Larry Kramer’s Landmark The Normal Heart is HBO Special Event May 25
By: Ellis Nassour
A recent headline read: "The Normal Heart might be the most important movie HBO has ever made." You might agree. Beginning May 25 at 9 P.M., after 29 years, Larry Kramer’s landmark play about burgeoning AIDS epidemic and the lack of attention paid to those sick and dying, The Normal Heart, finally comes to the screen in a two-hour movie event. Ryan Murphy [creator of Glee] directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Tony and Oscar winner Kramer. HBO telecasts the two-hour film beginning May 25 at 9 P.M. [see other viewing dates below].
Matt Bomer, Jonathan Groff, Taylor Kitsch, Tony and Drama Desk-winning director Joe Mantello, Alfred Molina, Tony and two-time Drama Desk winner Denis O’Hare, Emmy winner Jim Parsons, Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, Oscar winner Julia Roberts, two-time Tony and three-time Drama Desk winner Stephen Spinella, and Tony and Drama Desk winner BD Wong headline the cast.
During the audition period, some actors shied away from being cast. Bomer wasn’t one. He’s "out and about" and explained that "when I was in high school, I actually was in the closet, yes!, of the drama department reading Larry’s play." He says he was confused about his sexuality and the play helped him understand who he is.
The film was shot last summer here, with locations in Greenwich Village and Little Italy.
One of the reasons it’s taken so long to reach the masses could be because, and even he would admit it, Kramer wasn’t the easiest collaborator. He felt no one had the passion for the project that he had. During the decade when Barbra Streisand had the play under option with the idea of directing, they often disagreed vehemently. Her vision was to open the play up "to make it more cinematic." She also had a desire to make the central figure Dr. Brookner, the role played by Roberts and Kramer’s homage to Dr. Linda Laubenstein. [She was an early AIDS researcher who became a wheelchair-bound paraplegic after a childhood bout with polio. It was she who was so concerned with all the sick and dying and spurred Kramer to action.]
The property languished until Murphy, who’d broken ground by injecting gay themes into TV’s Glee and The New Normal, won the playwright’s trust. He found a willing partner with HBO, which has never shied away from controversial subject matter.
Streisand, who gave it her all, has joined the chorus of thousands who’re happy Kramer’s pioneering work has made it to the screen.
Roberts, who’d seen the play, early on sought to play Dr. Brookner. She was also very impressed how Murphy stayed true to Kramer’s crusade and vision. "I can’t express how honored and thrilled I am to be part of this documentation of that period of time that reminds all and reviews mistakes we made as a society and culture," states Roberts, "and does it in such a moving way.
"It was unbelievable how everyone turned their back on those who were suffering," she adds. "It was tragic and terrifying, like the sky was falling.
Ryan put together a superb cast. There’s not a false note among the guys. All are just outstanding. I applaud HBO. The Normal Heart is difficult and heartbreaking to watch, but now people can watch in the safe environment of home and express their emotion."
Ruffalo, also a co-producer of the film, echoes Roberts: "I feel so lucky to be part of this incredible cast. Each one gives a performance that will help a new generation of young people discover is part of our modern history. The evolution of good from so much sorrow is what makes The Normal Heart‘s message as relevant as it was in 1985."
"It was always more than simply a play," says Kramer. "In those early days, I watched helplessly as gay men in huge numbers in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were dying of mysterious and rare diseases like Kaposi’s sarcoma. It was terrifying that those in power weren’t listening and that funds for medical research to find a cure, a vaccine, weren’t forthcoming."
The Normal Heart follows true events. In 1981, Kramer hosted a gathering of six gay men and their friends to discuss the "gay cancer" and raise awareness for research fundraising. That meeting led to the formation of HIV prevention advocacy group GMHC).
As the plot unfolds, Weeks rallies gay friends and even some unlikely allies into a band of brothers to fight the good fight to denounce the silenced government officials, media, and researchers.
However, as Kramer’s/Weeks’ frustration grew into an understandable fury when he couldn’t get people to stand up and listen, he alienated those he pleaded with for assistance. The motto of Kramer’s bombastic protest group ActUp was Silence = Death.
He began to spew venom and throw verbal brickbats and Molotov cocktails at Mayor Ed Koch, city officials, and The New York Times for initially ignoring the escalating epidemic. He also took on the White House, blisteringly criticizing President Ronald Reagan – "who," says Kramer, "infamously didn’t utter the word AIDS until four years into the epidemic [September 1985]."
Kramer also looked down on the gay liberation of casual sex and pointed to it as being responsible for spreading HIV. This didn’t sit well with the gay community who felt they’d fought the tough battles to be liberated. He was eventually ousted from the very organization he founded.
From the very beginning, the path to the stage wasn’t one strewn with rose petals. There was such ignorance, misinformation, and mystery surrounding AIDS that Kramer had rejection after rejection. Then "the great theatrical warrior" Joe Papp stepped to the plate. Even during casting, many actors feared taking on roles would hurt their careers.
Papp produced the premiere The Normal Heart on April 21, 1985 at the Public Theatre, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and co-starring Brad Davis, Concetta Tomei, and D.W. Moffett, pulsed for almost 300 performances. Early on, straight theatergoers stayed away; then, the play became a juggernaut.
It had a three-month revival in 2004 under the auspices of the Worth Street Theatre and the Public, headlined and Raul Esparza and Joanna Gleason.
The play also had a West End engagement and received its Broadway premiere, thanks to lead producers Daryl Roth, one of Off Broadway and Broadway’s most prolific producers and a champion of serious theater, and Paul Boskind, on April 27, 2011, in a smash revival directed by Joel Gray and George C. Wolfe.
It co-starred Ellen Barkin, in a scorchingly revelatory performance as Dr. Brookner, Mark Harelik, John Benjamin Hickey, Mantello [jumping back into acting after 17 award-winning years directing], and Parsons in another revelatory performance. The unflinching subject matter seemed more relevant than when the play premiered. Many audience members, recalling the loss of loved ones and friends, audibly sobbed.
For the run, Kramer drafted a flyer titled Please Know, which he more often than not handed out to audiences as they exited the Golden Theatre. It explained that most of the events and characters in the play are based on real events and people. For instance, the character of Bruce is based on Paul Popham, one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis; Dr. Emma Brookner is and Tommy Boatright, played in the screen adaptation and in the 2011 Broadway revival by Jim Parsons, is based on Rodger McFarlane, activist and creator of the AIDS hotline that was the precursor to the GMHC.
In spite of critical acclaim and its A-List cast, it only ran for 86 performances. However, it earned Tony nominations for Barkin, Hickey, Revival, and the directors; and Drama Desk Awards for Revival, Ensemble, and the directors.
Roth, says, "I’ve always been attracted to things that push buttons and make people think about issues we can’t always access – theater that touches a chord both intellectually and emotionally. Theater is a place for audiences to take risks and encounter and explore issues."
Grey asked her to produce a 2011 one-night-only benefit reading of The Normal Heart. "It changed my life. I’d read the play and loved it. I didn’t see the original, but caught the 2004 revival. What struck me most was how swept up I became. Then, I saw the audience reaction. I told Larry, ‘Everybody has to see this. I want to do it on Broadway.’"
She says that The Normal Heart is "as timely now, if not more so, than when it was written, not only from the political point of view, given that the majority of a new generation is unaware of how long it took for the AIDS crisis to be recognized, but also from the health point of view. People think it’s not a worry anymore because there are drugs and treatment.
"The truth is it’s an even bigger worry," she continues. "AIDS is still a leading and one of the most common cause of death among 20-24 year olds. It’s something I care deeply about because my son [Jujamcyn Theatres president Jordan Roth] is gay and because of my involvement in issues dealing with gender, culture, identity and people being marginalized."
Along with her, thousands agree that the screen adaptation will be seen by a younger generation, one that doesn’t understand the legacy or history of the fight it took to get from then to now.
The Normal Heart is produced in association with Plan B Entertainment and Blumhouse Productions. Among the executive producers are Ruffalo, Dede Gardner [12 Years a Slave], and Brad Pitt.
HBO viewing schedule for The Normal Heart: May 25, encore showing at 11:15 P.M.; May 26, 8 P.M.; May 28, 6:15 P.M.; May 29, 9 P.M.; May 31, midnight; and into June. There’ll also be showings on HBO2.