HBO’s highly touted “The Normal Heart” left me with mixed emotions. There were definitely some moments, but on the whole, I found it a bit lacking. What I mostly felt was regret—this should have been filmed 25 years ago, when it would have squarely caught the zeitgeist. Instead it was the subject of a long-running dispute between Barbra Streisand, who originally owned the film rights, and Larry Kramer, author of the play on which the film is based.
In terms of the issues it covers, “The Normal Heart” is like an overstuffed suitcase. Opening in 1981, when reports of a mysterious illness among gay men first surfaced, it definitively shows the ensuing failure of every level of government to either address this crisis or to help the afflicted. There’s also an unblinking depiction of the gay community’s response, which primarily consists of rallying around continued free sexual expression as a proclamation of pride, but with a growing sense that restraint might be wiser in the face of a disease that seems to be sexually transmitted. And then there’s Ned Weeks (aka Larry Kramer) and his relationship with Felix Turner, who ultimately develops full-blown AIDS. Not to mention Ned’s troubled relationship with his big shot attorney brother (Alfred Molina) who’s the emblem for what’s wrong with the straight world. Whew—that’s quite a menu for one movie.
One thing “The Normal Heart” drives home with alacrity is that polite guys don’t necessarily get the job done, a lesson which, incidentally, was also taught by the civil rights and feminist movements. While the film presents a fictionalized version of the founding and early years of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the conflicts depicted within the organization were quite real. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer seeking to rally the community and a self-described “pain in the ass,” asks the tough questions and demands a response in action, not words. In contrast there’s Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch), who operates at a lower decibel level and as a result is elected GMHC’s President.
Ned yells a lot, but at times you want to scream along with him. There are a number of swipes at Ed Koch, then Mayor of New York, who did little if anything as more and more of the citizens he was sworn to serve became ill and died. One of the most arresting scenes in “The Normal Heart” is a confrontation with a Koch aide sent as the Mayor’s surrogate to a meeting with GMHC leaders who had been assured they’d be talking with Ed himself (in a parking garage, yet, which neatly shows how deeply closeted Koch really was). Denis O’Hare, a wonderful actor, once again plays the weasel—he was State Senator Dan Briggs in “Milk”—this time as the aide who threatens Mickey Marcus’s (Joe Mantello) job with the city when the GMHC crew calls out the Mayor.
But the most devastating moment in “The Normal Heart” is a visual one. At a memorial service, Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons), the GMHC Executive Director, relates how he copes with the death of yet another GMHC client: he removes their card from his Rolodex and rubber bands it, storing it in a separate drawer in his desk. It’s his way of remembering. At the end of “The Normal Heart” we see that the pile of cards has multiplied into three and four rubber-banded stacks, and heartbreakingly, has been added to, one by one, with the cards of several of the leading characters.
The performances in “The Normal Heart” range from superb to amateurish. Being the author’s mouthpiece is always a difficult role, but it’s even harder when you’re actually playing the author himself, as Mark Ruffalo does here. His best work is in the confrontational scenes, whether with Felix, his colleagues at GMHC or the politicians he seeks out. Matt Bomer does a nice job with Felix, but Taylor Kitsch brings very little if anything to the table for Bruce Niles, who needs to be something of an antagonist for Ned. He’s just not there, and the film suffers for it. However, Joe Mantello is a superb Mickey Marcus, delivering with great passion his long mea culpa for advocating an “anything goes” lifestyle. But for me, the best performance is Jim Parsons’s as Tommy Boatwright (practice evidently made perfect—he played this role in the Broadway revival several years ago). Words can’t quite describe the expression on his face, a perfect combination of pain and compassion, as he reaches out to hug GMHC’s first lesbian volunteer. He alone makes “The Normal Heart” worth seeing.
On the other hand, there’s Julia Roberts.
Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician-ally of Ned Weeks during the crisis, is a tricky role: she’s Cassandra, she’s disabled (a childhood polio victim), she’s a woman, and as such has to be the counterpoint to bring the drama into its own. It takes great acting chops, which in my book Julia Roberts has never had. And playing the part takes control. The scene in which Brookner is denied grant money calls for incremental outrage. Roberts goes from zero to sixty in two seconds flat, which turns this into yet another scream fest. And there are times when the role requires plain old warmth, not just compassion, which she didn’t seem to be able to muster. I’m glad Julia Roberts was one of the film’s producers who provided the muscle to finally get it made, but the end result would have been far better if Brookner had been played by someone else. Cherry Jones would have been spectacular in the part.
I wish I had liked “The Normal Heart” more. But sincerity of intent can’t always compensate for a lack of quality in the execution.