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

More gays at the Emmys!

The Hofstadter InsufficiencyLast week, I pointed out some gay honorees and content at the creative arts portion of the 65th annual Emmy Awards, and last night, the big guns turned out … and once again, there was gay aplenty.

Chief among them: Out actor Jim Parsons, pictured, took home his third Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series as the repressed genius Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. Modern Family once again took best comedy series (its fourth consecutive win), though out nominee Jesse Tyler Ferguson was again a bridesmaid as supporting actor. Modern Family also won for comedy direction, while 30 Rock won for comedy writing.

The gay-friendly Colbert Report finally beat The Daily Show‘s 10-year streak for best variety series, as well as for writing. Gay TV producer Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Asylum won for best supporting actor in a miniseries for James Cromwell. In fact, miniseries is where we really got our gay on, with Behind the Candelabra, the biopic about Liberace, winning for best actor (Michael Douglas, who offered to share it with fellow nominee Matt Damon — offering him “top or bottom”), best director (Steven Soderbergh) and best miniseries/TV movie.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

The gay interview: Andrew Rannells of “The New Normal”

I met Andrew Rannells on two occasions. The first was a strange circumstance about five years ago: I was headed to the Fair Park Music Hall to meet him and other members of the touring cast of Jersey Boys when my car was T-boned (the other driver’s fault). Nevertheless, I still made it to the interview, albeit a bit late. I got quite a few “attaboys” for showing up at all.

The last was just briefly about two and a half years ago, when he was starring in a show at the Dallas Theater Center called Give It Up. The show finally made it Broadway with a different title — Lysistrata Jones — only Rannells wasn’t in it. Instead, he’d taken on a different role in a musical: The Book of Mormon, which netted him a Tony Award nomination in the biggest hit since The Producers.

ATTPAC just announced last week that The Book of Mormon would be part of its 2013-14 lineup, but once again, Rannels won’t be in it — instead, he’s starring in one of the hit shows of the fall, NBC’s The New Normal, and out actor gets to play gay … and boy does he.

Our Chris Azzopardi got to chat with Rannells a few weeks ago, and I thought it might be a good time to run the story. The next episode airs tonight.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Tex’n the City: The checklist

Editor’s note: This week we launch a new online series, Tex’n the City, by Brandon James Singleton. A combination web diary and advice column, Tex’n the City will track Singleton’s plans to get his life together as he narrows in on his 30th birthday. Enjoy!

 Tex’n the City: The Checklist

by Brandon James Singleton

Do you have a list of things you just knew you’d accomplish by a certain age? Sure you do.

First car by 16 … Study abroad before graduation … Throw the best 21st birthday party ever — or at least one epic enough to make all your friends and enemies jealous …  Get discovered after college walking out of a Starbucks, and become America’s new male Oprah ….

OK, maybe that last one is just me. Point is, everyone can own up to at least one such goal.

Then, reality hits.

No matter how hard you work or how detailed your plans, most things don’t turn out like you expect.

With my next birthday — the big 3-0 — slowly creeping up, I’ve been inspired to try and break the curse I’ve imagined was placed on me by that one kid in elementary school I renamed “Stinky McRoach” in front of the classroom — hey, it kept the heat off me for a bit. I know, kids can be mean! But if you’re the poor, short, gap-teeth pudge with bifocals, in a rich private school filled with mini-Channing Tatums and little Kristen Bell look-alikes, try to grow up blameless. (Way to go, Ryan Murphy, waiting until now to make geeks popular. Where were you when Stinky and I needed you?)

To prep for this new passage in life, I re-read some really, really old journals I managed to find. (Thanks, Myspace.) Imagine my disappointment in realizing not only had I not accepted my fourth Academy Award by 25, I hadn’t been nominated for my first. (Maybe if I worked on a movie first…). Nor am I fighting off the paparazzi who bombard my home in the Hamptons simply to get a shot of me and my fiancé, Tyson Beckford, lounging around our Olympic pool like the one in Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” video. I don’t vacation in Florida with Diddy and J-Lo, or spend nights laughing it up around the Hills with the cast of Party of Five.

Strangest of all, I seemed to have misplaced the extra 25 lbs. of sexy greek-god muscle I was to spend ages 26 to 27 putting on for that Spielberg summer blockbuster he would beg me to star in.

Maybe some dreams are just that.

But many others aren’t. I made my list of the top 10 things that truly are achievable, and should be by 30. Call it my Life Timeline Checklist:

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

This week’s takeaways: Life+Style

Dallas Pride Weekend is just around the corner, but the week leading up to it is jam-packed with events.

It’s the first weekend after Labor Day, which means theaters are churning out openings. Among the shows you can see this week: Rent at Theatre Arlington, The Second City Does Dallas at the Dallas Theater Center, the sexually complex Or, from Echo Theatre (at the Bath House, pictured above), War Horse at the Winspear as part of the Lexus Broadway Series and an entire selection of short plays courtesy of Uptown Players’ second annual Pride Performing Arts Festival. But we gotta say, the show we’re kinda most looking forward to this weekend is The Most Happy Fella at Lyric Stage. The rarely performed Frank Loesser musical (which immortalized our town in the song “Big D”) gets the fully orchestrated treatment courtesy of musical director Jay Dias, whom we profiled last month. Lyric only does two weekends of shows; it’s too bad, because they usually do a fantastic job. Cheryl Denson directs, too!

It’s not just theater, though, that takes to the stage. Drag diva Coco Peru performs her show at the Rose Room starting Thursday, unofficially launching Pride in Dallas. Best of all? Dallas Voice readers get a discount off tickets of up to 40 percent, just by using the promo code VOICE when they order here. And you can also see an actual theater — not something performed on its stages — by taking one of the behind-the-scenes architectural tours of the new City Performance Hall, which begins its gala weekend celebration on Thursday.

And if the Democratic National Convention only whetted your appetite for hearing gay people talked about on TV, tune into The New Normal on NBC at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, for the newest sitcom about gay life that could very well be the next Will & Grace … only this time, it looks more like Will & Jack.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Emmy noms: Some of the gay stuff

The Emmy nominations came out this morning, and the details of them can be hashed over in the coming month, but I wanted to point out a few gay interest items on the list:

• Modern Family continues to dominate the comedy category, with the entire adult cast again snagging nominations, as well as for directing, writing, comedy series and guest actor/comedy Greg Kinnear.

• Once again, officially out actor Jim Parsons looks like the sure thing for actor/comedy for The Big Bang Theory, unless 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin makes a comeback. His co-star Mayim Bialik was also nominated, but not Johnny Galecki. The show is also up for best comedy series.

• American Horror Story, created by Glee mastermind Ryan Murphy, was nominated in the miniseries category, including nods for miniseries, actress/mini Connie Britton, supporting actor/mini for gay thesp Denis O’Hare and two for supporting actress/mini — Frances Conroy and shoo-in winner Jessica Lange.

• Game of Thrones is again in contention, though only last year’s winner — Peter Dinklage for supporting actor/drama — is nominated for acting. The show has lots of nudity (including men!) and this last season a great gay storyline.

• One of the most welcome nominations was for Kathryn Joosten, who died just days after her touchingly hard-scrabble performance on Desperate Housewives ended with her death, was nominated for supporting actress/comedy. She’d won twice before in the guest actress category. Not in the supporting category? Previous winner Jane Lynch of Glee; Chris Colfer of Glee was also overlooked.

• The reality competition program continues to play it safe — in the history of the category, The Amazing Race has won every year except one, when Top Chef sneaked in. When will RuPaul — the show and the host — get the credit she deserves?!?!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Glee Project’ season 2

The whole idea of The Glee Project is just so… so… meta. That’s not surprising — Glee is itself as much a mash-up of culture as the songs it performs. On the Project, average kids (Gleeks all) compete a la American Idol for the reward: A guest arc on next season.

Part of the appeal of Glee has always been its empowering sensibility: The characters all look like actual high schoolers, from the cheerleading beauty queen to the kid in a wheelchair to the flamboyant gay kid to the jock to the chunky, sassy black girl. It’s no surprise, then, that the Project has a similarly quirky cast: Mario, who’s blind; Ali, who is a paraplegic; Maxfield, a country boy who just started singing; and Tyler, a female-to-male transgender, pictured. And like Glee, it’s shamelessly manipulative. Watching these kids who desperately want to perform, who idolize the cast members of Glee (who are mentors; the first one is Lea Michele) is charming.

Of course, there is a sameness to a lot of it; half the kids (including a girl) look like Justin Beiber, and they flirt with the camera like pros and you kinda want everyone to win. This ain’t no Real Housekids — it’s happy reality.

Debuts tonight on Oxygen.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Gay stuff on the new TV schedules for NBC, Fox

Hasbian Anne Heche is part of NBC's fall season lineup.

NBC was the first broadcast network to release its 2012 fall season lineup, and there’s gay stuff old and new on it.

The gayest addition is probably Ryan Murphy’s new half-hour one-camera sitcom The New Normal, about a gay couple (Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells of B’way’s Book of Mormon), who hire a woman to be the surrogate for their child. (Watch the clip after the jump — looks pretty funny.) Rannells was in Dallas a few years ago in the world premiere of Lysistrata Jones (then called Give It Up) at DTC.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

2011 Year in Review: Tube

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GAY FAMILY TIES | The two-dad household on ‘Allen Gregory’ takes a big turn from the suburban kookiness of ‘Modern Family.’

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

In a year when most people began to feel broadcast and cable television had become all but irrelevant in the era of streaming, the most proletarian of American entertainment still managed some remarkable work — both from returning series and new entries (marked with a •).

10. American Horror Story (FX)• You have to begin watching this series — as you do Ryan Murphy’s other current show, Glee — understanding that it’s a fantasy that does not, and is not intended to, make a lick of sense. Why doesn’t the family in the cursed L.A. “murder house” move out? Why do they constantly lie … and get caught? How can so much drama happen to just a few people? You’re asking for trouble if you think — you’re meant to just go along for this ride, a grotesque riff on Gothic horror movie clichés with a spicy bit of kink added. Jessica Lange as a creepy neighbor rockets into a stratosphere of kook that’s unmissably delicious.

9. Glee (Fox) Murphy’s other series is already showing its age after only after its third season, but whoever expected it would be anything other than what it is, a flash of gay brilliance that couldn’t last longer than a high school career anyway? It remains in the top 10, especially for gay audiences, largely because of the end of last season, which featured touching work by Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch.

8. The Killing (AMC)• A moody mix of Twin Peaks and 24 with a Scandinavian bleakness, this investigation into the death of a girl in Seattle, laden with dread and impenetrable characters who often do the wrong thing, was an addictive mystery. The season finale didn’t quite work, but that only makes me look forward to Season 2.

7. Happy Endings (ABC)•

6. Modern Family (ABC) This one-two punch of queer-friendly sitcoms — as perfect a pairing of half-hours since Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley — show the gay experience from the perspective of boring suburbia and slacker 20-something with wit and true character development between ModFam’s couple Cam and Mitchell and Happy Endings’ gay Oscar Madison, Max.

5. Raising Hope (Fox). The sleeper sitcom hit of last year continues to delight audiences who can detect the sophistication lurking in creator Greg Garcia’s comedy about lower-class denizens. (He did it before with My Name Is Earl.) The clever gay-friendly message is conveyed ironically, but for a story about child-rearing, it’s as raucous as a sitcom can be.

4. RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo). The third season of Drag Race was just as good as the second (the first was really a training ground for the style). Campy but also incredibly sincere, it’s one of the funniest reality shows ever on TV and one where most of the contestants actually seem to have skills. When Season 4 starts next month, we’ll be glued.

3. Allen Gregory (Fox)• Jonah Hill had, for me, fallen into the Seth Rogen category of overstayed-his-welcome with a repetition comic persona in his largely crass movie roles, but Allen Gregory changed all that for me. A smart, stylish animated sitcom about a pretentious kindergartener and his two-dad family (including a hunky former straight man and an adopted Asian sister) has some of the best jokes about gay characters on any show. Ever.

2. The Walking Dead (AMC)• There is virtually no gay content in this zombie series, just some of the most chilling action sequences ever on TV (and the hottest guy on TV in the totally ripped Jon Bernthal). It’s really the sound editing that gets to you in this drama about the end of world at the hands of ravaging flesh eaters. Who knows where it will go? But you sure wanna find out.

1. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report (Comedy Central). The 12 months leading up to presidential primary season would simply not have been the same without the genius commentary (with Stewart, confrontational; with Colbert, ironic) about the crazed political atmosphere we have found ourselves in. Colbert’s establishing of a SuperPAC, which he actually uses to point out the insanity of our laws, was as mind-blowing as comedy has ever gotten.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Denis the menace

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Gay actor Denis O’Hare, TV’s reigning villain, is far less creepy than his roles

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AMERICAN HORROR ACTOR | Denis O’Hare adds grotesque intensity to Ryan Murphy’s creepy series, which wrapped it’s first season this week.

Meeting Denis O’Hare should be scary as hell. After all, this is the man who plays two of TV’s reigning supervillains: The horny vamp leader on True Blood and a mysteriously deformed psychopath who just suffocated a potential homebuyer on American Horror Story. But today, in the back of homo-hot-spot Saint Felix in West Hollywood on his day off, O’Hare doesn’t project any of that eeriness.

So far during the debut season of the smash FX show, O’Hare, as the scarred weirdo Larry Harvey, has doused a house in gasoline, killed another man’s mistress and fought fervently for a home that’s become a tough sell — and not just because the economy sucks.

“I don’t think he’s evil,” O’Hare says. “He’s acting out of a particular desire for something. For me, all characters have a justification for their behavior; they always think that what they’re doing is necessary for a reason. Even the Phantom of the Opera has a real reason: He was in love with someone, he was scarred, he wants love and revenge.”

O’Hare orders a smorgasbord of nibbles in between talking of Ryan Murphy’s AHS, the upcoming season of True Blood and the foster child he’s caring for with husband Hugo Redwood, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Holding his phone up, O’Hare flips through photos of his family, looking for the one of the kid flashing his happy-as-can-be grin. Like O’Hare’s partner, the actor’s nearly year-old baby is black, and when he comes upon one pic — of the boy atop O’Hare’s lap and a friend’s child, who’s white, sitting on Redwood — he finally breaks into a maniacal smirk.

“We’re the right wing’s worst nightmare,” O’Hare says. “Wrong color baby on the wrong person’s lap — oh my god!”

And you thought Larry was scary.

Before getting the call from Murphy, who desperately wanted O’Hare to take on Larry, the actor was already creeping out audiences on True Blood as Russell Edgington, the ancient former vampire king of Mississippi.

Premiering next summer, Season 5 will see the return of the Master of Nutcases, when the 2,800-year-old bloodsucker makes a comeback after skipping out on the last go-’round. What’s to become of him after rising from the cement he was buried under?

“Nothing I can share,” O’Hare says, noting a recent lunch he had with out True Blood mastermind Alan Ball, also the creator of Six Feet Under. “We talked about what’s going to happen and I was definitely surprised. It’s good stuff. It’s always good stuff. With him, and with Ryan, they don’t go to obvious places. They go where you wouldn’t expect them to go.”

And so does O’Hare. The actor, who’s actually down-to-earth and chatty, is good at playing bad. He was relentless at getting Sandra Bullock kicked out of the country in rom-com The Proposal, and played way against type in Milk as Sen. John Briggs, who proposes a California ballot initiative to outlaw gay and lesbian teachers.

Recently, O’Hare had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in the Hoover biopic J. Edgar, a chance to work again with Clint Eastwood (O’Hare starred alongside Angelina Jolie in Changeling as, what do you know, a psych-ward bad guy).

O’Hare, who turns 50 next month, got his start while growing up in Michigan, where he sang in the choir and, in 1974, landed a chorus part in a community theater production of Show Boat. He parlayed his humble beginnings into a Broadway career — in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in 2004, then scoring a Tony Award for his performance in Take Me Out. In January, O’Hare heads back to New York stage where he’ll act in An Iliad, off-Broadway run, before heading back to L.A. for more of True Blood.

The best part of being in NYC? Seeing his family. O’Hare married Redwood, an interior designer, over the summer, and the two have been caring for their foster child since April.

“I could’ve gone to my grave without having kids, but I came around to liking the idea,” O’Hare admits, noting he warmed up to the thought after seven years of talks with Redwood. “As a gay man, I find my biggest stumbling block was my own homophobia, my own sense of feeling that gay people shouldn’t have kids. I felt pressure from society that we’re not supposed to have kids” — not to mention, he adds, that once you do, it’s like wearing a gay yarmulke — “and I was also shy about being a spokesperson for gay adoption.”

And now he’s the gushing father who’s looking for just the right pic to show off the kid’s smile. His foster child laughs a lot, but how could he not? “I speak to him in bad French,” O’Hare says, “and he dies.”

O’Hare’s encounters with gay couples and their kids helped him shake off his internalized homophobia, something he says is difficult to diagnose in ourselves, and he finally accepted the idea of having his own with Redwood. “It’s been normalized for me,” he says, deliberating. “But it’s like being married. It’s so hard to say the word ‘husband’ at first. I say ‘partner,’ and then suddenly realize if I say ‘husband,’ it might be aggressively political. But then it’s like, what the fuck? What else am I gonna say? He’s my husband. We are legally married.”

Part of  his hesitation is that common desire not to be defined by his sexual orientation.

“For me, an actor is an actor. Years ago someone said to me, ‘How do you feel about being a gay actor?’ I said, ‘I’m not a gay actor. I’m an actor. I’m Irish. I’m an atheist. And a bridge player. I ride my bike. And I’m gay.’”

He fits right in on the set of American Horror Story, one of the gay-friendliest projects he’s ever worked on. No surprise there: This is a Ryan Murphy production.

“I’ve met more lesbian gaffers on Ryan’s show than I’ve ever met anywhere else in my life!” O’Hare explains with delight.

When O’Hare was sent the script directly from Murphy back in March, just a few weeks before shooting was set to begin, he was immediately intrigued. The show takes cues from many of his favorite horror classics and the legendary names behind them: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi.

“What I think is great about the show is that Ryan’s kind of consciously quoting from great works,” he says. “‘Don’t go in the basement’ is one of the biggest horror tropes, or ‘don’t open the door’ — they’re all horror tropes, and he’s using all of them in a really cool way. And I hear some people say, ‘Well, it’s unrealistic. Who’d stay in the house?’ That’s just a given. Let’s just let them stay in the house.”

Now he’s starting to sound a lot like Larry, who’s so insistent that the Harmons stick around, you wonder what the dude’s got up his sleeve. “I think Larry has a very clear overarching goal, which is redemption and release,” O’Hare says, “and that is all tied up in the house.”

For O’Hare, the role requires three-and-a-half hours of makeup, transforming the actor’s face into the questionable burn victim and leaving him with only half his hearing and sight. On the first day of shooting, Murphy walked him through Larry’s limp and shriveled arm. “He’s got the vision in his head, so he had to be very clear about what we should to do and I like that about him — he’s a very clear director.”

That helps, but with True Blood, O’Hare knew what he wanted for Russell Edgington.

“I felt no need to make Russell act gay, because he is gay,” he says, adding that because the vamp’s so ancient, homosexuality didn’t even really exist then. “I know as a gay man I don’t have to demonstrate that I’m gay. The fact that I’m sleeping with a man is the demonstration.”

And that’s gay?

O’Hare smiles big and non-creepy smile. “Not always, but for the most part.”

— Chris Azzopardi

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas