REVIEW: ‘The Normal Heart’ on HBO

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart,’ which debuts Sunday on HBO.

In the early 1990s, the AIDS crisis and gay rights became a suitable subject for popular entertainment, with movies and TV shows like Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, And the Band Played On, Tales of the City and plays like As Is, Angels in America and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. The last one, coming from the most vocal (and often least well-liked) voice of the gay activist movement, was probably the most polarizing. It never had a Broadway opening, and certainly was not adapted for the screen.

By 2012, the world was ready again to deal with Larry Kramer. The play opened on Broadway (and won a Tony), and now — about two decades after the artistic fever-dream of AIDS dramas — the filmed version hits the airwaves.

HBO’s The Normal Heart has been a long time coming, but in some ways, it feels like it didn’t skip a beat. The opening segment, a trip to Fire Island cribbed from the structure of Longtime Companion, is both familiar and new, what with all the full-frontal nudity and explicit sex you wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago. And even better, many, many openly-gay actors in the major roles (among them: Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Jonathan Groff, Stephen Spinella and B.D. Wong). Not gay, but going full-bore as the hero anyway, is Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, Kramer’s stand-in for himself. Ned’s something of a Cassandra, clucking his disapproval at sexual freedom (or is it recklessness?) even before there’s any indication of the coming plague.

Ned meets a doctor (Julia Roberts), who is even more of a downer than he is, insisting that gay sex is killing men and getting them to stop is the only course of action. But “promiscuity is the principal political agenda” of the gay movement in 1981, Ned argues — you can’t just get them to stop. And yet, you have to. To fail is to accede to genocide.

I’m sure The Normal Heart will shock a lot of mainstream sensibilities, and even some disdainful gays who think it both negatively portrays gay stereotypes and glamorizes anonymous sex. But you can’t have it both ways — you can’t complain about its authenticity and chastise it for being too accurate. But HBO made the formula work one year ago, with its equally shocking biopic about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, and it won every award in the book. There’s no reason to think lightning won’t strike twice.

The weakness of the play (and now the screenplay, also by Kramer) is the character of Ned, who is so impassioned yet unlikeable that you can’t stand how he’s both right and gets in the way of getting the right thing done. In some ways, it takes amazing self-possession for Kramer to portray his alter ego warts and all, while balancing the competing issues sex-as-liberation and sex-as-death. It was equally hard for the gay community in its day.

But what sustains such competing currents is the emotional tremors the story sets off, which start nearly at the start and rarely waver for the next two hours. The first appearance of a character with Kaposi’s sarcoma … the first realization a seemingly healthy, young, blossoming young man is infected and will die … the first closeted person who could make a difference cowering out of fear of the social stigma … well, even if you did not live through those days, you can’t help but feel rattled. And it leaves you feeling that way.

That’s a ravaging effect of a movie, that sincere, wet-eyed shiver of the inevitable horror faced by a generation of gay men. Director Ryan Murphy (Glee) never lets up. He doesn’t want you to relax. You might miss the urgency, a feeling of self-preservation that, since the invention of the AIDS cocktail, hasn’t been as pressing in society, even the gay community. In many ways, this is the perfect symbiosis of Kramer and Murphy: The radical and the populist. Indeed, if it weren’t already widely known as The Normal Heart, I know the perfect title for it: American Horror Story.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

HBO renews ‘Looking,’ sets premiere date for ‘Normal Heart’

normalheart02HBO knows a good formula when it sees one. Last year, it premiered its gay-themed made-for-cable movie Behind the Candelabra on the last Sunday in May, and it’s doing so again with its latest tentpole telefilm, The Normal Heart. The screen adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning play about the fight against AIDS (and the ignorance of the Reagan Era) is set to air at 8 p.m. on May 25. The production, directed by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, features out actors Matt Bower, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Spinella, B.D. Wong and Jonathan Groff, as well as Julia Roberts, and Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch, pictured.

Groff had some more good news this week as well: His HBO series Looking got a second-season pickup. The drama about 20something gay men navigating the dating life in present-day San Francisco will return next season.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WATCH: Preview of episode 2 of HBO’s new gay series ‘Looking’

Groff1The excellent new gay series Looking, which began airing last Sunday on HBO, is a mature and sexy look at the modern urban gay male. We spoke with the series’ star, Jonathan Groff, here, but you can also check out a preview of episode 2, which airs on Sunday, after the jump. (Take, note, though! Episode 3 will air next Saturday, not Sunday, so as not to compete with the Super Bowl.)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Looking’ star Jonathan Groff: The gay interview

Jonathan Groff

Jonathan Groff has had a pretty good week. The animated film he stars in, Frozen, was just nominated for two Oscars and his new HBO series, Looking, debuts on Sunday. So it was a good time for our Chris Azzopardi to sit down with Groff to discuss all his gay projects, idolizing Mark Ruffalo and how Looking freaked out his family.  

Jonathan Groff is remembering a scene he shot for the upcoming HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart. It’s his only part with Julia Roberts, and he doesn’t have a single line with her.

“She plays a doctor and I collapse on the street, and then they take me into her office and she’s like, ‘He’s dying,’” the actor recalls. “So I didn’t get to act with her because I’m, like, hyperventilating on a stretcher. I was foaming at the mouth. She was probably all, ‘This kid is really going for it.’ But she was really nice, very chill, very undramatic and easy.”

The same could be said for Groff. The affable Pennsylvania native got his start on stage, nabbing a Tony nomination for his role in the 2006 Broadway musical Spring Awakening before battling it out with New Directions on Glee, portraying a young David Sedaris in the recent feature film C.O.G. and voicing Kristoff in Disney’s hot winter hit Frozen. Now the actor plays Patrick, the charmingly clueless lead in the new gay-friends-living-in-San-Fran series Looking, which debuts Sunday on HBO. Will there be foam? Probably, but only if it’s at a party.

Dallas Voice:  With Looking and The Normal Heart, it must be nice knowing that HBO is gonna pay your bills for at least the next year.  Jonathan Groff: Right? It’s great. But I’ve already been paid for those jobs in 2013!

In the Looking pilot’s opening scene, after a phone call interrupts a hand-job hookup, you tell your friends you worried it was your mom calling. Has your own mother seen the show?  My mom has always been really supportive of my work. When I was doing Spring Awakening she took bus trips of people to come and see the show — like, seriously, 40 people on a touring bus up from Pennsylvania. That was before she had even seen it, so she was shocked when she saw the sex and the nudity and me hitting Lea Michele with a stick, but she obviously enjoyed it … because there were three more bus trips after that! So she overcame the awkwardness of seeing my butt on stage, but ever since they cast me in Looking, the big question in my family has been: “Are they gonna watch it or not when it comes on TV?”

When I came home for the summer to Pennsylvania, I brought the pilot home on DVD and I just said, “I don’t know if you wanna watch this or not, but I feel like if you do watch it, you probably won’t wanna watch it with me in the room.” I think that really freaked them out.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WATCH: Debut trailer for upcoming HBO series about gay guys, ‘Looking’

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January is fast becoming the season of gay TV premieres. Yesterday, I shared a video for Chozen, a gay animated comedy for FX; today, HBO one-ups FX with a live-action show that’s just as gay.

Looking is the highly anticipated new series from out actor-producer Jonathan Groff (guest actor on Glee and co-executive producer on Happy Endings). Groff stars as a gay man looking for love in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, it’s set to debut immediately after the third season premiere of Girls on Jan. 19 — so, we have the girls and the boys right after.

Based on the trailer — which you can see after the jump — it’s apparently along the lines of Queer as Folk with honest portrayals of love and sex … and some nudity (don’t worry, the trailer, at least, is safe for work).

Looks like the winter is heating up!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Redemption’ on HBO

RedemptionWhen I saw Redemption earlier this year, when it was in the running for an Oscar for best documentary short, I thought it had a serious shot at winning (though the ultimate winner, Inocente, was very, very deserving). It’s not easy to see short films, especially docs, so it’s great that HBO does such a good job airing them, which it does with Redemption tonight at 7:40 p.m. (with rebroadcast through tomorrow).

The documentary on first glance seems to be about “canners,” mostly homeless folks who collect recyclable cans and plastic bottle for the deposit along New York’s Upper West Side. But it’s not so much about homeless people as it is a symbol for the toll the economic downturn has taken on all walks of life. Yes, there are alcoholic veterans and illegal aliens, but also a retired computer expert who can’t like off of Social Security, and families who do what the can to get by. It’s worth the half-hour it takes to watch.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Sheriff Valdez to attend screening of ‘The Out List’ at Eden Lounge

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Sheriff Lupe Valdez

If you haven’t had the chance to catch HBO’s documentary The Out List, featuring Dallas’ own Sheriff Lupe Valdez, you can do so this weekend.

The SOLID Network, which we recently featured in a Dallas Voice cover story, is hosting the event on Eden Lounge’s rooftop.

A meet and greet with Valdez will take place at 7 p.m. Sunday, followed by the screening at 8 p.m. and a discussion at 9 p.m. For information, go here.

SOLID launched its media channel on YouTube this week. Valdez was the first interview and she talks about coming out in a conservative family.

Watch the video below.

—  Dallasvoice

You can still catch ‘The Out List’

OutList

Talk about good timing: After a few preview screenings in theaters (including in Dallas), HBO’s documentary The Out List debuted last Thursday, just as the whole country was talking about the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions. The film makes a nice coda to those lawsuits, as well as Pride month, and it resonates especially in Dallas because one of the subjects is Dallas sheriff Lupe Valdez.

Valdez is the fourth of the celebrities interviewed, and the second (immediately following screenwriter Dustin Lance Black) from San Antonio. Valdez is also the first of the interviewees to openly discuss her faith and how it affected her coming out, as well as how her ethnicity set her apart as “other.” It’s an interesting and diverse lineup, and if you missed it, you can see it this week again. It airs on HBO Wednesday, July 3, at 3:30 p.m. (and again three hours later on HBO West, as well as on HBO Latino), then on Friday, July 5 at 1:30 p.m.

My only real criticism is: Why is it that on the poster, interviewee Larry Kramer, above left, looks like Emperor Palpatine?

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Lupe Valdez makes HBO’s ‘Out List’

outlist01Just in time for National Pride Month, HBO will soon be airing a new documentary called The Out List, and among the gay movers and shakers profiled is Dallas’ own lesbian sheriff, Lupe Valdez. (Others profiled include Suze Orman, Neil Patrick Harris and The Lady Bunny.)

The documentary will received a world premiere screening on Thursday (prior to its debut on HBO on June 27) with a Black Tie Dinner Captains event at the Angelika Film Center at Mockingbird Station. Valdez will be in attendance, along with the film’s director and producers, who will participate in a post-screening discussion.

The event begins with a reception at 6 p.m., followed by the screening at 7.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Fall to Grace,’ HBO doc on N.J. ‘gay American’ Jim McGreevey

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When I first read Jim McGreevey’s version of a tell-all, his memoir The Confession, I was struck not by its candor, but by its air of political circumspection. The man who, upon resigning as New Jersey’s governor in the face of a sex scandal proudly proclaimed “I am a gay American,” couldn’t do a warts-and-all autobio without at the same time touting his accomplishments (many of which read more like opportunism than principle).

It’s been nearly nine years since that fateful day when this tall working-class pol gave a new face to gay people, and more than six since the book, so seeing him again now in the documentary Fall to Grace, airing on HBO this Thursday with replays throughout April, comes as a shock. Gone is the swath of black hair with a touch of grey that made him look like Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four; in its place, a shaved, craggy skull. Gone also is all the pretense and savviness.

Since leaving politics, McGreevey has married his partner, Mark Anthony, converted from Catholicism to Episcopalian (attending seminary and becoming a priest in the process) and now acts as a spiritual advisor to women in prison. His to-hell-and-back journey is the focus of this 45-minute film. The director herself understands the political world — it’s Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I’m not sure that fact provides any unique insight into McGreevey’s past life, but her roots in San Francisco probably help her navigate through McGreevey’s coming out process intelligently.

“Coming out was a great gift,” McGreevey admits. “I’m gay! Big shit!” It may not seem like much, but it’s more than Ed Koch ever did.

Indeed, McGreevey seems to be in an alternative universe, the coulda-been of Koch, a generation older. McGreevey’s transformation seems sincere in a way his memoir did not, and it’s clear that in addition to his good works with female prisoners, his scandal probably helped advance the cause of gay rights and the potential of pols to be open about who they are.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones