The eighties were not a good time to be gay. A generation of gay men was decimated because of a deadly virus, first called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), then AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Still high off the sexual revolution, gay men were living it up and celebrating, when it became apparent that an unwanted guest had snuck in and was starting to spoil the party. The men, finally able to breathe a little, were not especially receptive to warnings to keep it in their pants for a while, until more was known about how the virus was spreading. And it must have seemed like a conspiracy, initially, to drive gay men back into their closets. Not helping was the fact that funding to fight the disease and reliable information about it were hard to come by and that word took a long time to spread. In the U.S. Reagan’s conservative government was criminally slow to respond. The people in charge really didn’t care so much that gay men were dying left and right, as long as white, heterosexual males were unaffected.
The epidemic has since been visualised in many films, series and documentaries, most often seen from an American perspective. To name a few: Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, Angels in America, How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here. (For more, look here.) The Normal Heart recently joined its ranks. It is a high-profile HBO production, directed by Glee‘s Ryan Murphy, based on a play from 1985, by playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer. Big names in the cast are Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Joe Mantello, and Julia Roberts.
The Normal Heart takes places between 1981 and 1985, so right up to the moment the play originally hit theatres. It may seem like a period piece now, but there is a clear sense of urgency and a righteous anger to it. Running throughout is the mantra “People are dying here! Why isn’t anybody doing anything to stop this!?” Mark Ruffalo plays the lead (Bruce), an abrasive gay rights activist – fictional, but based on former Gay Men’s Health Crisis president Paul Popham – who isn’t making friends within the gay community, nor outside of it because of his fiery, take-no-prisoners approach. He sees people dying around him and springs into action when others seem unwilling to. Meanwhile, at this most inconvenient and scary time, he falls for a closeted journalist. Crucially, Mark Ruffalo makes Bruce likeable even though you can see how he would piss people off and clearly isn’t without his flaws.
There is a fair amount of star wattage on display in The Normal Heart. Julia Roberts plays a wheelchair-bound reseacher frustrated by a lack of funding and by the willfull ignorance of parts of the gay community. The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons is good in a role well-suited to him, but does make you wonder about his range, as he still calls to mind Sheldon quite a bit. And Matt Bomer (White Collar) is impressive in what is likely the most taxing role in the movie. It’s a cast mostly consisting of openly gay actors, led by two presumably straight stars.
The beats of the HIV epidemic as shown here will be familiar to anyone who has seen other films about the topic. A fresh sense of liberation giving way to a sense of dread as dark spots start to appear on people’s skin, signifying an as-of-yet unavoidable death. Paranoia even among medical personnel, misinformation, entire rolodexes and address books now filled with the names of dead and dying friends. And lesbians stepping in to help, even though the gay and lesbian communities didn’t – and sometimes still don’t – always get along.
Some of the paranoia is hard to understand, looking back on it. How could people have thought the disease was airborne or transmitted by simple touch? How would that jibe with gay men getting it almost exclusively? Wasn’t the butt as the primary access point an obvious initial hunch? But the disease fed right into the ‘gays are dirty’ mentality, where gut feelings mattered more than logical reasoning. Gay men were gross, but now even more so and people had a reason to segregate them.
As said, The Normal Heart ends in 1985. There is closure to Bruce’s personal story, but of course the disease is still among us to this day. Though because of treatments you now hear less about AIDS and more about its precursor HIV. Rather than being lethal short-term, these days HIV is a chronic disease that carries a stigma. Because of the stigma, people don’t want to talk about it, or think about it, which leads to new infections. Those who get it, are often in the closet about it even though, with successful treatment, the risk of them passing on HIV is close to zero. And a lot of people don’t even know they have it, unknowingly spreading it further, and making themselves sicker than they need to be. The attitude still seems to be ‘stick your head in the sand’ rather than ‘stick your dick in a condom’. So this high-profile production is hopefully a timely reminder that HIV still exists, especially for the younger generations of gay men who never experienced the initial epidemic. Here’s hoping The Normal Heart inspires at least some of them to get informed and to get tested.