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

Oscars not exactly gay heaven, but we’ll take it

Many gays are still smarting from the upset victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars five years ago, but somehow, the lack of a clear frontrunner among many of the gay-content pictures this time around doesn’t feel as dramatic. Still, here would be the ideal queer surprises at the awards (they air Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on ABC).

Best picture, best original screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian family film The Kids Are All Right, is up for four awards, including best picture, which it won’t win. But Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter Stuart Blumberg have an outside shot at a writing award. They are up against the favorite, David Seidler for The King’s Speech (which also has the momentum for best picture). Then again, Seidler’s other screen credits include several animated films and a made for TV movie with Liz Taylor. It’s not like giving it to the lesbian would insult his art. And if King’s Speech does beat The Kids … well, everyone can root for a queen, and there are several in that movie. And gay uber-producer Scott Rudin is twice nominated, for The Social Network and True Grit. Pretty good odds.

Best actress: For a time, Annette Bening, pictured above, seemed a strong sentimental favorite to win as the totally gay half of the complex relationship in Kids, but Natalie Portman has come on strong with her SAG and Globe wins for Black Swan. Still, Portman’s character has same-sex fantasies about her dance rival Mila Kunis, so the LGBT community can claim a victory if either wins.

Best supporting actor: Mark Ruffalo as the straight dad in Kids is a longshot, as is Jeremy Renner, the villain in The Town (and, if Perez Hilton is to be believed, gay himself). They’ll probably lose to Christian Bale in The Fighter, but any would add a little hottie beefcake to the acceptance podium.

Live action short: Here’s an office pool tie-breaker you can get behind. Among the largely un-gay short film nominees is God of Love, pictured, a Jim Jarmusch-esque comedy about a homely man who acquires the power of Cupid. He uses it to seduce women … and at least one man. It’s quirky and fun, and among a perfectly fine slate of nominees, the stand-out.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition.

—  John Wright

Movie night: ‘The Kids Are All Right’ playing in theaters

A summer film that isn’t about fantasy? That is unusual. And definitely All Right

Lisa Cholodenko’s new comedy The Kids Are Right is an unlikely summer film for only one reason: The central premise is of a same-sex couple Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic ( Annette Bening) having family issues related to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the father of their children. Drama and heartfelt humanity ensues.

Obviously, it’s the “same-sex” part that makes it unusual for mainstream school’s-out entertainment, and while that bit is essential, it’s also almost incidental: The issues faced by Nic and Jules — child-rearing, career, respect within the relationship, infidelity — are universal. It could just as well have been called, It’s Complicated For Gays, Too.

For Arnold Wayne Jones’ complete review, click here.

DEETS: The Magnolia, 3699 McKinney Ave. Check theater for times. LandmarkTheatres.com. Also showing at Angelika Film Center Plano and Cinemark Legacy and XD.

—  Rich Lopez

Modern. Family.

Julianne Moore and out director Lisa Cholodenko talk about the summer’s coolest ‘family’ film

LAWRENCE FERBER  | Contributing Writer lawrencewferber@hotmail.com

JONI AND LASER HAVE TWO MOMMIES | Lesbian parents (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) cope with meeting a sperm donor in the summer’s most off-handed gay movie, ‘The Kids Are All Right.’ Moore worked for years with writer-director Lisa Cholodenko to bring the film to the screen.

The Kids Are Alright
Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo. Rated R. 100 mins. Opens Friday at Landmark’s
Magnolia Theatre. To read
Arnold Wayne Jones’ review, visit
DallasVoice.com/Screen.

To help Julianne Moore prepare for her role as a lesbian parent in The Kids Are All Right, out director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko gave her some critical materials to study: Gay porn.

“Yeah!” Moore laughs, discussing the film in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria weeks before the film rolled out.

Moore and Annette Bening play Jules and Nic, a middle-aged lesbian couple who spice up their sex life by watching gay male porn — which their 15-year-old son, Laser (Josh Hutchinson), discovers and has a very awkward discussion with them about.

“That stuff is really funny,” Moore admits regarding the scenes. “I love the honesty with which they explain it [to him]. It’s really adorable.”

This is but one raucously funny sequence in the High Art director’s third feature, which she co-wrote with straight screenwriter Stuart Blumberg (Keeping the Faith, The Girl Next Door).

Debuting to acclaim and ecstatic reviews at 2010’s Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, The Kids begins when Laser and his 18-year-old sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska), who were conceived via artificial insemination from an anonymous donor, track down their biological father, laid-back restaurateur Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Paul is intrigued by his sudden “father” status, and slowly ingratiates himself. Uptight Nic isn’t enthralled with this development, but Jules, in the midst of an identity crisis, develops a rapport with Paul, which leads to explosive complications.

Comedic and sharply drawn, The Kids represents Cholodenko’s first screenplay collaboration. While ultimately symbiotic — Blumberg gets credit for insisting they include the deliciously funny gay porn bit, which was borne from a random writing break conversation — Cholodenko admits the scripting process, which commenced following the release of her 2002 feature Laurel Canyon and endured for the better part of a decade, was fraught with tension and disagreement.

“There were times we wanted to throttle each other and quit,” she says. “It was protracted and painstaking and [there were] differences of opinion, but ultimately we defaulted to where we began. I liked that he was bringing a comedic and commercial sensibility and he liked I was bringing a more auteur sensibility and we each wanted a little something of what the other had or could do well.”

The script also reflected some personal events in Cholodenko’s and Blumberg’s own lives. She and long-term partner Wendy Melvoin (of Wendy & Lisa fame) were attempting to get pregnant (they succeeded in 2006); Blumberg had been a sperm donor while in college.

Luckily, they also had Moore attached early on. Moore, who played queer and sexually fluid characters in films including The Hours and Chloe, says she had been determined to work with Cholodenko even before they met at a Women In Film luncheon a few years after the 1998 release of High Art.

“We said we’d like to work together,” Moore recalls, “so we had a meeting and later she sent me [an early draft of The Kids]. I probably would have done anything. For me, it’s an examination of a long-term relationship and middle age marriage and that’s really interesting and unusual.”

The script went through numerous drafts, with major shifts in both its tone and scope. “There was originally a river rafting trip that all the big drama happened on,” Cholodenko says. “Once that went away because we realized we weren’t going to get $15 million to make the film, we really just focused in on the characters [because] that was the material that was going to make or break this film. But the biggest shift was the comedy and pushing that out front and center more than it had been in earlier passes.”

Playing the rudderless Jules proved an irresistible, meaty prospect for Moore. “She’s caught in a moment in time when she’s so uncertain, she doesn’t know what her next move is. She doesn’t even understand why she feels the way she does. You’ve been taking care of the kids for 18 years and suddenly are like, wow, I’ve got to get it together because they’re going [away]. So I like that and her swipes at change. It’s messy, interesting and compelling.”

As for the aspect of Jules she liked the least? “That she cheats,” Moore responds. “It’s not admirable what she does, it’s really tough. It’s not intentional and it’s hurtful. It was a challenge to play. How do you rebound from something like that?”

A womanizer and cuckold on one hand yet sensitive male who listens to Joni Mitchell on the other,  the complex character of Paul (of whom even Ruffalo admits, “what the guy does is pretty fucked-up”) represented one of the film’s greatest creative successes, says Cholodenko. “That was some real brain surgery for us,” she admits. “We kept pushing until he was the right balance of sympathetic and schmucky.”

To Moore, that Jules has sex with a man doesn’t say anything about the character’s lesbian identity.

“It’s very important that when Nic says to her, ‘Are you straight now?’ she says no. It’s authentic — that’s the last thing on her mind. This guy was just someone who validated her. She needed to be seen as other than what she was within that family.”

Although Moore remained attached during the lengthy writing and pre-production process, finding an actor to play Nic waited until late in the game. “By the time they finally had the script and kinetic tone they wanted, Lisa had a short list of people and said, ‘What do you think of Annette? She’s the one I really see in this,’” Moore says. “I was like, ‘That sounds great.

I don’t know Annette but I’ll e-mail her.’ So I did. It’s a way to cut through. Things can take months if you [go through] an agent, but you can generally get a response from a peer pretty quickly.”

The lesbian component has so far received applause from straight and LGBT audiences alike. But what does it bring to the story?

“I don’t know,” Moore replies after a pause. “Everything and nothing, really. It’s a portrait of middle-aged marriage and a family in transition. In terms of them being lesbians, the most interesting thing is … I think films, rather than influence popular culture I think they reflect popular culture. So the fact we can have a movie like this means this is an ordinary American family.”

For their part, Cholodenko and Blumberg wanted Nic and Jules’ sexuality to be “offhand and incidental,” and they focused on keeping things universal.

“I think it was really just the focus on the inner life of those characters,” she explains, “and being clear about their dilemmas and giving them all an arc, a place to begin and journey to go through. That’s not always an easy thing to do with five characters, and to have them woven in a way there’s a lot of cause and effect. If anything I’m really proud we pulled that off.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 16, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

See an advance screening of the summer’s most promising gay film, ‘The Kids Are All Right’

Two fairly mainstream feature films with strong gay content were set to open soon: Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right and I Love You Phillp Morris with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. The latter’s release date has been pushed back to October, which leaves the  former — which stars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple whose children were conceived via a sperm donor — as the big gay film of the summer.

And we got yer ticket for it.

On Wednesday, Dallas Voice is sponsoring a screening of the film, which also stars Mark Ruffalo. The screening will be at Landmark’s Magnolia Theater in the West Village starting at 7:30 p.m.

You can pick up a free pass at the Whole Foods on Lomo Alto starting Saturday, June 26.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones