Soon the Spotted People

Published in: September-October 2014 issue.


IT TOOK LARRY KRAMER nearly thirty years to get a film made of The Normal Heart. His play about the AIDS crisis opened at the Public Theater in New York in 1985. The movie rights were bought in 1986 by Barbra Streisand, for whom Kramer wrote a screenplay, but for one reason or another the film never got made: a victim, it seems, of the reluctance to deal with AIDS that characterized the plague on so many fronts (which is the subject, really, of Kramer’s play).

The Normal Heart was very current when it premiered. It accused the mayor of New York and the president of the United States of letting gay men die because they were afraid to be associated with homosexuality. (The news, in June, that President Obama called the movie’s director Ryan Murphy to say that he was “incredibly moved” by the film is so ironic that it almost defies commentary.) In 1985, the play was a cry for help, as well as a “J’accuse.” Twenty-nine years later, the work re-emerges into an entirely different set of circumstances. We know how things turned out. The virus has been isolated, and medicines to deter its replication have been found, and—most people think—the battle is over. But the movie still asks us to be upset about what happened.

The film starts out uncannily like The Boys in the Band: a bunch of giddy gay men converging for a party. When the camera zooms in on a figure seated on the ferry to Fire Island, it’s Ned Weeks, the character who is now accepted as a stand-in for Kramer himself. Stepping off the boat, Mark Ruffalo (who, like everyone in the cast, does an excellent job) is visibly intimidated by the muscle numbers streaming past. Everyone has a big basket. A drag queen precedes Ned, as if to emphasize the festive atmosphere of Fire Island in 1981. It’s like the party Scarlett attends at Twelve Oaks the day the Civil War starts in Gone With The Wind, though in this movie we see something Scarlett never saw: a nude descending a staircase with his big dick flopping in the sunlight.

That night we follow Ned to the Meat Rack, where he sees a writhing threesome under a tree that makes one think of Dante’s Inferno. And that’s the point. This is the high tide of pre-AIDS gay New York: muscles, sex, and drugs. When one of the beauties falls to his knees the next day while walking down the beach, we know something’s wrong. And when, on the train home, Ned finds an article in the Times about a new gay cancer, the movie turns instantly into a medical thriller—and soon after that, into Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as people around New York start acquiring spots: Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. At a gay fund raiser, the camera turns periodically to the profile of a silent young man watching the dancers, and on his neck is one of these sinister beauty marks, like the figure in a tale by Poe.

Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer in The Normal Heart
Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer in The Normal Heart

Soon the spotted people begin to proliferate, as do the looks people give them on the subway, the airplane, the examining table when their hospital gowns are untied. The spotted man was an unforgettable image in How To Survive a Plague, one of two documentaries about ACT UP released last year, and it’s the way AIDS is dramatized here as well. Indeed, The Normal Heart comes to us at the end of a long queue of movies about AIDS that HBO itself began in 1993 when it made a film of Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On. Although separated by 21 years, the two films are not dissimilar. Both contain a scene in which a woman is shouted down when she tells gay people that they must stop having sex (Lily Tomlin in the first film, Julia Roberts in the second). Both star an ostracized hero (in the film of Shilts’ book, it’s epidemiologist Don Francis). Both even use the same actor, B. D. Wong, and end with the latest AIDS statistics. Many other works about AIDS were to follow And the Band Played On: Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, As Is, Angels in America, An Early Frost, Philadelphia, We Were Here, United in Anger, How to Survive a Plague, to name a few. If at this point you’re thinking the only thing AIDS has not been turned into is a musical, think again: Canadian film maker John Greyson’s Zero Patience did that.

One friend of mine declined to watch the movie of The Normal Heart because, he said, “I’m a theater person” who wanted to keep his memory of the play intact. I, however, wanted to see if the movie would show things that could not be shown on stage. We were both right. If the movie is in some ways less intense than the play, that’s because of the very expansion that film allows. At the same time, the film contains images (especially of the physical cruelty of AIDS) that the play could not—shit on the sheets, a trail of excrement leading to the bathroom where Ned’s boyfriend is bent over on the toilet, the collapse in the shower that follows. There are other scenes I don’t remember in the play: Ned’s meeting with a White House advisor whose only concern, we gradually realize, is whether he may have gotten HIV from the hooker he’s just had sex with—a moment that encapsulates perfectly the desire to ostracize people with AIDS exhibited by so many people at the time (from a TV repairman who won’t enter the hospital room of an AIDS patient, to an airline pilot who refuses to take off because one of his passengers is infected).

Another difference between play and movie is that the latter contains lots of nudity and gay sex. Kramer has suggested in an interview that Streisand was squeamish about portraying gay sex on screen (a charge Streisand denied). Whoever is right, director Ryan Murphy has more than made up for her putative prudery. The most unforgettable image in this movie, in fact, is probably Matt Bomer’s butt when he turns over in bed to embrace Mark Ruffalo. And those opening scenes on Fire Island are a cavalcade of beefcake.

Where they found that many muscle numbers for the Pines prologue I don’t know—but in retrospect even this eye candy ties into the theme of the film. Everyone on the Island looks like Hercules, and at one point, in the happy kitchen of a glamorous house, two men come forward to tell the host that he has to shave his body. As the big black man in a Speedo tosses him a can of shaving cream with an ironic smile, he brings to mind the whole Calvin Klein/Marky Mark cult of hairless muscularity that some gay people would eventually call “body fascism.”

Of course, even then gay men knew that muscles were a form of drag. There was something liberating about going to the gym for young men who’d been bullied in school, or frightened of sports, and who were now able to invade a gymnasium, get sweaty, clank around with weights, and look like gods: it gave them access to a masculine identity they felt they’d been denied. At the same time, coming home from two hours of pumping up at the Sheridan Square Gym and being unable to turn the lid on a jar of pasta sauce was a common occurrence, which is why the expression on the muscle number in the kitchen, that tiny moment, seems like a perfect commentary on the theme of both movie and play: the lack of political muscle—when AIDS hit—that drove Kramer to his activism. When Ned, on his first date with Felix, The New York Times reporter who becomes his lover, babbles un-seductively about the refusal of the Allies to stop the Holocaust, we realize that it’s this “Never again” that lies behind his work. And if the driving force behind The Normal Heart is anger over gay people’s political weakness—which Kramer still maintains is our problem—that goes along with the movie’s insistence that AIDS not be forgotten.

Indeed, the minute this film starts, a little devil in the mind inquires: is all this display of gay sex and nudity possible because we know what’s coming? The question can’t be answered, but it does remind one that a movie on HBO of The Normal Heart has more than one audience: the gay men who are, as The Boys in the Band TV critic Hank Stuever pointed out in his astute review, lucky enough to be around to watch it—and the American People (the title of Kramer’s novel to be published next spring) who may have little or no familiarity with the epidemic at all. Both will see the same scenes of sexual pleasure and physical collapse when they watch this film, though what they make of these images may differ.

Movies, of course, are all about images, but the film version of The Normal Heart, like the play, is equally about monologues. The monologues the characters deliver when they crack under the stress and panic of all this death were probably more chilling when performed by actors on a stage. In the movie, what gets us is not the meltdowns but their repetitious quality. Watching them simply raises the question of what prop will be thrown next across the room. One feels the same thing the government bureaucrat does while looking on impassively as Julia Roberts explodes upon being told that she’s not being given any funds for research: not much. The big monologues do not, ironically, always elicit the emotions they’re intended to.

But the visual images do: the muscles on Fire Island, the shit on the sheets, the lesion on the neck, the snow falling down into the dark subway entrance as Ned emerges on the night of a fund-raiser, the dilapidated pier on the Hudson River where Ned and Felix seal their relationship while three drag queens look on, Matt Bomer’s butt. There’s no attempt at poetry in this movie; it’s directed like a documentary. It hardly uses music, or Manhattan. It brings back a terrible time when gay men were so invested in sex that any attempt to deny them their sexual freedom seemed like a right-wing plot, and the right wing was able to say that Mother Nature was exacting her revenge. Guilt, terror, remorse, panic, and isolation were the orders of the day. But the fact that all this happened doesn’t mean the movie always touches us when it should—even at the end when Ned and Felix (in what seems to be an update) are married on Felix’ deathbed.

Nevertheless, the arc of the movie—even more than the play—is the love story of Ned and Felix. The moment the camera zooms in on Ned on the ferry, we see everything from his viewpoint, whereas in the play he was just part of the cast. Indeed, the movie ends with Ned sitting on the steps at a gay mixer at the college he attended, a nice ending that reflects what The Boys in the Band critic Hank Stuever found to be its real theme: gay people’s battle for equality. But Stuever also pointed out that the movie of The Normal Heart premiered in a country that’s now apparently accepting gay marriage. In short, the nation has changed—which gives the HBO movie what Stuever called “a retrospective context.”

So, if the movie—made after so many years—tells a story in 2014 that HBO told in And the Band Played On in 1993, what has changed? In 1985, the play seemed so ripped from life, from what was going on, that I could not see it as a play; when I saw the revival last year, I was astonished by its ability to bring back a time I’d stopped thinking about. The movie, for obvious reasons, can’t have the same shock of recognition. Besides, movies are experienced differently from plays. Even The Boys in the Band—a play that was adapted almost unaltered to film—got tedious during the long night of truth-telling, perhaps because verbal explosions are simply more dramatic on stage than they are on screen, or because the bitterness that lies beneath it (and The Normal Heart) is hard to take. But another reason may be that gay people have achieved many of their political goals. Still another is that we now have a cornucopia of dramatic works about this subject—documentaries, movies, plays—not to mention poetry, memoirs, stories, and novels. Which brings us to another issue.

At the height of the epidemic, Arlene Croce, the dance critic for The New Yorker, announced that she could not review a ballet about AIDS by Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who had AIDS, that was also being danced by PWAs. Criticism rained down on her, but she had a perfectly valid argument. At a certain point, æsthetic considerations are irrelevant. Here we are again. How can reviews of The Normal Heart be solely about the merits of the movie and not about the history? Hovering behind it and every work about AIDS is the knowledge that these things actually happened. To be alive to watch it is itself surreal enough; to be required to pass on its merits as a movie seems silly. It is history we are watching, and history that gives these works their power. AIDS is now to gay men what the Holocaust is to Jews and slavery is to African-Americans: the price of the ticket to inclusion in the larger society, the tale of woe that demands respect. That may be why the long-delayed movie of The Normal Heart seems beyond reproach.

But if AIDS movies have become what Stuever calls a “red ribbon-wearing Hollywood grimace,” only time will tell which ones survive because they are gripping theater. At present, the attention these dramas have received because of their relationship with history is also the reason we cannot judge them: they’re too caught up with reality. But that doesn’t negate the need for reminders about that reality. I preferred the revival of the play last year to the movie; but the HBO premiere of The Normal Heart got 1.4 million viewers. (Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic last year, got 3.5. Game of Thrones gets 18.4.) That’s not a lot in TV terms—though for a play or book it’s enormous; and that doesn’t count all the people yet to see the movie.

Finally, it’s impossible not to notice that this film, like most works about AIDS, is all about gay white men—which is hardly the makers’ fault, since it was gay white men that HIV struck first in the U.S. Yet AIDS keeps spreading among other groups in this Balkanized country of ours, not to mention the rest of the world, and for them it’s not something survivors can write movie reviews about but something that is still wrecking lives. And it’s not just minorities or people overseas about whom we need to have a “red ribbon-wearing” grimace. Read Matt Ebert’s essay “Friends of Spencer” in the new magazine Four Two Nine about long-term survivors who are choosing to go off their medications because they’re tired of living as HIV-positive gay men. At the same time, New York Governor Cuomo has announced a campaign to reduce HIV transmission that includes the daily HIV prophylactic pill Truvada for gay men who would prefer not to use condoms. O brave new world! In the 1985 play, the doctor tells Ned Weeks that until we know more about this epidemic, her advice to gay men is “Stop fucking”; and here we still are. “The whole movie,” said Ryan Murphy when asked about Obama’s phone call, “is about Larry trying to get the attention of Washington, and thirty years later, to get a call from the President is a full-circle moment.” Some circle.


Andrew Holleran’s latest book is Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath.