Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"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). 

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