glitz and entitlement that pervaded the ‘80s after dark.

The attendees were civil enough, but this get-together wasn’t about schmoozing and mwah-mwahing. These people were furiously fixed on the mission at hand, which was to channel everyone’s rage and funnel it into something loud and productive that could change the global LGBT landscape. As facilitators gave speeches, attendees offered informed comments, and protest plans were made in a furor of expediency, the mood was electrifying, fraught with urgency and tinged with a deeply touching sense that a giant rollerball was decimating the community and we had to push back. As HBO’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart—airing this Sunday—is being teased: “To win a war, you have to start one.” And these people were armed and in the trenches, ready to toss all sorts of grenades into the air to garner attention and progress.

Then you’d hear stuff like, “That writer Henry has it.” Then, “That dancer has it. So did his boyfriend. He just died.” Then you’d run into your old friend George and he looked gaunt, grey, and wasting. Obviously he had it.

The Normal Heart actually deals with the period of 1981-84, when the limitations of another group Kramer had been involved in—GMHC—deeply frustrated him, leading to his angry resignation. That eventually prompted him to jumpstart the way more political ACT UP, which wasn’t afraid to target enemies and make them squirm. That group’s creation was one of the first signs of hope in the battlefield of AIDS, the first horrific cases of which were reported in 1981. Back then, the illness was called “gay cancer” and was so unknown that buzz had it you could avoid getting it if you ate healthily and didn’t do Poppers. One of the first cases I knew was Hibiscus, a performer friend who was finding himself short of breath onstage and the next thing was laying in a coma in a hospital, where he died shortly afterwards. Then you’d hear stuff like, “That writer Henry has it.” Then, “That dancer has it. So did his boyfriend. He just died.” Then you’d run into your old friend George and he looked gaunt, grey, and wasting. Obviously he had it.

You’d be so shocked into submission by the growing awfulness that you’d numbly rip up card after card in your Rolodex, praying that this was just some real-life science fiction movie that would end soon so you could return to the mundanities of life. You wanted it to go away, and from the mass media’s lack of coverage, you might think it had, but it kept bubbling up, building, and destroying with a reckless vehemence. As more and more people succumbed to the grotesque symptoms and died in their prime, you were torn between grief, terror, and rage against the Reagan administration, which wasn’t treating this like the massive emergency it clearly was. In fact, they weren’t dealing with it at all.

By time the HIV virus was identified, sex became the devil—a scary prospect that made anyone who dared to make a pass at you seem like a diabolical villain. (This was before any knowledge of safer sex was ingrained in the culture.) On the club scene, people wore increasingly elaborate outfits, and I think the subtext was an attempt to ward off potential suitors. The more outlandish you looked, the less of a sex object you were, and sexuality became suffused into personal expression more than into actual sex as bohemia and the creative arts struggled to stay alive amidst the onslaught.

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20th December 1989: Portrait of American author, AIDS campaigner and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, founder of ACT-UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis group, posing in front of a book shelf in his home, New York City. Kramer is wearing a 'SILENCE = DEATH' T-shirt. (Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times Co./Getty Images) (Sara Krulwich/New York Times via Getty)

By 1985, when it was revealed that Rock Hudson was suffering from AIDS, it put a famous face on the illness and added visibility and meaning to it for many. But it was still thought of as a disease for gays and drug addicts, and that meant it was a constant struggle to give it anywhere near the spotlight required. By the time ACT UP came around to deal with the inertia, it seemed like a raging inevitability that hit with the force of a blaze.

Transformed, but still a nightlife/gossip chronicler, my column went schizophrenically from Pee-wee Herman parties and club bashes to ACT UP rallies and back again. In 1988, I spent an ACT UP weekend in Washington D.C., which was an eye-opening experience for both sides. Twelve hundred of us gathered to protest the FDA (urging them to release AIDS meds faster, for one thing), leading to chants, enactments, arrests, and lots of important publicity. There was a sense of standing together on the precipice, but holding each other aloft by sheer will, conjoined by rage. By weekend’s end, I knew I was way more than just a silly queen. ACT UP had changed my life.

The Ryan Murphy-directed version of The Normal Heart captures the dark early days of Kramer’s fury, keeping the heat of the play while opening it up the way a movie has the luxury of doing. The film doesn’t stint on the popping veins (burgeoning activist Ned Weeks—i.e., Kramer—publicly accuses the government of murdering the gay population via willful negligence), but there are also lyrical moments of love and clinging, usually between Weeks and his hot boyfriend, played by Matt Bomer. (Every play by a gay author tends to give the author character a hot boyfriend. But in this case, Bomer is soon covered with lesions and needing to be assured that Ned won’t leave him, as both fall prey to the criminal disinterest around them.)

Throughout the piece, Weeks chastises the politicos, the medical establishment, and the gay community itself—not to mention his own brother—desperate to turn the world on with his frown. His gruff cadences and seething frustrations are well captured by Mark Ruffalo, who even sounds like Larry, and the rest of the ensemble are pretty well cast too. Julia Roberts has the [original] Jennifer Garner role of the compassionate doctor with the guts to face off with the big boys. She brings her August: Osage County dourness to the role and delivers with a socko monologue that’s as close to “show biz” as Kramer ever got. Joe Mantello, who was Ned on Broadway, is brilliant as a GMHC activist who’s trying not to unravel over the fact that his message of empowerment through sexuality might be turning out to be suicidal. And Denis O’Hare—a memorable AIDS villain in Dallas Buyers Club—is a memorable AIDS villain once again. The result may not be as strong as the Broadway version, which seethed with immediacy, but it’s potent stuff that can easily be described as “cry out loud.”

Next up, Murphy is set to direct something dealing with a real horror. Reportedly, he wants to star Lea Michele in a production based on another ex-Streisand vehicle, Funny Girl. Oops, I’m starting to sound like a silly queen again.