The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me

HBO Movie

The Normal Heart: Larry Kramer's play makes a powerful film, and recreates what it was like in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

I got myself setup on HBO GO and watched 'The Normal Heart' today, having missed it while on my 'business'  trip through Southland (Dixie) the past few days (and having misread the motel cable guides).I believe I saw a production of the play in a small theater in Washington DC (maybe Church St) in 1992, and I did buy a copy of the play (review on the Drama blog, July 3, 2009). But the film really does a great job of communicating what the early days of the AIDS epidemic were really like, in a way difficult to do on stage.  The film is not a set piece;  it goes outside and provides a cinematic experience, often emphasizing New York City in winter, as well as Fire Island in summer. The film, running 133 minutes, is directed by Ryan Murphy and had Brad Pitt and Mark Ruffalo (as Ned Weeks) on the executive-production team. Larry Kramer wrote the film screenplay based on his own play, which is not as long as one would expect.

The film opens on Fire Island in the early summer of 1981, with the party scene. One young man has a seizure on the beach, a foreshadow of what is to come. I remember, back in 1978, making LIRR trips to Sayville, taking the Ferry, and walking from Fire Island Pines to Cherry Grove, sometimes on the beach, sometimes through the real “grove”.  In those days, there was someone I wanted to run into; and a little health crisis involving Hodgkin’s Disease was actually in the news.No one grasped what would happen in a few years. In fact, the script mentions a secret government experiment at Fort Dietrich in 1978 that fits into conspiracy theories. Copies of 'The New York Native', which covered the epidemic in detail in the 1980s, appear in the film. I actually corresponded by owner Charles Ortleb myself, while living in Dallas (Ortleb was advancing theories about a bizarre arbovirus and Plum Island - and and insect-born virus would have been a very bad thing for the gay community politically.) I met his friend John Beldakas. I was at a meeting (with the Dallas Gay Alliance) with Jim Curran in a Dallas hotel very late in 1982 when the term 'AIDS' (instead of 'GRID') was coined.

Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is supposed to be Larry Kramer himself. Much of the play relates how he fell out with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which he founded in his own apartment.  He wanted to be out, vocal, and loud, and passionate in public.  The more conservative leadership, under ex-Marine Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch – again a preview of battles over gays in the military to occur in the following decade), feared that no one would work with a group that called itself “Gay”.  The other big thread of the story is his relationship with the handsome New York Times reporter Felix Turner Mat Borner), who develops AIDS.  Borner had to lose 40 pounds for the role toward the end (as had Matthew McConaughey for 'Dallas Buyer's Club' - not good for actors' health). Julia Roberts plays Dr. Bruckner, who treats patients from a wheelchair and tells a harrowing back story of how she got polio as a little girl and was suddenly paralyzed. She also starts out in the early days by telling gay men to stop having sex.

The film is quite graphic in showing the wasting of people withj AIDS, especially in depicting numerous large Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions. KS is now known to be induced by a secondary herpes-like virus, which causes certain kinds of cells associated with blood vessel linings to proliferate, and it has become much less frequent than it was in the 80s. There is, at one point, a discussion of the relative risks of homosexual sex and vaginal intercourse, which can be deceptive, but was often brought up by the right wing in the 1980s. Dr. Bruckner quickly points out that in Africa AIDS has been transmitted heterosexually, probably because in third world countries women are more likely to have other STD's that facilitate two-way transmission. There is plenty of homophobia in the hospital scenes, like a TV technician who won't enter the room of a 'contagious fairy'. Since I lived in Dallas in the 1980s. I saw the worst of the epidemic about two years later.  At least two men whom I almost dated would die of AIDS. I recall one had called me a 'soft man' in a bar in April 1981.It seems that my being 'less attractive' turned out to have a reverse Darwinistic effect. Less popular and less attractive men were more likely to remain uninfected and survive. It's not always the best thing to have people attracted to you.

The film covers the stubborn response from not only the Reagan administration (Ronnie didn't mention the disease until 1985), and even NYC mayor Ed Koch, who had taken office on Jan. 1, 1978, is single and was thought to be gay by many people (so is California governor Jerry Brown). Koch has actually advanced the idea of filial responsibility in the past. The film mentions past real establishments in New York City, including the Man's Country Baths. I remember the Everard and the Club. The basic link for the film, produced by Plan B,  is here. Both HBO and 20th Century Fox seem to be distributors. A theatrical run, in arthouse type theaters, is in order (maybe the West End in Washington DC), so that the film could be in the Oscar races.  It deserves to be. A good comparison would be HBO's 'Angels in America' (Mike Nichols), 'How to Survive a Plague' (about Act-UP) and 'We Were Here' (set in San Francisco).

Play and book

Larry Kramer's 'The Normal Heart' and 'The Destiny of Me' (from Grove Press, of course!)

I don’t find a DVD of any of Larry Kramer’s AIDS-related plays on Netflix, but Grove Press (of course!) offers a paperback volume of “The Normal Heart” and the sequel “The Destiny of Me”, ISBN 0-8021-3692-3. (Grove was right down 11th Street from the Cast Iron Building when I lived in that building from 1974-1978.)

The Normal Heart” was performed first on April 21, 1985 at the Public Theater in New York City, as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival Production, and was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Brad Davis plays the main protagonist, Ned Weeks. The actual play, in two acts. takes place from 1981-1984, runs 106 pages, and reads quickly. Ned Weeks, who is a protagonist surrogate of Larry Kramer himself, helps found 'the organization': which is really the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but is eventually expelled from his own organization. In the last scene he has a commitment ceremony (long before the gay marriage debate blossomed) with Felix, who then passes away. The passages in the play describe the rapid progress of the epidemic in the early days, when the number of reported cases doubled every six months, with geometric spread. The play mentions The New York Native, the loud weekly newspaper edited by Charles Ortleb, which I subscribed to by mail even though I lived in Dallas. All the usual political debates occur, including the need to fend off the religious right. The seeming lack of sympathy from the Reagan administration and sometimes the mainstream press is well covered, as are some of the conspiracy theories that Ortleb often published in the Native. I thought Ortleb was a bit crazy, but his researcher friend John Beldakas said, 'he has a right to be crazy.' I actually visited the premises of the Native in February 1986.

I also remember my experiences as an assistant 'buddy' with the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas. The disease went through the Dallas community in 1985 and 1986 like a tornado. Men would come back from hospital stays for pneumocystis pneumonia, “robust enough” at first, but with their forearms shaved from wrist to elbow for multiple iv's. Sometimes one saw the dark purple skin masses (often just under the skin) of Kaposi’s sarcoma – and this became much less common as the epidemic wore on. (Some early cases were quite brutal, as on Geraldo Rivera's May, 1983 ABC 20-20 report; at one point, a tabloid wrote 'AIDS eats its victims.' KS is also covered in the play. Of course, we know the story of the discovery of HTLV-III which would soon be called HIV-1, and the also correlating discover that KS was probably related to the activation of a specific herpes virus (HHV-6) which could become carcinogenic in an immunosuppressed person.

The second play, in three acts, runs in 1992, and actually opened in October 1992 at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York. Ned picks up at that time, as he participates in research for a cure, where again all kinds of political and social objections surface. In this play, the values of the heterosexual world are expressed more directly, as in one scene where intercourse and procreation are explained to a child. The printed version has a 25-page introduction (dating from 2000) by Tony Kushner ('Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes', a play which became an HBO television series and is available as 2 DVD’s; also an opera by Composer Peter Eötvös). Kushner bashes the gay right (whether it calls itself 'conservative' like Gay Patriot or libertarian, like GLIL, or both, as in my DADT books - he think’s it’s neither - rather like the second reviewer of my first 'Do Ask Do Tell' book on Amazon). He writes with ‘personal responsibility’ as their battle cry, the gay and lesbian right seeks to remove homosexual enfranchisement from its place as a chapter in the book of liberation and paste it squarely in the book of the irresistible rise of entrepreneurial individualism.' He then goes on to compare the 'gay right' notion of 'personal responsibility' with Larry Kramer's, which is still more a collective idea, comparable to a reaction to the Holocaust; Kramer says 'we must save ourselves.' That's an idea that Christianity (Rick Warren style) supposedly rejects, that anyone can save himself. Yet, at a deeper level, perhaps Judeo-Christian tradition demands it.

'By the way', my own first experience with New York theater was on a college weekend trip in 1964, when I went to the Circle in the Square when it was in Greenwich Village (those were the bad days, of the New York World’s Fair, when bars were closed down) and saw "The Trojan Women" (Euripides) as I best recall.

Update: May 27, 2014

HBO has a new film of "The Normal Heart" by Ryan Murphy (135 minutes).  Due to travel and misreading of schedules, I saw only the conclusion. I will review in full after a rebroacast, DVD,, or availability on HBO GO. Mark Ruffalo is Ned Weeks.  There is mention of Alan Turing's winning WWII, and the closing credits note that Ronald Reagan never mentioned AIDS until Sept. 17, 1985, and actually cut the budget for AIDS funding ion 1986. The film shows various angry demonstrations. The credits also say that 36 million people have died of HIV disease worldwide.