Back to IndieWire

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
time.

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
minutes.

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
that.

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
depressing.

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
to. 

This Article is related to: Features and tagged