One of the Men Who Won the War: Thoughts on The Normal Heart
June 24, 2014
"That's how I want to be remembered: as one of the men who won the war," exclaims Ned Weeks, the fictionalized alter ego of Larry Kramer played brilliantly by Mark Ruffalo in Ryan Murphy's HBO adaptation of Kramer's iconic play The Normal Heart. Adapted for television by Kramer himself, this line, delivered in a gripping monologue on the cultural and historical legacy of gay men after the GMHC board removes Weeks as a director, is slightly but significantly different from its original theatrical script. In the play, Ned states, "That's how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war." A subtle yet telling change, this modification points to some important questions raised by the film.
A landmark moment in the early artistic response to the AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart documents the panic-stricken years from 1981 to 1984 from the lack of information about the spread of the disease, referring to AIDS as the "gay cancer," to the silence from newspapers and politicians to the development of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC). A play as loud and outspoken as Larry Kramer himself, The Normal Heart's first production at The Public Theater in 1985 fearlessly confronted Mayor Ed Koch and The New York Times. In more recent years, a revival of the play debuted on Broadway in 2011.
To preface my critique of the film, I feel compelled to admit that I never expected to enjoy The Normal Heart as directed by Ryan Murphy when I attended a preview of the film last week. I have never been a fan of Murphy's over-the-top, on-the-nose and overblown style as seen in television shows such as Glee and American Horror Story. I still start foaming at the mouth when I think about Murphy's short-lived stereotypical sitcom The New Normal.
With a cast featuring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, as well as a gathering of hot, young actors from Taylor Kitsch to Matt Bomer, there is no mistaking the HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart as anything but a Ryan Murphy production, particularly the eye roll-inducing opening scenes depicting a camp version of Fire Island complete with dialogue about chest shaving and close-ups of abs and crotches. There is even an unnecessary and almost exploitative use of Murphy's American Horror Story techniques to represent the physical horrors of AIDS during a scene in which Felix Turner, Ned's partner who is living with AIDS played by Matt Bomer, observes an emaciated man covered with severe lesions from Kaposi's sarcoma in the flickering, haunted house-like light of a subway car.
While the film is more successful when it relies heavily on Kramer's original theatrical script, there are undoubtedly many issues that can and should be discussed about the film from the depiction of Ned and Felix's relationship to Taylor Kitsch's monotone delivery of perhaps the most memorable and devastating monologue in the play, detailing the death of his character Bruce's partner Albert, to the significant impact of 1.4 million viewers reportedly watching the film on HBO and even, the relevancy of The Normal Heart to today's ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. However, the moment that has been nagging at me since I saw the film has been that small line change in Ned's speech to the members of the GMHC.
In addition to the switch from "defined" to "remembered," which seems to indicate Kramer's drive to memorialize himself in the film, I continue to return to a series of questions about the significance between Ned wanting to be "one of the men who won the war" versus "one of the men who fought the war." Why was this line rewritten? To create a more dramatic and striking effect on the audience? Or does it reveal that Kramer and Murphy believe a "war" on HIV/AIDS can be won? What would winning that war even look like?
Even though I certainly don't claim to have any answers to the questions the change in this sentence raises, it does appear that both Kramer and Murphy are reframing HIV/AIDS in a context of a war that can be won. With 6,000 new HIV infections every day, according to the statistics listed at the end of the film, it is difficult to fathom why the discourse of the film would be changed from a fight to a victory.
This sense of victory is even further cemented when put into conversation with the final scene of the film after the death of Felix. While in the play, Ned delivers his final impassioned speech in the hospital room, decrying his inability to prevent Felix's death while also recounting his experience attending Gay Week at his alma mater Yale University. He says in the play:
"Why didn't I fight harder! Why didn't I picket the White House, all by myself if nobody would come. Or go on a hunger strike. I forgot to tell him something Felix, when they invited me to Gay Week at Yale, they had a dance. In my old college dining hall, just across the campus from that tiny freshman room where I tried to kill myself because I thought I was the only gay man in the world -- they had a dance. Felix, there were six hundred young men and women there. Smart, exceptional young men and women. Thank you, Felix."
In comparison, the film ends with Ned traveling to Yale for the Gay Week dance rather than in Felix's hospital room. Sitting and observing the couples dancing together publically, embracing their same-sex partners, the camera slowly zooms in to Ned's face as he breaks out in a small grin.
In an interview with Frank Bruni in The New York Times article "The Angel in Larry Kramer," Murphy explains this scene, saying "'It was important to me to shoot that because it had hope,'... adding that he encouraged Ruffalo to 'give a little smile of 'thank you, Larry, for what you've done.'"
While Murphy understands the last scene in the film as an indication of hope, Ned's final words in the play also convey a sense of pride and hopefulness without almost erasing the fact that it would be a decade before the cocktail would make long-term survival possible. Even though I don't think that Kramer or Murphy intended to convey a message that the AIDS crisis is over and the war has been won, as seen in the stark black and white statistics at the end of the film, the addition of the language of winning and victory undeniably creates a complicated and troublesome relationship between the historicization of the early years of the crisis and the still very contemporary realities of HIV/AIDS today.
Emily Colucci is a freelance art writer, who contributes both in print and online venues, and co-founder of Filthy Dreams, a blog analyzing art and culture through a queer lens. Emily has contributed to Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Artvoices Magazine, M Daily, Hyperallergic, Societe Perrier, WhiteWall Magazine, New York Magazine's Bedford + Bowery and other publications. Emily is interested in the intersection of queer theory, HIV/AIDS activism, LGBTQ politics and art.
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