IF MOVIES are all about images, images that operate on the subconscious, I guess it comes as no surprise that weeks after watching The Normal Heart, the one that keeps coming back to me is a minor part of the film, at the very beginning, when Ned Weeks goes out to visit friends in the Pines. Where they found so many muscle numbers I don’t know—at the Chelsea gyms?—but everyone is buff, marmoreal, and rippling. At one point, in the happy kitchen of a glamorous house, two men ask the host to help them open some small thing—a can, a bottle? The big black man in the Speedo stands there in a slightly girlish pose, his expression ruefully admitting his helplessness, and there in just a flash is the whole ironic discrepancy between the muscles people were acquiring in the days of gay liberation (and still are) and a sort of feminine incompetence when it came to using them; as if the muscles were merely what we all thought they were at the time—a costume one put on, a sort of drag.
But those muscles are in a way what the movie of The Normal Heart is about. There was of course something liberating about going to the gym as a young gay man in the 1970s. Suddenly, people who’d been bullied in school or frightened of sports were able to clank around with weights and look like Superman. It was a path to a masculine identity we felt we’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 can of pasta sauce was a common occurrence at this time, which is why that tiny moment in The Normal Heart, the muscle number standing in the kitchen in his Speedo, summed up all of this. We all knew the muscles were partly cosmetic; so it’s not surprising, I suppose, that one remembers this vignette in the celebratory prologue of the movie, especially since what follows is so cruel and horrible.
Kramer’s point—the anger that drove the play—was that gay men had no political muscle—which was all that counted when AIDS hit. The muscles we see in the opening of The Normal Heart are wasted away to skeletons by the end of the movie, and thirty years since the play premiered at the Public Theatre, in 1985, it still feels this way.
Andrew Holleran, a frequent contributor to The GLR, is the author of Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath.