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Did ‘The Normal Heart’ End Up Really Mattering?

Did 'The Normal Heart' End Up Really Mattering?

A couple weeks ago, I watched “The Normal Heart.” At
least, I think it was a couple weeks ago? Or was it a month ago? The only thing
I vividly remember about it was the scene in the bathhouse where Matt Bomer
follows Mark Ruffalo into a steam room. And then, flashing forward to the
present to reveal the date that the two are on, Bomer reminiscing about their
casual encounter. And then Ruffalo asks amiably, “Wanna start over?” And then
they have sex. (What can I say? I’m a huge Matt Bomer fan.)

But I feel the fact that a) I don’t really remember when I
watched it and b) I don’t remember anything about the film beyond those scenes
and lots of shouting is a problem. I don’t think
I am in the minority of finding Ryan Murphy’s treatment of Larry Kramer’s play “fine”,
so I wonder if I’m alone in forgetting it so quickly. The issue isn’t merely
that the film is forgettable, but the fact that if “The Normal Heart” was
supposed to represent something within the queer narrative, it may have failed.

“The Normal Heart” is, for all intents and purposes, an angle of
the AIDS epidemic that, at least dramatically, is not seen in comparison to a
more conventional “straight savior” narrative (“Philadelphia,” “Dallas
Buyers Club). Larry Kramer, who is described by Charles O’Malley as
“activist first and artist second”, writes his thinly veiled alter-ego Ned
(Ruffalo) with the primary purpose of bringing the audience to the front lines.
He is employed to give the audience an intimate look at the fury and fervor
that existed during the AIDS epidemic, and it is that perspective, particularly
the outrage, which is supposed to feel, if not entirely new, then at least
enlightening because of the lack of dramatic portrayals, especially from within
the gay community.

Yet, despite that desire to show queer activism at its most
fervent (short of Stonewall), and despite
the fact that Kramer attempts to balance those ideas out with an impression of
intimacy regarding Ned’s relationship with New
York Times
reporter Felix Turner, it still feels weirdly myopic. It seems
inexplicable at times, but it ironically lacks the very uniqueness that the
perspective itself should inherently give this film. It ends up being primarily
memorable for the aforementioned scenes and for being very shouty. It is no secret
that “Heart”
was written primarily as a way for Kramer to voice his ideas and frustrations,
and that itself is not a problem. But shouting isn’t acting. And Ryan Murphy’s
heavy hand doesn’t help make a lasting impression.

“The Normal Heart” reeled in 1.4 million viewers, which is half of what
Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” managed to garner
. Let it be said
that Soderbergh’s film was passed up by Hollywood for being “too gay”. And,
while the biopic of a fascinating pianist is undoubtedly an interesting entry
into the Queer cinematic narrative, “The Normal Heart” is, by comparison,
the prestige picture that will probably be used as the teaching guide for
everyone else regarding what it must have been like to be alive during that

The problem with this is, no one seems to care anymore. The
only people I know who watched this movie, who were even aware of it, run in my
film circle, save for one person I’m acquainted with at college who’s a theater
kid familiar with Kramer’s work. This might speak more to my introversion than
the queer community at large, but even the queer friends I have seemed not to
have noticed its existence.

The film’s lack of diversity doesn’t help. “The
Normal Heart” is a very white
movie and, though the lesbian community was a large player in getting the ball
rolling in terms of how to deal with the AIDS epidemic, they are represented by
one character (Danielle Ferland) who appears in the film for about five

So it looks like we are dealing with two issues then: will “The
Normal Heart” matter to today’s LGBT youth and, if it does, is this what
should be shown in order to represent that period?

I can’t answer the first one. I’m twenty and not as active
with the non-activist queer community as most queer people my age are, so I
can’t gauge as accurately as I would like to. But since “The Normal Heart” barely
made a wave, it doesn’t look like that will matter, which is a double edged
sword. On the one hand, the LGBT youth unaware of this part of history will
have to actively seek out the film, and others like it, in order to learn more
about it. On the other, what they’ll find in this one is a strangely un-nuanced
version from a bizarrely narrow perspective, and a very not-diverse one at

Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder and June Thomas speak at length
asking the question, “What
Does ‘The
Normal Heart’ Mean in 2014?”,
but, reasonably so, never really come
to a conclusion. Now that the stats are in, it seems like, until the Emmy
nominations are announced, “The Normal Heart” does not mean much.
Thomas speaks about Peter Staley’s “point about every generation needing its
own activists and own style of activism”, and the online community has
certainly shown its ability to be both beneficial and detrimental to that
cause. So, one could infer that the presence of “Heart” and its subsequent
hypothetical legacy would act as a jumping off point for a baby activist’s
passion. The problem that we seem to be encountering though is that Heart
feels like, to me, it’s in danger of not really having that legacy, both
because of qualitative reasons and because of general apathy. You would think
That Hot Guy from “White Collar,” The
Incredible Hulk in “The Avengers,” That Guy from “The
Big Bang Theory,” and Julia Roberts would be enough to push that legacy
forward. Roberts in particular, who has an Academy Award under her belt, now
has this. But, alas.

Which leads us to the second issue: even if it could sustain
a legacy, would we want to? Were it not for the sex and probably the language,
I have the faint impression that this is the kind of thing that would be shown
in high school classes. (My middle school headmaster, who was a Conservative
Cristian, once showed episodes of HBO’s Adams, so I guess anything is
possible.) The Guy Who Does John Glee makes a film about the AIDS crisis,
with a specific focus on activism. It sounds fine. But, as Peter Knegt argues
in his review of the film, “Kramer mostly underwrites every character that
isn’t his alter-ego”. From cinematic purposes, this is, of course, problematic,
but the lack of complexity within other characters who are also involved in the
fight seems rather troubling. As is the severe underrepresentation within the
film. Yes, I’m going to be that guy.
Inclusivity is important in general, but when one is considering a period of
time when it was crucial for the queer community as a whole band together in fighting a disease that affected
countless people of various races, genders, and class backgrounds, it feels
unfair when, not for the sake of intimate storytelling, those other people are
barely given a mention.

Lowder humorously begins the Slate conversation by quipping
to Thomas, “your people are, after all, the ones who were so crucial in helping
mine get our shit together during the AIDS crisis, so thanks for that.” The
Normal Heart, weirdly and inadvertently perpetuates the idea that AIDS
was primarily affecting white gay men, and moreover the battle against it was
primarily fought by white gay men. Yet, the existence of the Black
Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum
, created as a response to that misconception, proves the opposite. My recollection
of the film is that there was one character of color and that character was
very minor. As aforementioned, there is one lesbian character in the film, who
works as a phone operator for Ned’s ACT UP-esque organization. That’s

So one is left, again, with those two question: will it
matter, and if it does, should it? I, unlike several of my peers and Harvey
Fierstein, am rarely the kind of person that thinks “well, at least it’s
something” or “bad visibility is still visibility”. While it may have been
acceptable in a time when society’s overwhelming rigidity prevented the very
image of queer folks in the media, much less the discussion of AIDS, we do live
in a society that can, for the most part, openly discuss these ideas. How else
would “The Normal Heart” have been made? (Yes, there are certainly some
issues that are still being dealt with.) Thus, it feels kind of lame to have to
concede with something like “The Normal Heart,” which could have
been quite interesting, grand, moving, and important but instead leaves me
thinking, “well, at least it’s something”. But, like Dallas Buyers Club, it
doesn’t feel like it’s enough. AIDS narratives can’t merely be conventional
anymore because it means that they are fundamentally forgetting or not acknowledging
other important players. I’m not denying the importance of Larry Kramer, but I
do think that someone should be held accountable since film is one of the
easiest accesses to history we have. We piece together our own histories and
narratives from other people and other people’s narratives. Maybe I’m bloating
the importance of the idea of “The Normal Heart” mattering. But at
least we have “How to Survive a Plague,” a documentary that, through the use of
archive footage, places you in the battle closer than “The Normal Heart” promised

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Julian Sarria

How can a film’s legacy be questionable? Your being shoddy to try and prove a point that doesn’t exist. The different between Angels and this is that Angels was adapted by a masterpiece of a play and this was adapted from a piece of very loud, angry, and extremely truthful propaganda. You do films a disservice by comparing them just because they deal with AIDS and homosexuality. It’s a moot point. They are different films. The Normal Heart is shouty because Larry Kramer was SCREAMING this to anyone who would listen. If it makes you uncomfortable THAT IS THE POINT. Calling this film needlessly shouty is like calling Schindler’s List unnecessarily sad. There is an anger of Larry Kramer’s that is important to the piece.

There was a production of the play done as a benefit that was widely praised. It was so praised they mounted it again on Broadway to great acclaim. People realized that for many of the theatre-going public (mostly white, somewhat gay) this was a story that was still worth telling. People here who lived through this piece still felt the need to come and see this play. Some of those people felt that they could preserve it, that these talents could be used to adapt the film for preservation. They did that, then people saw it. That was the films legacy. It set out to be a preserved work of Larry’s anger and of his experiences. To blame him for writing about his history is asinine. Being about white males doesn’t make a story any less important. As a queer person of color to another I should remind you that gay white males are no less disgusting many people in this country as you or I. This is Larry’s story to tell. The story was heavy-handed before anyone even thought of filming it. That is the work. It is that way. To change it is to say Larry wasn’t that angry, that these moments weren’t as trying as they truly were to him and to his recorded memory.


I wept during this movie. Not only was it well done, it took me back to that time. I was in the military and a wonderful, good friend of mine contracted the AIDS virus. The way the military handled it was to ship him off to a military hospital in Texas and then, when nothing else could be done for him, they dishonorably discharged him and sent him to die at home in New York. I remember the last time I saw him. He had lesions on his face and neck and stiffened up as I hugged him. He said that no one had touched him in so long, that he didn't know how to react. I still cry for him today. People that he had known for so long, that he called friends, would not even acknowlege him. The sad part was, he contracted the disease from a blood transfusion that he recieved in the Phillipines, but because it was a "gay mans" disease, that's what was assumed. Had the government treated this epidemic as it should have been, so many people would not have died, gay or strait, men or women, and even children.


Good film and well done. It captured a level of anger and intragroup turmoil that can resonate with a lot of us struggling for humane treatment and visibility. I also agree with the comments that critique the articles tone and framing.


I found myself wondering if you and I watched the same movie? I was so disturbed and so uncomfortable with this movie that 24hours later, I am still working through the emotions. To see real human beings suffer such horrors and be so sick, and to be treated as little more than a nuisance tore me to the core. It broke my heart and I cried openly watching it. I remember being given a class on AIDS in high school. I didn't really appreciate the seriousness of the disease. This movie is powerful. It is compelling and thought provoking. It will move you and I hope that many many people watch it.

G. Elsasser

I am a straight white woman in my 60s. "The Normal Heart" taught me a lot: For one thing, most LGBT people seem to prefer marriage/children to promiscuity, which was all that was offered to them until the late 90s. For another, that governments can be collectively evil in their intent–lying to the public and making political judgements about moral issues which can often lead to death, i.e., the critical delay in AIDS research, which eventually became even more deadly than the war in Iraq over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
Regarding the lack of diversity among the players, I believe if one were to view footage of Fire Island, for instance, in the 1970s-1980s, one would rarely see any black or Hispanic LGBT people. It's not that they didn't exist, but they hung out with their own demographic, as the whites did at that time. Since Larry Kramer based the characters on the GMHC Board on real people, only changing their names, I have to assume that this configuration was made up of white Jews and gentiles.
Perhaps because I am older and not gay, much of the information in "The Normal Heart" was new to me. Since you are gay, maybe you can't appreciate that this information is important for me to know. Additionally, young people don't know about the beginning of AIDS and how horrific a period it was in our history. 90% of my students in my college classes had never actually heard Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. They knew of it, but not about it. Not good enough–these are important histories in any American's life and should be studied and questioned.


Is there something missing somewhere with those of you bloggers who can't seem to understand that this is Larry Kramer's view on what he went through at that particular time in history? He wasn't writing a fictional play that –ohmygod– must have diversity of all kinds so we don't offend anybody's poor tender sensibilities. He was writing an autobiographical play about AIDS and what HE and his friends were going through at the time.

It was an amazing movie. If you want a film with blacks and hispanics and lesbians… go write your own.

Terri Hemker

As the proud mom of a gay trans son in college, I couldn't have been more moved by The Normal Heart. I cried my eyes out both times I saw it. I couldn't help but think of my child going through something like that. My son's afraid to watch it yet. He doesn't know if he can bear it. Seeing Matt Bomer's wasted body covered with lesions as he sobbed helplessly, knowing he was dying and that there was nothing anyone could do for him, worse, that hardly anybody was going to do anything for him, it was shattering. Seeing Felix and Ned saying what they knew would be good-bye in the hospital, when they'd fought so hard to stay together and then, Ned at his college pride fest where he'd planned on taking his lover was heartbreaking. This was a great movie, teaching from the heart.


Yea. What they said…the whole time I was reading you post was "its gotta be just him." My husband and I couldn't stop thinking of the film and watched it twice in one weekend.


The more I read of this blog site, the more it reads like the ramblings of pretentious twinks who can barely jump off Grindr to write a thoughtful essay and hit spell-check. The nerve to complain about the prevalence of white males in this film when it reeks off the pages of bent, save occasional pieces by Alice.

That a 20 year old gained nothing from THE NORMAL HEART is not an indication that the film failed. I agree with Nina that the reaction to this film has been nothing short of awe from my diverse friends in film. That a second is wasted bemoaning 1.4M viewers when the far more lauded GIRLS has never cleared 1M viewers is inane. Comparing viewership of Soderbergh's last film ever, featuring multi-era superstar Oscar-winners bejewelled, naked, and having lurid sex to your high-school crush wasting away in a bed is just as inance and false.

If this blog were about promoting all LGBTQ projects, not just ones that fetishize white twink/sex culture, you'd be celebrating over 1, if 2 or 3 by now, million viewers watching a film about AIDS. You don't like your sex lives being attacked, so you side with those who define Kramer as sex negative because you view sex as the most important part of your gay life.

The admissions of how young and unimpressed with how people twice your age fought tooth and nail, who died so you can look at ads in magazines and TV which make HIV look (falsely) like the common cold, shames your generation. It ceases to be about your feelings about this film specifically, when there's a concerted effort before, during, and after this film's release to discredit it at every opportunity.

You have one less lesbian reader, as of today. I don't need your apologies for us not being properly represented in a movie. I need my LGBTQ allies to see the forest for the trees, and THE NORMAL HEART is one of the finest films in our canon. I suggest to look up from Grindr long enough to put yourself in an older person's shoes long enough to see the absolute horror that you were spared because these people, like Larry Kramer, fought for ungrateful children like you. That's my wish for Pride.


I have a complete opposite reaction as yours. I'm a Matt Bomer fan from White Collar. I got interested in the project as his fan and read the book. I was blown away with the movie! As beautiful and sexy Matt is in those bathhouse and sex scenes that's not what has stuck with me. It's been two weeks and I'm still haunted by Montello's outburst, Tommy's eulogy, Ned and Felix's tender dance scene, the haunting song "the only living boy in New York", Felix's and Ben weeks connecting, Ned taking care of this skeleton of a man and the wedding at the end. So many disturbing and thought provoking lines, situations, and dialogs. I'm still stunned with some of the historical facts that were revealed. Since then I also made a point to see "The case against 8" and have educated myself more as a straight member in a straight society and have recommended the films to friends and family.

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