The 2014 film The Normal Heart, written by Larry Kramer, is a recreation of Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart. With a star filled cast, The Normal Heart is a beautiful drama that shows the unfortunate troubles of gay men at the start of and through the rise of the AIDS epidemic. Although this film existed in play form first, it was recreated as a way to reach a larger audience and show how seriously terrifying and mysterious the AIDS epidemic was for those living through it.
The Normal Heart starts off by showing the sexual liberty gays have recently acquired along with the happiness from their freedom. But the film quickly changes tone once gays realize they are being diagnosed with a rare and nebulous homosexual cancer. Once the main character, Ned—an openly gay writer, has a friend who becomes infected with this gay cancer, they start to seek out help. At this point, they go to Dr. Emma Brookner who is the one of the only doctors willing to work with patients infected with this mysterious disease. Dr. Brookner is looking for someone to be a leader and share her information with gay men; she finds Ned to be that man. At a meeting with Dr. Brookner, Ned, and many other gay men, Dr. Brookner shares her research and information with these men about how she thinks the cancer is sexually transmitted, and that the men should “cool it” because there is a high chance they will infect each other and die. The sexually liberated men scoff at her, but Ned knows how serious this disease is and decides to start an organization to get help and raise awareness for the disease. The rest of the film focuses on the development the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) organization intermixed with the personal struggles the gay men are facing at this time. The GMHC becomes one of the leading fighters to get support politically, publicly, and medically to combat the gay disease.
The film does not strictly focus on the disease, but also how this disease affects the personal lives of the gay men at the time. As if gay men weren’t already misunderstood enough, the gay cancer (which we now know is AIDS) adds another level of the struggles gay men face. The film depicts how gays during this time receive little to no help from anyone apart from other gays, how they become more feared than ever due to the rise of this mysterious cancer, how being gay is still full of doubt, fear, and confusion in addition to this crisis, and how it still is not safe nor secure to be openly gay to the public.
Although this film is largely about the AIDS epidemic, it still showcases many things presented in our sexuality unit. One specific aspect from our unit that The Normal Heart focuses on is Ned’s sexuality, his understanding of it, and his relationship with his family because of it. Until the latter half of Ned’s life, he always believed his sexuality was wrong; he had been told a plethora of times that he could change his ways, become straight, and finally be normal. This is very similarly to our reading of Merle Miller’s “What It Means To Be a Homosexual,” where he says,
I have spent several thousand dollars and several thousand hours with various practitioners, and while they have often been helpful in leading me to an understanding of how I got to be the way I am, none of them has ever had any feasible, to me feasible, suggestion as to how I could be any different.
In both cases, we see that these gay men realized that no amount of therapy can change who they are; although it may be a more stressful life, they know who they are, what they are, and nothing is going to change that. In fact, we even see that after this epiphany, both individuals become happier and more at peace with themselves.
We also get to see how gayness crosses over to family life with Ned and his brother, Ben. Ben is a lawyer at a very successful law firm and Ned is seeking his assistance for the GMHC. Ned believes that the support of not just his straight brother, but Ben’s straight company will drastically help their movement. On the other hand, Ben thinks that the “straightness” of him and his company will not make a difference. It is at this point that Ned realizes his brother still doesn’t see him as a healthy equal, that Ben still thinks he is “sick,” and that his brother still doesn’t understand him, even though he accepts him; this is exactly the struggle Martha Shelley describes in “Gay is Good.” Here, Shelley explains that she is sick of liberals saying that it doesn’t matter who sleeps with whom, but what one does outside of bed; to her, this isn’t good enough anymore. She states,
[w]e want something more now, something more than the tolerance you never gave us. But to understand that, you must understand who we are. . . I will tell you what we want, we radical homosexuals: not for you to tolerate us, or to accept us, but to understand us.
In the heat of Ned and Ben’s argument, we hear a very similar frustration expressed by Ned towards Ben’s understanding and acceptance of Ned. Ben tolerates and accepts Ned, but he doesn’t truly understand Ned which, as Shelley agrees, is not good enough for Ned.
In yet another example from the film that connects to our unit, we see that to many in the straight world, one’s sexuality is extremely important and can influence someone’s opinions or actions towards a homosexual. During this time, Ned is one of the few open, politically active gay men; many of the other GMHC are closeted out of fear of having their lives ruined from the rest of the world not accepting them. Even the mayor and his assistant are gay, but they neglect the epidemic due to the potential of them being outed even though they are struggling through the epidemic themselves. As we saw from Joseph Epstein, he stated in “Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity” that,
[f]or this reason, and from an absolutely personal point of view, I consider it important [to] know whether a man I am dealing with is a homosexual or [not].
In a scene in the hospital at which Dr. Brookner works, we see this exemplified when a maintenance worker won’t go into the gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) section of the hospital to fix a TV because his union says he “doesn’t have to risk his life over some contagious fairy.” Another situation like this occurs when two gay men, one of them severely sick with the disease, are asked to leave a plane they are on because the pilot will not fly while they are still on the plane. These scenarios truly demonstrate the struggles gay men faced during this time period.
The Normal Heart is quite an outstanding film that explains a difficult period for gay men. The story encapsulates many of the struggles gay men have faced to get to the point they are today in a powerful story that can open the eyes to many who do not know about or who who do not understand the struggles gay men have gone through. Because of its excellent depiction, I highly recommend this film and believe it rightly deserves its place in this archive.
To get a glimpse of the film, here is the trailer: