HBO’s version of Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart begins with Ned arriving by ferry at Fire Island, depicted as a lovely arcadia of happy, beautiful, available men. Within a half-hour, the scene switches to another journey: Ned’s host Albert arriving by airplane at Phoenix. After raving with dementia during the flight and puking in his seat, we see his dead body being carried off the plane. The Phoenix medical authorities refuse to deal a victim of AIDS, so his lover and mother have to arrange a back-door cremation. Heaven and hell: welcome to the 1980s.
Heart is a depiction of those first years of bewilderment and horror. From everywhere suddenly came stories of deaths, and stories of sick people and their friends and families encountering brutality. The stories were so grotesque they didn’t seem possible in 20th century America.
And so the horror was followed by exasperation and outrage at the fact that the wider (straight) world, the authorities, responded with excuses and indifference. Many of us discovered that we were no longer living in the 20th century but in the Middle Ages, and not in America but in some broken-down Third World outpost that didn’t even have the gumption to acknowledge it had a problem.
It was a discovery of how politically disenfranchised the community was. Visibility had not translated into political clout. We had isolated ourselves, pretended we were autonomous. As a result, no one with any power gave a shit; nobody needed to. Kramer takes special pains to finger the closeted gay men in positions of authority (journalists, civil servants, politicians) who went out of their way to obstruct action to protect their careers.
In a way, it’s an extension of Kramer’s critique of gay culture in Faggots (as far as I remember it): a culture that was out and proud but so self-absorbed it was incapable of caring or communicating.
The emergence of a gay community support network in response to the crisis changed that forever. But Normal Heart isn’t satisfied with that. Kramer in 1985 already found the focus on palliative services misguided. The trajectory of the drama is such that it could have been titled, Why ACT-UP Happened.
All of which makes clear that The Normal Heart is not merely a personal view, but a self-portrait. This is not an ego trip, but where the art comes in--the art that makes the history bearable. If Kramer is unsparing of gay men more concerned about being sex-positive than dealing with the situation, and expresses contempt for activists who employ moderate means to achieve moderate goals, he doesn’t spare himself. The Ned Weeks character radiates a love of confrontation so passionate that you wonder what the fight is really about. This sense of perpetual emergency eventually became itself a problem for AIDS activism, but circa 1987 it was just what the doctor ordered.
If Kramer doesn’t spare himself, being played by Mark Ruffalo is quite a consolation. Julia Roberts seems determined to make up for all those years playing glamorous gals and remind us what a compelling performer she is. Her office assistant was played by B.D. Wong, who coincidentally also appeared HBO’s 1993 AIDS docu-drama And the Band Played On.
Of course it was a period drama. HBO did it well, without overdoing the period looks. Some sublime Roxy Music and Tom Tom Club on the soundtrack was sufficient to place me, at least, in 1981.
But on the other hand, it also seemed to be an up-to-date reminder of how AIDS remains a stigma more than a disease. And how, after decades of activism and breakthroughs and treatments, the silence (which still equals death) still obscures it from view.