The first thing you notice about The Normal Heart are the bodies: beautiful Fire Island bodies in a Reagan-era summer. Rippled, defined, sculpted, hairless bodies. Bare-assed, cock-swinging bodies. Bodies colliding, caressing, kissing, sucking, fucking, cumming. The second thing you notice about The Normal Heart are the bodies: infected New York bodies in a plague season. Bruised, pallid, whittled, terrified bodies. Lesion-covered, self-sabotaging bodies. Bodies shitting, bleeding, crying, disappearing, dying, dead.
As adapted by Larry Kramer from his 1985 autobiographical play and reimagined for the screen by director Ryan Murphy, HBO’s The Normal Heart is a boldly corporeal expression of gay political consciousness. Within the source material’s polemical dramaturgy of eulogies, speeches, editorials, and picketing, Murphy constructs the lively, slightly frayed intimacy of barroom confessions and first-date reminiscences. The result is a film that pays homage to the history of grassroots organizing by which HIV/AIDS arrived on the national agenda while paying heed to the subsequent reverberations of that radical gay presence in American life. As writer and activist Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) urges New York’s gay community to demand that the media, the medical profession, and the government respond to the emerging health crisis, The Normal Heart poses what may be an unanswerable question. What does it mean to be gay?
Ned, modeled after Kramer himself, disembarks the ferry in those sun-spotted opening minutes to find that his isn’t the desired body du jour. Ruffalo shrinks in defense, buttoning up and clutching tight as though girding the character with armor. Ned appears displaced here, even marginal. He hangs back from the garish colors and pounding rhythms of a beach party, watching the speedos and poppers and sweat with a certain faraway longing, and when he encounters an orgy on the garden path, Murphy composes the image in illicit, fading light. Ned, whose most recent book argued that promiscuity holds love at arm’s length, approaches sex as both twilit fantasy and shadowy fear.
When it comes to the “gay cancer” felling those in his circle though, Ned is no wallflower. “Where is this big mouth I hear you’ve got?” Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) asks during an examination. His ability to vocalize fury is unmatched, and the lion’s share of tension in the film arises as Ned’s controversial tactics threaten to alienate not only bigwigs and the body politic, but also friends, family, and allies. Ruffalo and Roberts make a striking duo as outsiders shouting into the abyss, and the latter’s climactic rage against the National Institutes of Health machine achieves the same level of frustrated emotional intensity as her performance in another stage-to-screen adaptation, August: Osage County. Indeed, despite the dramatic limitations of The Normal Heart’s ideological thrust, the cast, which also features Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, and Alfred Molina, mostly succeeds in maintaining the narrative’s interpersonal suspense.
What buoys The Normal Heart, however, is Murphy’s cacophonous style, which reflects and refracts the varied personal and political stances on display as surely as the chaotic early meeting in which Brookner states her case for a moratorium on sex and Ned proposes the formation of Gay Men’s Health Crisis over the shouts of those for whom sexual freedom is a moral imperative. As activist Tommy Boatwright (Parsons) observes, “Half these people just showed up to get laid.” Lurid shades of orange, indigo, and purple—the colors of disco, of flame—suggest a long night’s journey into day; the camerawork is antsy throughout, circling and jostling like a prizefighter. As we push past Roberts and Ruffalo from a low angle, on a breezeway to the ICU where she monitors her suffering patients, or close in on Ned and Bruce Niles (Kitsch) coming to blows over strategy in front of the NBC affiliate’s rolling tape, the sheer, aimless physicality of The Normal Heart becomes the foremost illustration of its historical moment. There was no single route for AIDS activists to take, particularly in those anxious early days, because being threatened by the body was anathema to gay men’s newfound understanding that social and political power lay in the body’s being out, being proud, and being here.
As is Murphy’s wont, The Normal Heart devolves periodically into mawkishness and rude distraction, and the decision to conclude the film with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” is truly horrid. But within its admittedly limited universe of white, male, urban affluence, The Normal Heart levies questions that correspond closely with my own experience as a gay man—even though I came out at 19, in 2006, a quarter century after Kramer’s fight began. What does it mean to be gay? What does it mean to be defined by who you fuck, to be identified by “sexual orientation”? What does it mean to possess a label whose radical history is so rooted in using, proclaiming, presenting, and possessing a body, and what are the consequences when that body’s sexual subjectivity becomes the cause of its disintegration? Flawed but terrifically moving, The Normal Heart is a boldly corporeal expression of gay political consciousness because gay political consciousness was and is a boldly corporeal expression, a presence where once there was absence. Viewed from an era in which the dominant gay political issue, marriage, centers on an understanding that each gay body contains a normal heart, Murphy’s kinesthetic style and Kramer’s verbal ferocity seem messy, imperfect, unromantic. And maybe, at some level, that’s exactly the point.