HBO's production of Larry Kramer's “The Normal Heart,” which premieres on Sunday, May 25 at 9 p.m., is a true life story which will likely tug at viewers' heartstrings even as it fills them with rage.
The openly gay, HIV positive Kramer wrote “The Normal Heart” as a theater piece some three decades ago. Heartbroken after losing dozens of friends to AIDS and disgusted by the apathy he saw from government health officials, the White House and even the gay community itself, Kramer vented his rage on the stage. And in life. The play tells what happened to Kramer, and to the community, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Kramer adapted his play for the screen, while Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) directs.
In 1981, Kramer, then in his mid-forties, was known as an Oscar nominated screenwriter and the author of the controversial 1978 novel “Faggots.” In that daringly titled book, Kramer painted a negative portrait of gay male promiscuity, which he claimed was preventing people from finding true love. Gay men vilified Kramer for writing it.
It's at this point that we meet Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a barely disguised version of Kramer. It's 1981, and Ned is reading a story in the New York Times about a rare cancer that's stricken 41 "homosexuals.” In a matter of days, several of Ned's seemingly healthy friends suddenly take ill, dying almost overnight. In a few weeks' time, Ned knows ten people who've died. He hears about dozens of others who've gotten sick.
Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), a paraplegic in a wheelchair, is the only doctor in New York, and possibly in the U.S., who's willing to treat the patients. All she can do is keep them as comfortable as possible. They die quickly, and they're all gay.
Kramer was never afraid to speak his truth. In one particularly powerful scene, Dr. Brookner throws her notes at a government official who refuses to fund her research. "Take my notes!" she yells. "Do something with them!" She warns the official that the plague will soon affect heterosexuals, but he is unmoved.
No one is spared the wrath of Kramer's pen. The author has harsh words for a gay community that would rather go to sex clubs than save their own lives, and for AIDS activists who attack each other instead of the enemy. Kramer, speaking as Ned, tells gay men to come out while they're still alive to do so. He tells his own brother (Alfred Molina) that they cannot speak "until you can tell me that we're equals."
Yet it's the brother who takes Ned's partner Felix (Matt Bomer) to the hospital when Felix collapses and descends into his final illness. The brothers' embrace is one of the film's most gut wrenching moments.
Kramer reminds HBO viewers what many may have forgotten: as thousands of gay men lay dying, lesbians stepped up to the plate and offered to help. They were the first AIDS volunteers to come from beyond the gay male sphere.
Few films are as intensely riveting and as emotionally draining as “The Normal Heart.” The film is a memorial tribute to those who fought and died. For the generations which followed, it's a history lesson.
“The Normal Heart” premieres on HBO on Sunday, May 25th at 9 p.m. The film will also be available at HBO On Demand.