By Armond White
Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer in a scene from 'The Normal Heart'
Felix, the dreamboy and doomed heartthrob of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, probably inspired the 2000 Olivier Ducastel-Jacques Martineau film The Adventures of Felix, one of the first and best movies to feature a protagonist living with HIV. In tribute to Kramer’s landmark play, a cri di ceour detailing the start of the AIDS protest movement, the French Felix (played by Sami Bouajila) really lives; journeying across Europe, he discovers a worldly sense of himself—a response to Kramer that is also a deliberately life-affirming cinematic and political gesture.
While watching the new HBO film of The Normal Heart (where Matt Bomer plays the original tragic Felix), the contrast between Kramer’s cry-of-the-heart and Ducastel-Martineau’s exuberant-yet-serious human comedy reveals the difference between pain and joy—proof of gay men’s spiritual struggle ever since the advent of AIDS.
The Normal Heart takes us back to the start: Kramer premiered his play in 1985 as an alarm about the newly realized AIDS crisis. His New York-set wake-up call was meant to galvanize a community under siege. He personally focused on AIDS as “a national emergency, an epidemic, a plague.” Kramer pitched himself inside this social statement, using the lead character Ned Weeks to represent his own agony. (Kramer had founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization then, as the crisis persisted, alienated his more diplomatic colleagues.)
This play’s anguished biographical tale includes the merciful Cassandra-like alter-ego Dr. Brookner—played by Julia Roberts—who insists on abstinence and medical research from her wheelchair-soapbox, shouting "J’accuse!" to a cowardly, if not homophobic, political system. Kramer brazenly targeted a closeted mayor and a seemingly indifferent White House. Of Ned’s many self-dramatizing taunts, the most resonant asks: “Who’s fighting so the living can go on living?”
A still from 'The Adventures of Felix'
Ducastel-Martineau’s politically-conscious joie de vivre reached the screen first probably because The Normal Heart isn’t filmable without also taking on Kramer’s anger and single-mindedness. (Barbra Streisand unsuccessfully tried mounting a film version for years.) Kramer’s activism surely sparked Ducastel-Martineau and others—the play has had several international productions, including Tony-winning Broadway revival in 2013—but it also, problematically, feeds into the very American notion of combative righteousness. European filmmakers who descend from Gide, Cocteau, Visconti inherently justified gay humanity, but Ned and Felix’s love story (including Ned’s conflicts with his older brother) follows the now-familiar AIDS-story trajectory: Pro-gay polemics come first, then it’s a dramatic downer relieved by spurring unavoidable outrage.
Portraying the major social tragedy and heartbreak of the past half-century doesn’t disguise Kramer’s harangue but this also means the issues troubling his characters—and us—remain unresolved. The past of The Normal Heart is grievous and angry-making; the emotions and politics surrounding AIDS are still sensitive—even raw.
It would take a masterful filmmaker to navigate Kramer’s polemic towards great art—which was partly Ducastel-Martineau’s alternative—but TV mogul Ryan Murphy’s sincerest directorial efforts aren’t good enough. Years spent manipulating the zeitgeist in unsubtle shows like Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story, Glee (and lousy films like Running with Scissors and Eat, Pray, Love) have given Murphy trite habits. His agenda has been to always use gay sexuality as a tease and a provocation (as in the opening’s Fire Island nudity and casual sex) without the natural acceptance that makes Ducastel-Martineau’s insouciance meaningful. We’re brought back to sex guilt briefly debated by Ned and Dr. Brookner.
Murphy could not (perhaps contractually) reconceive the play and give historical texture to the era of Kramer’s political awakening. The soundtrack of hits brings back pop irony (Roxy Music’s beautiful “More Than This” underlining the scourge) but it was also an era of sudden, unbelievable dread and disbelief felt in every area of social experience. Gay icon Donna Summer prophetically sang about “a nightmare/daymare/ It’s a mad-mare/ no-matter-which-way-mare.”
As a show-runner in an age of shallow politics—and for a medium of glib terrors—Murphy glosses the morally conflicted emotions of the AIDS crisis. Alternating scenes of Ned’s romance with Felix and his fights with the rest of world over-rely on Kramer’s argumentative tactics. Mark Ruffalo, who acts glibly, can’t get inside Ned Weeks’ Job-complex. (Granted, this impossible role stops just short of sanctifying Kramer's suffering and, worse, his told-you-so rightness.) Some viewers might accept the rubber-stamp quality of TV political drama but it won’t be fully satisfying for anyone who has lived through the early years of AIDS—or lived with the growing body of films that carry one’s pain and joy through tragedy and toward reconciliation and hope.
Here’s a short list of movies that made the AIDS crisis an important and unignorable part of film history: Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, The Living End, It’s My Party, Philadelphia, Dying Young, Savage Nights, And the Band Played On, Angels in America, Savage Nights, The Adventures of Felix, Son Frère, Time to Leave, The Witnesses, and the definitive AIDS-era epic Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.
In response to AIDS and the shift of gay priorities from sexual freedom and social equality to basic existence, these works variously filled the need Kramer was always after. Time and mourning have provided more varied perspectives and more sophistication. (The smug, classist Longtime Companion received the boldest pan in the history of the New York Times and Angels in America supplied the overarching spiritual and historical contexts Kramer neglects.) These movies built upon Kramer’s daring—a foundation of gay pride and forthrightness that includes his exploratory screenplay for Ken Russell’s 1970 film of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love perhaps even more than his provocative 1978 novel Faggots.
Candid about gay men’s desires and victimization—and their deserved vindication—Kramer writes several blunt showstopper speeches. It’s as if each character was a bomb-thrower who relies on bitterness then condescension and sympathy. Kramer’s insight deserves a more expressive approach—if not Ducastel-Martineau’s optimism perhaps a fellow New York crank like Spike Lee, a West Coast rebel like Gregg Araki, or an artist like Patrice Chereau who turned his sensitivities about AIDS into the astonishingly empathetic Son Frère. Filmgoers who don’t know Son Frère or The Adventures of Felix may not realize the depth of feeling beneath Kramer’s anger and Murphy's surface.
Kramer’s warning is well heeded—and it bears repetition—but the news of gay love and its survival needs preaching, too. Without that rich complexity, a tragic, maudlin, rabble-rousing The Normal Heart offers viewers mere encouragement: “To Win A War You Have To Start One” says HBO’s ad campaign. Noting all the famous actors’ commitment to the project, we’re left with unavoidable, traumatizing pity. Anger alone is self-congratulatory and even for a principled grouch like Kramer, that can’t be enough.