Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Normal Heart

It starts as we join the ferry from New York to Fire Island that summer weekend in 1981, as we see the gays and the party people enjoying themselves, as Roxy Music's "Angel Eyes" blares out - on the beach, in the pines, all those houseparties, soon they are all dancing to Sylvester at that disco on the beach (that fantasy gay lifestyle that we aspired to here in the UK). Our focus is on Ned Weeks, who observes but does not seem part of it all. Suddenly, a friend (Jonathan Groff) collapses on the beach, and is ill again later .... soon he is dead.

THE NORMAL HEART is Larry Kramer's fascinating, contentious Tony-award winning play, first staged in 1985, about the early days of the AIDS pandemic decimating the New York gay community and the rage and bewilderment of those trying to cope with it and find a solution, as the government does not want to know .... Kramer wrote that very funny and outrageous novel "Faggots" in the late 70s, detailing the hedonism of gay life then - people loved or hated it in equal measure, and he also scripted Ken Russell's film WOMEN IN LOVEIts taken 30 years for THE NORMAL HEART to reach the screen, is it too late? Today's gays see themselves as the post-Aids generation, having achieved equality. Its  a paean then to that lost generation and that lost time. The hedonism of the gay lifestyle then - endless disco, worship of the body beautiful - was for a lot of people what it meant to be gay then (before equality, civil partnerships, marriage and kids) and then it all came crashing down ...

Mark Ruffalo as Ned is the Kramer figure here, a writer who combats the silence about this new disease with his own brand of fighting back, as he becomes an AIDS activist accusing the Mayor of New York and Reagan's presidency of neglecting the health crisis, and antagonising the very group he helped to set up - The Gay Mens Health Crisis, who feel they have to force him out. Ned sees the pain and toll the disease is taking in those early years, as more and more fall victim to those lesions and start to waste away. It was that frightening time when people were afraid, not only to have sex, but to touch or assist those afflicted. One horrifying sequence shows a friend taking his dying boyfriend home on a plane, he dies en route and is left out with the garbage, wrapped in bin-liners as hospital workers refuse to touch the body, so the family have to collect the body themselves. 
Julia Roberts is Dr Emma Brooker, at first the only doctor treating these patients, from her wheelchair. Matt Bomer shines as Felix, Ned's partner, who starts off healthy but he too gets the lesions all over his body and wastes away before our eyes - Bomer lost 40 lb. to play the role, and deserves an Emmy at least, for his terrific portrayal (seeing as actors who lose or gain weight now automatically get awards for their dedication) - he and Ruffalo have some great scenes together as their relationship deepens. Alfred Molina shines as ever, as Ned's estranged brother. It takes the dying Felix to bring the brothers back together as they continue the fight against ignorance. There is no denying this is a devastatingly sad film, particularly for those of us who lived through that era. (It was the mid-'80s here in London when this was happening over here - I remember a particular Sunday morning in 1985 in Brighton by the sea,  when we gathered with the papers after a good night out, and began reading about these lesions ..... some of the gang vowed to stop having sex with Americans and to stop using amyl nitrate which it was thought caused these skin lesions; I also remember an afternoon with the gang sunbathing on Hampstead Heath near the men's pond, and a passer by yelling out  to the serried ranks of sunbathers "You are all going to die"... By the early '90s the death toll was rising as most of the gang died, with the then treatments (like AZT) being as toxic as the disease, as one witnessed friends and then one's best friend, and then one's partner all succumb ....).

There is no happy ending here, as we leave Ned, alone again, crying and watching the dancers .... as Paul Simon's "The Only Living Boy In New York" plays - part of the terrific soundtrack. Its a very affecting moment (and is so me, circa 1996-2003).
THE NORMAL HEART is directed by Ryan Murphy of GLEE fame, and thankfully has not been Glee-ified (well maybe apart from that "The Man I Love" rendition). 
The script is by Larry Kramer from his play. Barbra Streisand held the rights for 10 years, and had a public falling out with Kramer over the proposed film. One could imagine if she had played the doctor, it would have been all about her, helping the Aids victims. Roberts downplays nicely. The film shows how prejudice thrived and yet love survived, as the Gay Mens Health Crisis tackled government indifference. Like PHILADELPHIA this is accessible to everyone who wants to know what it was like back then, and is even more essential now as gay rights and equality are still not available to all in some parts of our world. THE NORMAL HEART (which I did not see on the stage) is a key work on the AIDS crisis, along with LONGTIME COMPANION, PARTING GLANCES, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, ANGELS IN AMERICAAN EARLY FROST, OUR SONS, MY NIGHT WITH REG, THE LINE OF BEAUTY, etc. More on those later ...

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