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Did 'The Normal Heart' End Up Really Mattering?

By Kyle Turner | /Bent June 26, 2014 at 10:00AM

Will "The Normal Heart" matter to today’s LGBT youth and, if it does, is this what should be shown in order to represent that period?
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The Normal Heart 4

A couple weeks ago, I watched "The Normal Heart." At least, I think it was a couple weeks ago? Or was it a month ago? The only thing I vividly remember about it was the scene in the bathhouse where Matt Bomer follows Mark Ruffalo into a steam room. And then, flashing forward to the present to reveal the date that the two are on, Bomer reminiscing about their casual encounter. And then Ruffalo asks amiably, “Wanna start over?” And then they have sex. (What can I say? I’m a huge Matt Bomer fan.)

But I feel the fact that a) I don’t really remember when I watched it and b) I don’t remember anything about the film beyond those scenes and lots of shouting is a problem. I don’t think I am in the minority of finding Ryan Murphy’s treatment of Larry Kramer’s play “fine”, so I wonder if I’m alone in forgetting it so quickly. The issue isn’t merely that the film is forgettable, but the fact that if "The Normal Heart" was supposed to represent something within the queer narrative, it may have failed.

"The Normal Heart" is, for all intents and purposes, an angle of the AIDS epidemic that, at least dramatically, is not seen in comparison to a more conventional “straight savior” narrative ("Philadelphia," "Dallas Buyers Club). Larry Kramer, who is described by Charles O’Malley as “activist first and artist second”, writes his thinly veiled alter-ego Ned (Ruffalo) with the primary purpose of bringing the audience to the front lines. He is employed to give the audience an intimate look at the fury and fervor that existed during the AIDS epidemic, and it is that perspective, particularly the outrage, which is supposed to feel, if not entirely new, then at least enlightening because of the lack of dramatic portrayals, especially from within the gay community.

Yet, despite that desire to show queer activism at its most fervent (short of Stonewall), and despite the fact that Kramer attempts to balance those ideas out with an impression of intimacy regarding Ned’s relationship with New York Times reporter Felix Turner, it still feels weirdly myopic. It seems inexplicable at times, but it ironically lacks the very uniqueness that the perspective itself should inherently give this film. It ends up being primarily memorable for the aforementioned scenes and for being very shouty. It is no secret that "Heart" was written primarily as a way for Kramer to voice his ideas and frustrations, and that itself is not a problem. But shouting isn’t acting. And Ryan Murphy’s heavy hand doesn’t help make a lasting impression.

"The Normal Heart" reeled in 1.4 million viewers, which is half of what Steven Soderbergh’s "Behind the Candelabra" managed to garner. Let it be said that Soderbergh’s film was passed up by Hollywood for being “too gay”. And, while the biopic of a fascinating pianist is undoubtedly an interesting entry into the Queer cinematic narrative, "The Normal Heart" is, by comparison, the prestige picture that will probably be used as the teaching guide for everyone else regarding what it must have been like to be alive during that time.

The Normal Heart 2
HBO

The problem with this is, no one seems to care anymore. The only people I know who watched this movie, who were even aware of it, run in my film circle, save for one person I’m acquainted with at college who’s a theater kid familiar with Kramer’s work. This might speak more to my introversion than the queer community at large, but even the queer friends I have seemed not to have noticed its existence.

The film’s lack of diversity doesn’t help. "The Normal Heart" is a very white movie and, though the lesbian community was a large player in getting the ball rolling in terms of how to deal with the AIDS epidemic, they are represented by one character (Danielle Ferland) who appears in the film for about five minutes.

So it looks like we are dealing with two issues then: will "The Normal Heart" matter to today’s LGBT youth and, if it does, is this what should be shown in order to represent that period?

This article is related to: Takes on 'The Normal Heart'