GenDivide :: A Millennial’s Take on ’The Normal Heart’
Editor’s Note: This is the first half of a two part story in which two EDGE editors respond to "The Normal Heart" -- one, a Boomer who lived through it; the other a Millennial, not born when the epidemic began. This is Millennial Jason St. Amand’s response. To read Boomer Bob Nesti’s follow this link.
I’ve experienced a significant amount of death for a Millennial. By the time I was 19 my grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, a close friend, my father and a few other family members passed away. And when I was a toddler my much older cousin died from AIDS. The only memory I have of him is a home video where the strapping young man, glowing with a carefree joy, is carrying me on his shoulders at a Christmas party.
Growing up, my parents told me he died from "kissing his girlfriend." I eventually figured out he had AIDS, but it wasn’t until 2013 when my mom opened up to me and revealed more details about my cousin’s battle with the deadly virus, telling me she often made trips from central Massachusetts to Boston hospitals with him and his mother. She, along with the other members of my family, watched him go blind, listened when he agonized that he felt like he was burning and saw him deteriorate into a shell of himself.
Besides hearing the stories about my cousin, the only interaction I had with HIV/AIDS was through Hollywood. I am 26 years old and have never met anyone, at least to my knowledge, with HIV or AIDS. I’ve seen "Angels in America," "Philadelphia," and more recently the 2012 documentary "How to Survive a Plague," and last year’s "Dallas Buyers Club;" but it wasn’t until watching the Ryan Murphy directed adaptation of playwright and LGBT activist Larry Kramer’s seminal "The Normal Heart" that I fully understood the weight of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s. It transformed the stories about my cousin into something tangible.
Rage becomes action
Kramer’s semi-autobiographic play, which was first performed in 1985 -- two years before I was born, details the paranoia, denial and confusion of the early years of the AIDS crisis and ends at the horizon of the scare’s apex. Murphy’s version, which premiers on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, stays true to Kramer’s play and is never afraid to get into the gritty and traumatized psyche of the gay men and women who lived during that time.
After the first cases of the then-unknown disease kills of a sizable number of Ned Weeks’ (Mark Ruffalo) friends and acquaintances, he sets out to start an action group to raise awareness. After speaking with Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts), who handled the majority of the cases in New York City, he convinces her to talk to a group of his friends. Like Weeks, Brookner is blunt, passionate and straight to the point: she believes the "gay cancer" is being spread via intercourse and strongly urges Weeks and his pals to "cool it." This, unsurprisingly, sends the guys into a rage; the gay movement is contingent on sexual freedom and promiscuity and they were not going to let the female Lex Luthor tell them otherwise.
What about today?
I can’t help but think that if the AIDS crisis happened today, my gay friends would have the same reaction; twirling their finely pruned ironic mustaches, scoffing at the idea that an unknown disease could possibly destroy the invincible, uninhibited gay man. Today, with social media and mobile apps like Grindr, quick sex is just a few clicks away. Giving that up because a straight and stern wheelchair-bound woman says there is an invisible threat is as unlikely today as it was 30-years ago. To be fair, it’s hard to be terrified by something you know next to nothing about, especially when your dick and your heart are involved and when the threat is explained to you by someone who may be against your lifestyle and your very existence.
Brookner’s advice sets the pendulum in motion, which essentially divides Weeks from his peers. Weeks, like the real life Kramer, is somewhat a traditionalist but is nevertheless extremely outspoken and has a view and theory he will stick to until the bitter end. Getting the government to notice that gay men around the country are dying by the dozens from a mysterious disease will be his cross to bear and he will go to any lengths for someone to hear his cry. Part of his motive is ego, part of it is an unbridled fervor to save his dying friends and partner, New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), who discovers he has a lesion on the bottom of his foot halfway through the film. Whatever the reason, his fire is admirable.
Weeks admits to being an asshole a few times throughout "The Normal Heart," acknowledging his brashness, but labels himself as a fighter -- though he does tell his brother Ben (Alfred Molina) he’s scared of people who are scared. There are other tender glimpses of Weeks letting his guard down, like when he succumbs to the fact that AIDS doesn’t only affect the victim, but also deeply and exhaustingly impacts those who love and care about him.
Weeks is put to the test, often sparring with his cohorts, like the HIV advocacy group’s reluctant president Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) and members Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello), who suffers from a devastating paranoiac breakdown, and Southern Belle Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons). The group believes Weeks’ approach is too harsh to get the attention of the White House, especially after he goes on local news stations and unloads conspiracy theories that the C.I.A. created a virus to kill off gays. But Weeks thinks the groups’ slow-and-steady-wins-the-race-approach isn’t the right method, especially when it is evident time is not on their side and the gay men around them are dying one-by-one.
Neither side is right or wrong, but being right is not the point. Murphy’s "The Normal Heart" paints a picture of a group of men who are at war, but at odds with each other even though they’re fighting the same battle. From where I’m standing the film doesn’t hold back and gives the most real snapshot of the AIDS crisis I’ve seen on film. I was born in 1987 and only heard about HIV/AIDS in school when I was a tween in the late ’90s. I’ve never seen what lesions look like in real life and despite the deaths I’ve experienced in my life, I don’t know what it’s like to watch someone wither away. I’ve only seen glimpses of the devastating effects AIDS can have on a family; when the hopes and dreams of a promising healthy young man are drained away.
"The Normal Heart" goes for the jugular and shoves your face into the gruesome symptoms of HIV/AIDS. At times, it’s hard to wrap my brain around the fact that these things actually happened to real people across the world. To some, I probably sound like those kids who thought the Titanic was just a movie but "The Normal Heart" made my tiny connection with the AIDS crisis into something that’s going to stay with me for a long time.