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

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

Today is the 25th anniversary of ACT UP, which was predated in Dallas by activists with G*U*T*S

Members of ACT UP hung a banner on the Cedar Springs Tollway overpass in 1991 for Pride Week.

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, turns 25 today. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, the group was known for civil disobedience to obtain funding for research into the epidemic and care for people with the disease. The group was created by playwright and activist Larry Kramer in New York.

In an ACT UP demonstration marking the anniversary today, JoeMyGod reports that nine members chained themselves to the entrance of the New York Stock Exchange at the opening bell.

Dallas had its own version of ACT UP prior to the formation of the national group. The Dallas version was known as G*U*T*S, or Gay Urban Truth Squad.

G*U*T*S staged a number of demonstrations including chalking outlines of bodies in front of Dallas City Hall — and outside the Convention Center as President George H.W. Bush spoke inside. An earlier protest involved staking an empty field on Carlisle Street with crosses honoring the fallen.

Another ACT UP demonstration in front of Parkland Hospital called on the facility to prescribe AZT, the only known drug at the time that helped combat the HIV virus. The hospital claimed it didn’t have enough money to give the drug to everyone who needed it.

In most cities, ACT UP demonstrators and those working with local governments to provide resources for people with AIDS were different people. Not in Dallas.

John Thomas, executive director of the AIDS Resource Center (now Resource Center Dallas), was among the ACT UP demonstrators at Parkland. He met with city and county officials and told them he thought he could call off the demonstrators if money was appropriated to get AZT to people who needed it.

When John got the money, John stopped demonstrating.

Most of the founders of G*U*T*S/ACT UP Dallas, including John Thomas, Bill Hunt, Mike Richards, Bill Nelson and Terry Tebedo, died of AIDS in the 1990s.

This evening, USA Film Festival screens How To Survive A Plague that includes the story of ACT UP. Arnold Wayne Jones moderates a discussion after the film.

—  David Taffet

‘The Normal Heart’ at Stages Repertory Theatre

The Normal HeartLarry Kramer is so well-known for his tireless AIDS activism (and for being a general son-of-a-b*tch) that people forget that he is, in fact, a writer. Kramer’s magnum opus, The Normal Heart, is more than just the semi-autobiographical tale of a firebrand activist struggling during the early days of what what would become the AIDS crisis. It’s a masterpiece of language – an exploration of what pulls people out of their everyday lives and into advocacy.

Stages Repertory Theatre presents a staged reading of The Normal Heart Monday, November 28, from 7:30-9:30 pm. Tickets are $25 with proceeds benefiting the University of Houston LGBT Resource Center.

The Normal Heart centers on the relationship between Ned Weeks, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Kramer, and his brother Ben. It’s the early eighties and a mysterious illness, spoken of only in hushed tones as the “gay plague,” is ravaging the gay men of New York. Ned is desperate to fund an organization to care for the sick and fight for support from the city, but when he turns to his brother for financial help the unspoken homophobia that has long strained their relationship springs to the surface.

Meanwhile Ned’s organization has ousted him as a leader in favor of a less controversial (but closeted) candidate after Ned’s confrontational style alienates members of the mayor’s staff. Ned’s friend, a wheel-chair-bound doctor who knows more about the illness than anyone else, also finds herself thrust into the role of activist when the scope of the impending pandemic becomes clear.

Brimming with questions of how to balance confronting power with gaining power, the role of friendship and love in creating change, and the ever tenuous relationships between LGBT people and their families, The Normal Heart is just as relevant today as when it premiered in 1985.

For reservations to the staged reading call 713-522-2204.

—  admin

Cast set for Dustin Lance Black’s ’8′

Dustin Lance Black

The American Foundation for Equal Rights & Broadway Impact have added actors to the lineup of Dustin Lance Black’s world premiere play 8. Bob Balaban, Larry Kramer, John Lithgow and Bradley Whitford are among the celebrities joining the staged reading, which takes place at a one-night-only event on Sept. 19. They join the previously announced cast that includes Anthony Edwards, Morgan Freeman, Cheyenne Jackson, Christine Lahti, Rob Reiner, Yeardley Smith and Marisa Tomei. They will play historical figures, including Judge Vaughn Walker, attorneys David Boies and Theodore Olson, and Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry.

The  play chronicles the historic trial in the federal legal challenge to Prop 8, California’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It is based on the actual transcripts of the lawsuit. Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Milk, has been widely active in gay rights causes.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Anything was possible

From DIFFA to the stage, John Ahrens has witnessed the evolving art of HIV

YA GOTTA HAVE ‘HEART’ | Ahrens, above, was moved to tears by the revival of ‘The Normal Heart,’ which captured the panic of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; below left, designs from two decades of DIFFA auctions, which improved greatly from the days of ‘ugly fabrics.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

John Ahrens ended up in Dallas accidentally, but it’s an accident that may have saved his life. In the late 1960s, he was enrolled at Yale

University’s drama department, studying theater alongside classmates like Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein and Meryl Streep. It was a magical time.

“I lived in New York until the late 1970s,” he recalls. “Back then, in 1976 in New York, anything was possible — you had Paul [the gay character] onstage in A Chorus Line, it was post-Stonewall.” The Continental Baths had acts like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow before anyone knew who they were. “Later you had La Cage aux Folles with Georges singing ‘I Am What I Am.’”

In other words, it was a great time to be gay.

Or so it seemed. Ahrens moved to Dallas in 1978, putting him 1,300 miles away when the AIDS epidemic hit New York hard. Ahrens first realized how serious the situation was when he called a friend to inquire about a former roommate; the roommate had died.

All those emotions came flooding back to him last month, when he made a pilgrimage to New York specifically to see the revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. Ahrens caught a Sunday matinee; four hours later, it walked away with three Tony Awards including best revival of a play.

“It was amazing,” Ahrens says, choking up slightly. “It so accurately describes the panic everyone was living through, especially those still in the closet. It has gotten better” over the years.

That seems to be the consensus. The Normal Heart arrived in New York about the same time as another play about AIDS, As Is, but met with a very different reception. As Is made it to Broadway, where it was rewarded with three Tony Award nominations and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play. The Normal Heart remained off-Broadway, underground. And its angry political tone was eventually eclipsed by Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America.

But when’s the last time you heard someone talk about As Is? Meanwhile, Kramer’s play has earned cult status. (For years, Barbra Streisand tried to direct a film version.)

“The Normal Heart was so much of its time,”Ahrens opines, “but seeing it brought it all back. It captured the horrors of it all. The visualization of John Benjamin Hickey’s performance was so authentic — back then, you could look at someone and know they had HIV.”

It was a horrific time, but also one that spurred great achievement and sacrifice. “It changed a lot of people and made them get their shit together,” he says.

Ahrens, a respected costume designer, was present for the first auction of clothes from DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. He still remembers the first piece he designed: A red leather number with a hoop skirt meant to evoke Christian Lacroix…“worn by a 6-foot-tall redhead.” (He’s referring to Dallas supermodel Jan Strimple, a long-time supporter of DIFFA and an AIDS activist, one of Ahrens’ oldest friends.)

It probably wasn’t his best work — back then, it was hard to do your best work.

“We all got our fabric from the same fashion line, and that line was really ugly,” he says. “Some of us were getting our fabric the night before the show.”

Things have changed. The designs became more fabulous, the designers more high-profile, the fabrics of better quality. But what Ahrens remembers most are the people — in particular, the lesbian community.

“They were the soldiers,” he says frankly. “Lory Masters and her generation? Hell, they took on so much,” caring for the mostly gay men who suffered.

Back then, even being associated with AIDS took heroics; today, gay and straight, HIV-positive and –negative men and women readily lend their names and faces to campaigns such as Faces of Life, Dallas-based photographer Jorge Rivas’ campaign for AIDS awareness. The stigma has diminished — but it is not gone.

Ahrens didn’t see The Normal Heart when it first ran in New York more than 25 years ago, but seeing it in 2011 truly made him see how far things have come — and how far they still have to go.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Tony Award wrap-up: Totally gay (again)

It was an untenable situation for the gay Dallasite: Watch the Tony Awards or game 6 of the Mavs? Thank god I had two DVRs. Best of both worlds.

Of course, the Tony Awards are always the gayest of award shows, and they did nothing to disguise that Sunday night starting with the opening number by the telecast’s gay host, Neil Patrick Harris, “‘[Theater] is not Just for Gays Anymore.” He then did a medley duet with Hugh Jackman that was damn funny. (It got even gayer when Martha Wash performed “It’s Raining Men” with cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.)

Then the first award of the evening went to Ellen Barkin for her Broadway debut in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, giving a shout out to the 30th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic. She was immediately followed by gay actor and Plano native John Benjamin Hickey for his role in The Normal Heart. (He even chastised his family: “You’d better not be watching the Mavericks game.” Sorry, John, I for one kept flipping between them.) The play also won the award for best revival — a controversial choice, since The Normal Heart never opened on Broadway until this year, usually a requirement for a revival nominations (some thought it should be eligible for best play). Kramer accepted the award. “To gay people everywhere whom I love so, The Normal Heart is our history. I could not have written it had not so many of us so needlessly died. Learn from it and carry on the fight.”

The very gay-friendly Book of Mormon from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone won several off-camera awards, including score of a musical (the composers thanking gay producer Scott Rudin), orchestrations, scenic design, lighting design and sound design, before taking their first onscreen trophy for best direction of a musical to Parker and gay director Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone), on its way to winning nine total awards, including best musical, best featured actress (newcomer Nikki M. James, defeating prior winners Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Victoria Clark and prior nominee Tammy Blanchard) and book of a musical.

“This is such a waste of time — it’s like taking a hooker to dinner,” said best musical presenter Chris Rock before announcing The Book of Mormon for the night’s last prize, best musical.

Other winners in the musical category include John Larroquette for best featured actor (How to Succeed…, apparently the only straight nominee in his category), choreographer Kathleen Marshall for Anything Goes, which also beat How to Succeed for best revival of a musical and won best actress for Sutton Foster. Norbert Leo Butz was the surprise winner for best actor in a musical for Catch Me If You Can. One more really gay winner: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert took best costumes, natch.

The big winner in the play category (other than The Normal Heart) was the brilliant War Horse, which won 5: best play, direction, lighting design, sound design, scenic design, as well as a special Tony for the puppet designs of the horses.

Other play winners include The Importance of Being Earnest (costumes), Good People (best actress Frances McDormand) and Jerusalem, a surprise winner for best actor Mark Rylance.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Bunny hop

Lady Bunny comes out! (as more than a drag queen DJ)

LADY BUNNY
Axiom Sushi Lounge,
4123 Cedar Springs Road.
June 3 at 8 p.m. 214-443-3840.

………………………

The Lady Bunny is most recognizable as that funny queen who created Wigstock, or as the DJ spinning at a circuit party in full drag. But the lady has a lot on her mind that’s not all fun and games. Though she’s never far from the sass.

“I really like to talk about issues because there is a lot of fluff on TV,” she says. “How great would it be if a gay channel would take on gay issues? I’d love that. Hear that, Logo?”

Bunny, who has practically made Dallas a second home lately, returns for a double gig this weekend: On Saturday, she shares the bill with Tony-nominee Kelli O’Hara as the DJ for the Dallas Theater Center’s Centerstage benefit. But Friday she returns to her performing roots for a birthday dinner and roast at Axiom Sushi Lounge at the ilume. And she knows the fish jokes should be easy that night.

“I am that tacky,” she laughs. “For me, I love sushi but drag and dinner only mix if there’s a girdle handy.”

Bunny is deeper than she usually gets credit for. Seeing Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart on Broadway forced her to recall activism then vs. now. Minus the makeup and music, Bunny is impassioned about that which affects LGBT people today.

“I think that gay people have to a large extent lost their fight,” she says. “I don’t really know how putting ‘Equality’ as your middle name on Facebook, or a piece of tape over your mouth, helps. I can’t see how these trendy campaigns substitute for hard work.”

She’s also inspired by her work as the Dean of Drag on the upcoming season of RuPaul’s Drag U. With an increased role this time out, Bunny still keeps the camp but adds heart for her makeovers. Real life women get makeovers, but also come with dramatic back-stories.

“These women, they give up everything for their kids and their man,” she says. “I cried a few times. It made me appreciate that nurturing vibe that mothers have. I don’t think gay men know that kind of sacrifice. This season has been a real eye opener.”

For now, she snarkily warns of her own eye opener Friday.

“Well, I have this delightful tribute to Burlesque,” she says. “Did you see the movie? Ugh.”

— Rich Lopez

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 3, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Larry Kramer’s ‘Normal Heart’ to debut on Broadway with Emmy winner Jim Parsons

Jim Parsons, the gay star of The Big Bang Theory who won an Emmy as best actor in a comedy series last year, will make his Broadway debut in The Normal Heart later this spring. He’ll headline with Lee Pace, who has his own gay cred playing the drag-queen boyfriend Calpurnia Addams to  murdered soldier Pfc. Barry Winchell in Soldier’s Girl. It’s significant not only for the debuts of these actors, but the play itself.

Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart was first produced early in the great panic of the AIDS epidemic, though it stayed off-Broadway as as a regionally produced play. (A similar play to tackle AIDS, As Is, was a Tony contender in 1985; Angels in America opened in 1993.) Even with its delayed opening by more than 25 years, that means Kramer, one of the most vocal advocates for PWA, will be eligible for a Tony himself.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones