Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Julia Roberts, Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons stun in Ryan Murphy and Larry Kramer’s unflinching and unforgettable film adaptation of The Normal Heart.
In 1981, playwright Larry Kramer was an active part of New York’s thriving gay community when a mysterious cancer began turning his vibrant comrades into lesion-covered, incoherent living skeletons — and then into corpses.
Spurred into action by his friend and physician Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated the outbreak’s earliest patients, Kramer begged his vast social circle to end the rampant promiscuity Laubenstein suspected led to its alarming spread. Kramer launched the Gay Men’s Health Crisis with a handful of sympathetic associates and was soon locked in a literal life-or-death battle with indifferent doctors and politicians, and also with members of his own ranks, some who feared being outed and some who refused to surrender the sexual freedoms they considered a hard-won personal and political prize.
Kramer chronicled that journey in his searing play The Normal Heart, which debuted in New York City in 1985, five months before President Ronald Reagan first publicly uttered the word “AIDS” in a September press conference in which he assured a terrified nation of his devotion to combating the deadly disease. Shortly after, AIDS spending for 1986 was cut by 11 percent, augmenting Kramer’s message that further indifference and inaction would prove catastrophic. To date, the disease that claimed some 500 men in 1981 has sent more than 36 million people of all ages, genders and economic classes from all corners of the globe to their graves.
In 2010, writer/director Ryan Murphy acquired the rights to The Normal Heart and enlisted Kramer to help craft the material into a film that would wrap that dire moral in a love song to the men and women at the forefront of the crusade and the millions who, perhaps needlessly, lost their lives. Then Murphy reached out to the one man he felt could both embody his vision for Kramer’s crusading alter ego Ned Weeks and serve as a creative partner with an activist’s heart — Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo.
“My immediate reaction was exuberance … and then fear. Terror,” recalls Ruffalo, who first embraced Kramer’s play as a young member of Los Angeles’ acting community with AIDS-stricken friends of his own. “My first reaction was that maybe a gay man should be playing this part — that was one of the first things I said to Ryan. He said, ‘But that’s exactly what it’s about — your sexuality has nothing to do with it. You’re the right person because of your activism in the environmental movement, and you’re the right actor. I’d come to you if you were gay or not.”
Backed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, the trio began exploring all the opportunities that the passage of time and the creative freedom of film would afford them. “There was the discussion of how to open it up and make it less a polemic and more a journey that captures all the nuances of Ned Weeks,” Ruffalo explains. “There’ve been a lot of changes in the culture around gay rights and what is being fought for, so this was a chance for a much larger story to be told. Making it a love story between all these different people became the guiding principle to making it more accessible.”
In Murphy’s hands, the most volatile aspects of Weeks — who, like Kramer, struggled to embrace his homosexuality in the wake of family disapproval — are tempered by a palpable longing for the unconditional acceptance of his beloved brother (a role beautifully rendered by Alfred Molina) and a lasting, monogamous relationship. A relationship he finds when he entreats New York Times lifestyle writer Felix Turner to help spread the word of the burgeoning epidemic.
As his Felix, Murphy cast openly gay White Collar actor Matt Bomer, who said that reading Kramer’s play in the closet of his school’s drama room as a confused 14-year-old helped him understand his sexuality. “It was magical,” Ruffalo says of his and Bomer’s tender onscreen chemistry. “Like a lot of our great love stories, because they had to fight so hard to have it, they appreciated it so deeply, and it was just really fertile ground for great storytelling. It’s powerful and it’s beautiful and it’s humanizing. And Matt is genius in it.”
To play the AIDS-stricken Felix, Bomer shed 40 pounds over the course of filming, his expressive eyes becoming sunken and his complexion fading to a pallor. Murphy further infused the story with a host of heartrending visual elements — grieving men using themselves as human ambulances for their dying lovers when no rescue vehicle would come, the shattering indignity of several characters’ last moments, the simple heartbreak of Rolodex cards that another uses as “a collection of cardboard tombstones” to commemorate his lost friends — that stay with the viewer long after the movie ends.
As Weeks’ activist comrades, Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons and Broadway actor/director Joe Mantello (both veterans of the play’s Tony-winning 2011 Broadway revival) and Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch bring depth to the myriad mindsets within the gay community. And Julia Roberts is a stunning study in heartache and fury as Dr. Emma Brookner, Kramer’s homage to the polio-stricken Laubenstein.
“All the great performances — how lucky to be part of a cast with these people!” Ruffalo says. “And each one has a great, shining moment. There’s a whole generation of young people that have no idea that this is part of our modern history, and we knew that going into it, so the stakes were very high. But there was also a feeling that you’re doing something that is righteous, that’s worthy and that’s at the height of what we do, in some regards. So there was a lot of joy and camaraderie that came out of the experience of making it.”
The evolution of good from so much sorrow, says Ruffalo, is what makes The Normal Heart’s message as relevant today as it was in 1985.
“The deaths of a lot of people sit squarely in the hands of the people that were dehumanizing and delegitimizing the gay culture’s population for asking for help,” he concludes. “But the good part of all this sadness is that people did learn how to work together in ways that they never would have. The gay community, through the suffering the AIDS epidemic inflicted on them, united and was able to bring us to the day where we have marriage equality. Significant changes have happened since the AIDS crisis happened.”
The Normal Heart premieres Sunday, May 25 at 9/8CT on HBO
Video/images: HBO Photo credit: Jojo Whiden