PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'The Normal Heart' Is Full of Passion, but Not Enough Rage

Larry Kramer’s blistering cri de coeur about the early days of the AIDS plague gets a solidly respectful but flawed treatment from Ryan Murphy

The Normal Heart

Director: Ryan Murphy
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Stephen Spinella, BD Wong, Denis O’Hare
Distributor: HBO Home Video
Writer: Larry Kramer
Studio: HBO Films
US Release Date: 2014-08-26

Writers are given one great story to tell.

—Larry Kramer

The facts already seem like a tale out of faraway history. A mysterious plague stalks the land, slaughtering half of those who catch it, while craven officials refuse to acknowledge its existence and a terrified minority population is refused help even as they are dying. When AIDS first began striking New York’s gay male population in 1981, the level of accepted homophobia in American society was, even just a few decades later, difficult to comprehend. Doctors trained to handle the deadliest diseases refused to even touch patients. The medical establishment paid scant attention to a devastating epidemic simply because its first victims were gay. Watching Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of The Normal Heart is to be taken back to a time when prejudice didn’t just cost people their dignity, it robbed some of them of their lives.

Since it was first performed in 1985, Kramer’s play has stood as the definitive fictional account of the battle to smash both the disease and the prejudices it highlighted. That feat has been one of its greatest virtues, but also one of its weaknesses. Its arc is swift and the stakes incredible; however, Kramer’s gifts as polemicist have a tendency to outshine his abilities as a playwright. Most of the major characters are barely veiled variations on critical real-life players in the drama, leaving some stranded in the story merely as mouthpieces for one point of view or another. But these quibbles are only just that; minor flaws in a work whose uncompromising rage against inhumanity has rarely been equaled. It’s a bulldozer of a play that wants to leave you devastated and usually succeeds. That this film doesn’t leave you gasping for air is more testament to Murphy’s surface approach than any diminution of the play’s strengths.

The Kramer stand-in is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo). He’s a grumpy writer whose book about gay culture made him something of a pariah in a group so violently marginalized that critiques from within were often seen as traitorous. Ned becomes aware of the “gay cancer” spreading through the community after a close friend suddenly dies. His calls to stop one-night-stand culture as a safety measure is seen as more hysteria from the writer who had labeled promiscuity many gay men’s “singular political agenda”. (Kramer, who wrote this adaptation, doesn’t mince words on this topic, but he does give voice to the countervailing narrative: that by exercising sexual freedom, gay men were taking control of at least one part of their heavily-circumscribed lives.) Spurred on by the dozens of friends being lost to the disease, he helps organize Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the country’s first AIDS organization, and keeps widening his circle of enemies.

Ned’s partner in anger is Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), the wheelchair-bound doctor who is the only medical professional in town treating the afflicted. As the disease spreads with terrifying and baffling speed, Emma is left grasping at clues to its causes. But while too many others plug their heads in the sand, Emma and Ned act like conspirators in a campaign to wake up the gays who are at risk, and the straight world which doesn’t seem to care. So they just keep finding new ways to yell and new people to yell at, whether it’s the closeted gay mayor who won’t deign to speak to them or his fellow organizers who think a quieter approach is best. There’s no question which tack the play prefers.

Murphy is an emotional filmmaker, sometimes to a fault. He keeps the film crackling with visual energy, distractingly so for such a somber story. On a more positive note, he makes sure to stock the film with performers trusted to channel the characters’ exhaustion and terror which keep exploding in shredded-nerve soliloquies. Theater director Joe Mantello (who also played Ned on Broadway) has one of the more devastating of these eruptions, which manages to encompass all of the era’s fear and uncertainty in a few stark paragraphs.

For her part, Roberts plugs effectively into the same raspy, unbridled frustration at life that energized her spiky performance in August: Osage County. But while Ruffalo is fully engaged in the role, he retains too much of his usual self-effacing charm to truly play a fury-choked outsider like Ned.

The problem with Ruffalo’s performance is ultimately that of the film itself. It would take a much less skilled director than Murphy—whose eager-to-please films have managed to retain a certain level of dignity that alludes his trashier and emotionally cheap TV offerings—to cripple Kramer’s play. Without a volcanic enough presence at its core, though the film feels more scattered than it should, trying to cover more territory than there is room for.

It’s perhaps a sign of progress that all through the standard-issue making-of documentary that’s the DVD edition’s only extra—a hard-to-understand decision, given the wealth of documentary material that could easily have been included—there is one thing that we don’t hear. Not a single one of the straight male actors playing gay characters says a single word about what that was like. Not so long ago, that would have been topic number two, right after the horror of AIDS: what was it like to kiss a man? At the very least, by the time The Normal Heart finally came to a paid-cable channel, that question didn’t seem even worth asking anymore.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.