“You think that I’m killing people?”
This line is the most singularly powerful moment in The Normal Heart, which aired Sunday night on HBO to universal critical acclaim. When Joe Mantello speaks these words, there are tears in his eyes, and streaming down his face. His voice is positively ragged with sobs.
The monologue preceding this accusation, and the one that follows it, comprise the only truly honest and powerful scene in a film riddled with shame, blame, and a homophobia so deeply internalized as to be unrecognizable.
Apart from this speech, and a few brief scenes featuring Jim Parsons’ brilliant and empathetic performance, I cannot find a single praiseworthy moment in The Normal Heart.
I am, apparently, entirely alone in this sentiment. Aggregate rating sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have pronounced the film flawless. In and of itself, this isn’t surprising; these reviewers don’t identify as queer, and Ryan Murphy has taken care to produce a sanitized, fictional 1980s New York that caters perfectly to squeamish, discriminatory heterosexual audiences.
There is one speaking black actor in the entire film. One. Teeming crowd scenes on Fire Island and in Lower East Side discos resemble Pantone palettes for shades of beige.
Only two women are featured in speaking roles – one is Julia Roberts, as a heterosexual doctor who inquires of her gay clientele, “If having sex can kill you, doesn’t anyone with half a brain stop fucking?”
The other, named Estelle, arrives on the steps of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and announces, in tears, “Dammit, I wanna do something. Even though all my lesbian friends say, ‘What have you guys ever done for us?’ But I don’t care.” It’s never made clear whether Estelle herself is a lesbian, mind you, but the message is loud and clear all the same: lesbian women hate gay men, and played no role in early HIV/AIDS activism.
There are no trans people in this fictionalized AIDS crisis, and no poor people. The Normal Heart would have viewers believe that every victim of the AIDS outbreak was a well-heeled cisgender white man with a Cape Cod estate tucked away for a rainy day.
But we’re not here to add yet another failing grade to Ryan Murphy’s representational report card. The Normal Heart’s problems go far, far deeper than narrow-minded casting. Let’s return, for a moment, to the line that opened this review:
“You think that I’m killing people?”
Mark Ruffalo’s reply, delivered in a calm, level tone, is uncharacteristic of his character, Ned Weeks, a fictionalized version of its own screenwriter, activist Larry Kramer.
“That’s not what I said,” he says.
“It is!” Mantello fires back. “You know it! I’ve spent fifteen years of my life fighting for our right to be free, and to make love wherever, whenever, and you’re telling me that all those years of what being gay stood for: wrong. And that I’m a murderer… Ned, I’m not a murderer. I’m not a murderer.”
Everything that has come before this moment points to Mantello – and, more precisely, the gay liberation movement he represents – being, in fact, murderers. The entire film explicitly supports the thesis that gay men, through promiscuity and infidelity, brought an epidemic upon themselves.
In an early scene, Mark Ruffalo is wandering in the woods on Fire Island, and he stumbles upon four nude men engaged in a vague orgy. They are literally covered in mud. He recoils in disgust. Smash-cut to Ruffalo on a ferry, speeding away from the island, his nose buried in a newspaper. We see an ominous headline: “Rare Cancer is Diagnosed in 41 Homosexuals.” He lifts his head. Horror is written on his face. The very next scene is a conversation between Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, which contains the aforementioned “doesn’t anyone with half a brain stop fucking?” line, and a curt reply from Ruffalo: “Do you realize you’re talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity as their principal political agenda?”
…Right. Because the gay rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s was all about barebacking.
This constant, nonchalant reduction of gay political goals to “fucking” and “promiscuity,” the scenes where a bunch of lisping caricatures in pink shirts react violently to the very suggestion of “cooling it,” the juxtaposition of orgies with doom-portending headlines: it all adds up a scathing condemnation of gay men that even Focus on the Family couldn’t replicate.
When Kramer first produced The Normal Heart as a Broadway play, its purpose was to illuminate ideological rifts in the gay community, and to encourage closure of those rifts through Kramer’s preferred radical, vocal form of activism. At the Public Theater in 1985, audiences were considerably more likely to intimately understand Kramer’s discontent with the current queer political climate than any of the 1.4 million who tuned into HBO on Sunday night. Removed of that context, the film simply reads as strident support of the idea that promiscuous, amoral gay men created an epidemic by engaging in risky behaviour.
And against all reason, Kramer appears to still be enthusiastic about the idea that sexually active, non-monogamous gay men are the movement’s biggest enemies. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Kramer said, “Anybody who voluntarily takes an antiviral every day has got to have rocks in their heads. There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.”
You heard it, folks: the revolutionary medicine that virtually eliminates risk of HIV transmission is “poison,” and anyone who uses it is “cowardly” and disinterested in political action.
As Andrew Sullivan wrote, in a refutation of Kramer’s comments, “Flash back to the early 1980s, in the age of The Normal Heart… Imagine a scene when someone rushes into a GMHC meeting and declares that there’s now a pill that will make you immune to HIV if you take it once a day. Would Larry seriously have said that anyone who then took it had ‘rocks in their heads?’”
The Normal Heart, at least in its current iteration, does not promote equality. It promotes respectability. It promotes the denigration of sexually active gay men, and the exclusion of all but HIV’s most affluent and privileged victims.
In one scene, Ned Weeks’ older brother, a millionaire heterosexual lawyer, remarks to him, “I see TV… guys in leather, dresses, high heels… You guys have a dreadful image problem.”
Ned laughs. “Which is why it’s so important to have people like you supporting us.”
To all the folks at HBO, I say this: if your goal was to make straight people comfortable in their bigotry, to lay virtually the entire burden of blame for HIV/AIDS on the shoulders of gay men, and to systematically exclude the epidemic’s most vulnerable victims, you couldn’t possibly have done a better job.
Photos via HBO.