Larry Kramer’s Landmark The Normal Heart is HBO Special Event May 25
By: Ellis Nassour
It has finally come to the screen after 29 years. In spite of its acclaim and controversy, it’s taken that long. Thanks to Ryan Murphy of Glee, Larry Kramer’s unflinching play about the burgeoning AIDS epidemic [first referred to as a "gay-related immune disorder"] and how so many ignored it, The Normal Heart, which caused a sensation in 1985, has come to the screen for the masses. It airs on HBO May 25 at 9 P.M. in a two-hour movie event [see other viewing dates below]. Murphy directs and co-wrote the screenplay with the Tony and Oscar winning playwright.
Matt Bomer, Jonathan Groff, Taylor Kitsch [of TV’s Friday Night Lights fame], Tony and Drama Desk winning director Joe Mantello, Alfred Molina, Tony and two-time Drama Desk winner Denis O’Hare, Emmy winner Jim Parsons [The Big Bang Theory], 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 large ensemble cast.
The subject matter about efforts to expose the truth is very close to Kramer. In fact, it goes beyond that. "Mad as hell and not-going-to-take-it-anymore" activist Ned Weeks, played by Ruffalo, is based on the playwright.
Bomer is Felix Turner, a New York Times reporter who becomes Weeks’ lover. The production experienced some shooting delays to allow him to lose 40 lbs to show the ravages of AIDS. To achieve the weight loss and wishing to create the same physical reality that Turner experienced, he left his family "for a few weeks that were monastic and solitary"
Groff portrays Craig, Bruce Niles’ lover, an early AIDS victim. Kitsch plays
Niles, a closeted investment banker who becomes a prominent AIDS activist. Mantello is Mickey Marcus, an instrumental member of the GMHC. Molina is Weeks’ older brother, an attorney. O’Hare plays a gay aide of Mayor Koch’s. Parsons is activist Tommy Boatwright, who tries to mediate between Weeks’ methods and more cautious activists. Roberts portrays Dr. Emma Brookner. Spinella is one of Dr. Brookner’s first patients. Wong portrays a nurse working with the doctor.
Ruffalo wondered to Murphy why he didn’t choose gay actors to play the gay characters. Murphy replied, "That attitude wouldn’t serve the spirit of the film. It’s everyone fighting together to battle against AIDS."
"It’s too foolish to believe the play and film are just about gay issues," says Parsons."I’ve worked with too many straight colleagues who’ve been emotionally devastated by it. It’s something that somehow has touch just about everyone’s life in some way. We’re at another right time for this story. I felt it doing the play and now with the film. The story’s only gotten richer."
Roberts initially turned down the role of the hard-as-nails Dr. Brookner, who often tells the activist group realities they don’t wish to hear. "It is an intense role. Dr. Brookner was a lot to take on. I felt I needed to really dig deep and understand her. In the end, I feel I got her."
In January, as Murphy was editing the movie, Kramer’s health took a downturn after having bowel surgery. Murphy rushed him and his husband, architect David Webster, a rough cut. Webster reported that Kramer, 78, "was overcome with emotion, finally seeing the play committed to film."
"It had been a long journey and battle," states Murphy. "Larry’s the toughest person I ever met. The thing that touched me most was that he didn’t understand that he didn’t have to fight anymore. It was now my fight to get The Normal Heart made and make sure it’s good."
The very much based on fact story tells of a gay activist on a desperate crusade to raise awareness in the early 80s at the onset of the HIV-AIDS crisis among the public, government, media, and medical research circles who appear to be in denial. It also delves deeply into the psyche of sexual politics.
For this long-awaited screen version, which will eventually see its way to years of home video sales, Kramer found a welcoming partner, whose mettle had been tested in breakthrough TV series. He and producer Murphy worked on the screen adaptation.
Kramer, the controversial gay
activist and co-founder of ActUp, kept asking the question: "Why did it take so long? Why," he lamented, "did it take so long to make the play into a film?" Undoubtedly, there were numerous reasons; climate and budget considerations, at the top of the list.
For years, Barbra Streisand, who owned the screen rights for a decade, planned to do it but, it’s been reported, was unable to get financing or come to terms with Kramer regarding the adaptation; and HBO was unwilling to meet Kramer’s price for the screenplay.
It was assumed the 2011 revival and the acclaim it generated would boost chances for the Streisand production, which she hoped to direct and play Dr. Brookner. However, bringing The Normal Heart to the screen remained in limbo.
In news reports, Streisand stated the play was so ahead of its time in all manner of aspects of gay life. "Still," she says, "I knew it would make a great film." In the 90s, Streisand had a deal with Sony’s Columbia Pictures. There was even a script; and she was seeking Dustin Hoffman to play Weeks. There was also interest from Sir Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes for the role of journalist Turner.
Streisand even met with Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger [Midnight Cowboy; also Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Darling, who died in 2003] about taking over as director. Kramer worked with him on the adaptation for several months, but the project fell apart.
According to news reports, the project fell victim to Hollywood’s timidity about telling gay stories in general and AIDS dramas in particular. Many felt the fierceness of the story was too depressing and would only appeal to a narrow demographic.
But the ice began to melt. TV oddly became the leader instead of the follower as Hollywood and indie producers finally began to tackle the AIDS epidemic.
There was NBC’s groundbreaking series starring Tony Randall as a gay artist sharing his flat with a single mom [Swoosie Kurtz], Love, Sidney (1981); however, the gay quotient was toned down more and more with each episode.
Then, NBC really stepped up to the plate with its landmark TV movie An Early Frost (1985), starring Aidan Quinn as an attorney who feels he has to come out to his parents [Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara] and reveal he has AIDS. Quick to follow was the big screen Parting Glances (1986), about a gay couple dealing with a friend who has AIDS [a flamboyant Steve Buscemi]; and Craig Lucas’ Longtime Companion (1989), produced by Samuel Goldwyn and PBS’ American Playhouse, which followed several gay men with AIDS [the title referenced The New York Times‘ refusal to acknowledge homosexual relationships in their obituary section, instead referring to surviving partners as "longtime companions"].
Next came the film that opened the flood gates, but which might have put The Normal Heart on the back burner for a time: Philadelphia, (1993), which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, with Hanks’ portrayal of a gay man fired for having AIDS garnering him a Best Actor Oscar. Shooting down the myth that audiences wouldn’t belly up to the box office, the film grossed $207-million worldwide. Times had changed. Longtime Companion had grossed just under $5-million.
As her option was running out in 1996, Streisand thought of going the TV route and met with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, with whom she’d produced the 1995 Emmy-winning TV movie Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, starring Glenn Close as a National Guard officer challenging her discharge for being lesbian.
The Normal Heart: Trailer (HBO Films)
END OF PART ONE
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.