Should you ever find yourself having to choose the most galvanizing play of the last 30 years, you wouldn't be wrong to name The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's scalding 1985 drama about the HIV/AIDS epidemic then decimating the gay community in America. Written at a time of appalling official apathy, it tells the story of Kramer's fictional alter ego, Ned Weeks, as he tries to rouse a hostile political and medical establishment to take action against AIDS while desperately urging his fellow gay men to come out of the closet and fight for their lives. At once a manifesto, an indictment, and a cri de coeur, the play has gone from being a searing call for action to a cultural landmark.
"This play is comparable to Uncle Tom's Cabin," says playwright Tony Kushner, the author of another groundbreaking play about AIDS, Angels in America. "It's one of the rare works of American art that had a direct political impact. And it's still relevant today for many, many reasons, including the silence still surrounding the world pandemic of AIDS."
The Normal Heart is so undeniably important - 36 million people have died of HIV so far - that it seems incredible nobody ever managed to film it. One who was incredulous is Ryan Murphy, the writer-director-producer best known for creating Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story. "I grew up loving the play, he says, "and I remember thinking, Why has this movie not been made?
And so he made it.
On May 25, nearly three decades after The Normal Heart premiered at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in a production directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, HBO will air Murphy's screen adaptation, which stars Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch, Matt Bomer, and Julia Roberts. Scripted by Kramer, the story carries us from the sun-drenched pleasures of gay parties on Fire Island in the early eighties into the pitch-black of the nascent AIDS epidemic, with its young bodies being devoured by lesions from a virus made all the more terrifying because nobody could explain it. As our heroes - and Robert's feisty doctor - try to halt its spread, the film bristles with still-fascinating arguments about how to change the world: Is it more effective to work within the system or confront authority? And it captures the irony in the idea that just at the moment when gay men felt liberated to have sex as they chose, they were being asked to curtail it - or die.
In a choice that may well be controversial, Kramer's play has been substantially retooled, and softened, for a present-day America, where ideas that once made Kramer seem like a revolutionary firebrand have become so mainstream that according to a recent survey, the majority of Americans now support gay marriage. If the film lacks the original's provocative incandescence, its nuanced performances bring to life the personal dimension of a trailblazing political movement.
"It's no longer as angry," says Murphy of this gentler new version, which harks back to the terror and sadness of an era when gay life often looked like a death sentence. "It's not agitprop. It's stories about different kinds of love."
Some of that love is on display in a private dining room at Warner Bros., where I have lunch with Murphy and the male leads from the cast. The room brims with a genuine warmth and enthusiasm, and it's clear that the actors feel bound by having played a diverse group of gay men who work, flight, love, and grieve in the face of the greatest crisis of their lives. "I would never seriously compare acting to going to war," says Jim Parsons in the distinctive tones made famous by his role as Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, "but we do feel like we went to battle together."
Leading the charge was Mark Ruffalo, an actor brilliant enough to have made the Incredible Hulk into an interestingly nuanced character. Himself a political activist on environmental issues, Ruffalo feels a clear affinity with Ned, a well-known writer who helps found a gay health group to deal with the AIDS epidemic, only to have his cofounders accuse him of being too aggressively outspoken in public. "Every movement has that guy," says Ruffalo, "and they need him." Yet as Ruffalo plays him, Ned's fabled stridency is less striking than the sensitivity he shows as he feeds, comforts, and even bathes his dying lover, Felix Turner (Matt Bomer). "You realize that it cost gay people to love at that time," Ruffalo says. "There were already so many things going against them - and then you add the disease."
The story really hit home for Bomer, the startlingly handsome star of TV's White Collar, who plays Felix, a genteel, sweet-smiled New York Times reporter whom we (and Ned) watch waste painfully away. One of the movie's best surprises, Bomer first read the play as a gay teen in Texas - "I knew it was part of my story," he says simply - and knocked himself out to land the part of Felix, even charting for Murphy the way AIDS would make Felix's muscle mass decompose. "It's the first great role I've had the opportunity to do," he tells me, adding that the experience was profoundly emotional. After shooting their climactic hospital scene, he and Ruffalo hugged and sobbed for so many minutes that everyone left them to be alone on the set.
If Felix casts Bomer in a rich new light, the movie marks a happy return to character work for the charismatic Kitsch, who's knack for exploring the wayward corners of troubled masculinity (obvious on Friday Night Lights) got lost in misbegotten blockbusters like John Carter and Battleship. Here he plays Ned's friend Bruce Niles, a corporate type whose poise and martial goods looks should make him the perfect front man for a gay organization - except he's professionally closeted and believes it's safer for gay people not to come out. "I'm kind of the villain," Kitsch says with a wry little smile. "But I found Bruce incredibly relatable. He's scared and doesn't know the truth about why people are dying, and he thinks he's doing the right thing."
So does the movie's most practical and even-keeled character, Tommy Boatwright (Parsons), who floats above all the furious arguments about tactics, closeting, and sexual liberation that divide the other activists. Parsons, who played the same role in the 2011 Broadway revival, says that what really connects him to Tommy is less their sexual orientation than their common personality traits: "I do tend to take a somewhat analytical view of things," he says, "so I like that Tommy's a peacekeeper who can get along with everyone."
Oddly enough for a film whose actors are so emotionally naked, nobody exposed himself more on The Normal Heart than the man behind the camera, Murphy. "Ryan can be so clever, so jaded, even world-weary," says Ruffalo, "that it can keep him from being vulnerable. But with us he created the atmosphere of vulnerability we needed."
Murphy says that tackling Kramer's play was daunting, and not simply because it is a modern classic. "The project scared me because it meant so much to me. I came of sexual age in 1982, so that feeling of 'I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die' has never left me. I now realize that there was a lot of stuff I didn't deal with as a young man. Making it was a very cathartic experience, and I hope it is for people watching it."
For Murphy, the movie is both about the past - it allows those who lives through that time to finally see their story being told - and about today, when countries like Russia and Uganda target gayness and many governments prefer to think that the HIV/AIDS crisis is over even though, on average, 6,300 men and women a day still contract HIV. At the same time, as an openly gay man, he thinks the struggle against the virus depicted in The Normal Heart offers reason for hope.
"Larry and the other organizers were true heroes," he says. "I have a wonderful life. I'm married, I have a kid, I have freedoms that as a child I never thought I would have. And I don't think I would have those freedoms without those guys. So I was interested in paying them tribute." He gives them a little nod: "Thank you for my life."