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Did 'The Normal Heart' End Up Really Mattering?

by Kyle Turner
June 26, 2014 10:00 AM
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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

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?

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More: Takes on 'The Normal Heart'


  • Teri | July 1, 2014 2:09 PMReply

    I wept during this movie. Not only was it well done, it took me back to that time. I was in the military and a wonderful, good friend of mine contracted the AIDS virus. The way the military handled it was to ship him off to a military hospital in Texas and then, when nothing else could be done for him, they dishonorably discharged him and sent him to die at home in New York. I remember the last time I saw him. He had lesions on his face and neck and stiffened up as I hugged him. He said that no one had touched him in so long, that he didn't know how to react. I still cry for him today. People that he had known for so long, that he called friends, would not even acknowlege him. The sad part was, he contracted the disease from a blood transfusion that he recieved in the Phillipines, but because it was a "gay mans" disease, that's what was assumed. Had the government treated this epidemic as it should have been, so many people would not have died, gay or strait, men or women, and even children.

  • Darrick | June 29, 2014 2:38 AMReply

    Good film and well done. It captured a level of anger and intragroup turmoil that can resonate with a lot of us struggling for humane treatment and visibility. I also agree with the comments that critique the articles tone and framing.

  • Debbie | June 28, 2014 10:51 PMReply

    I found myself wondering if you and I watched the same movie? I was so disturbed and so uncomfortable with this movie that 24hours later, I am still working through the emotions. To see real human beings suffer such horrors and be so sick, and to be treated as little more than a nuisance tore me to the core. It broke my heart and I cried openly watching it. I remember being given a class on AIDS in high school. I didn't really appreciate the seriousness of the disease. This movie is powerful. It is compelling and thought provoking. It will move you and I hope that many many people watch it.

  • G. Elsasser | June 28, 2014 10:12 PMReply

    I am a straight white woman in my 60s. "The Normal Heart" taught me a lot: For one thing, most LGBT people seem to prefer marriage/children to promiscuity, which was all that was offered to them until the late 90s. For another, that governments can be collectively evil in their intent--lying to the public and making political judgements about moral issues which can often lead to death, i.e., the critical delay in AIDS research, which eventually became even more deadly than the war in Iraq over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
    Regarding the lack of diversity among the players, I believe if one were to view footage of Fire Island, for instance, in the 1970s-1980s, one would rarely see any black or Hispanic LGBT people. It's not that they didn't exist, but they hung out with their own demographic, as the whites did at that time. Since Larry Kramer based the characters on the GMHC Board on real people, only changing their names, I have to assume that this configuration was made up of white Jews and gentiles.
    Perhaps because I am older and not gay, much of the information in "The Normal Heart" was new to me. Since you are gay, maybe you can't appreciate that this information is important for me to know. Additionally, young people don't know about the beginning of AIDS and how horrific a period it was in our history. 90% of my students in my college classes had never actually heard Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. They knew of it, but not about it. Not good enough--these are important histories in any American's life and should be studied and questioned.

  • dana | June 27, 2014 11:11 PMReply

    Is there something missing somewhere with those of you bloggers who can't seem to understand that this is Larry Kramer's view on what he went through at that particular time in history? He wasn't writing a fictional play that --ohmygod-- must have diversity of all kinds so we don't offend anybody's poor tender sensibilities. He was writing an autobiographical play about AIDS and what HE and his friends were going through at the time.

    It was an amazing movie. If you want a film with blacks and hispanics and lesbians... go write your own.

  • Terri Hemker | June 27, 2014 9:42 PMReply

    As the proud mom of a gay trans son in college, I couldn't have been more moved by The Normal Heart. I cried my eyes out both times I saw it. I couldn't help but think of my child going through something like that. My son's afraid to watch it yet. He doesn't know if he can bear it. Seeing Matt Bomer's wasted body covered with lesions as he sobbed helplessly, knowing he was dying and that there was nothing anyone could do for him, worse, that hardly anybody was going to do anything for him, it was shattering. Seeing Felix and Ned saying what they knew would be good-bye in the hospital, when they'd fought so hard to stay together and then, Ned at his college pride fest where he'd planned on taking his lover was heartbreaking. This was a great movie, teaching from the heart.

  • darren | June 27, 2014 7:26 PMReply

    Yea. What they said...the whole time I was reading you post was "its gotta be just him." My husband and I couldn't stop thinking of the film and watched it twice in one weekend.

  • FP | June 27, 2014 2:03 PMReply

    The more I read of this blog site, the more it reads like the ramblings of pretentious twinks who can barely jump off Grindr to write a thoughtful essay and hit spell-check. The nerve to complain about the prevalence of white males in this film when it reeks off the pages of bent, save occasional pieces by Alice.

    That a 20 year old gained nothing from THE NORMAL HEART is not an indication that the film failed. I agree with Nina that the reaction to this film has been nothing short of awe from my diverse friends in film. That a second is wasted bemoaning 1.4M viewers when the far more lauded GIRLS has never cleared 1M viewers is inane. Comparing viewership of Soderbergh's last film ever, featuring multi-era superstar Oscar-winners bejewelled, naked, and having lurid sex to your high-school crush wasting away in a bed is just as inance and false.

    If this blog were about promoting all LGBTQ projects, not just ones that fetishize white twink/sex culture, you'd be celebrating over 1, if 2 or 3 by now, million viewers watching a film about AIDS. You don't like your sex lives being attacked, so you side with those who define Kramer as sex negative because you view sex as the most important part of your gay life.

    The admissions of how young and unimpressed with how people twice your age fought tooth and nail, who died so you can look at ads in magazines and TV which make HIV look (falsely) like the common cold, shames your generation. It ceases to be about your feelings about this film specifically, when there's a concerted effort before, during, and after this film's release to discredit it at every opportunity.

    You have one less lesbian reader, as of today. I don't need your apologies for us not being properly represented in a movie. I need my LGBTQ allies to see the forest for the trees, and THE NORMAL HEART is one of the finest films in our canon. I suggest to look up from Grindr long enough to put yourself in an older person's shoes long enough to see the absolute horror that you were spared because these people, like Larry Kramer, fought for ungrateful children like you. That's my wish for Pride.

  • nina | June 27, 2014 2:50 AMReply

    I have a complete opposite reaction as yours. I'm a Matt Bomer fan from White Collar. I got interested in the project as his fan and read the book. I was blown away with the movie! As beautiful and sexy Matt is in those bathhouse and sex scenes that's not what has stuck with me. It's been two weeks and I'm still haunted by Montello's outburst, Tommy's eulogy, Ned and Felix's tender dance scene, the haunting song "the only living boy in New York", Felix's and Ben weeks connecting, Ned taking care of this skeleton of a man and the wedding at the end. So many disturbing and thought provoking lines, situations, and dialogs. I'm still stunned with some of the historical facts that were revealed. Since then I also made a point to see "The case against 8" and have educated myself more as a straight member in a straight society and have recommended the films to friends and family.

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