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HBO's 'The Normal Heart' Looks At The Early Days Of The AIDS Crisis


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Sunday night, HBO presents a new TV version of "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's 1985 play about the early years of the AIDS crisis. Kramer himself wrote the screenplay adaptation, which stars Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. Almost 30 years later, the drama is both presented and viewed differently. It almost has to be.

When Larry Kramer's play "The Normal Heart" was presented by New York's Public Theater in 1985, its inside out look at the early history of the spread of the HIV virus and AIDS was both a howl of pain and a call for action and help.

When a new production appeared in 2011, it won the Tony Award for best revival of a play. Now it's back again in a substantially revised made-for-TV movie on HBO. And one of the remarkable things about it is that nearly 30 years after it first was staged, "The Normal Heart" still seems both were a patent relevant.

For HBO, Kramer himself has written the screenplay adaptation. Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TVs "Glee" and "American Horror Story," is the director. Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, the character who's sort of a stand-in for the activist writer, Kramer. And the biggest name attached to the movie is that of Julia Roberts, who plays Emma Brookner, the doctor with polio who fights to identify and understand the spreading HIV fires before almost any of her peers. Other co-stars include Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory," who's reprising his role from the 2011 stage revival, and Matt Bomer of "White Collar and the movie, "Magic Mike," as well as Alfred Molina, Taylor Kitsch and Denis O'Hare.

All these actors betray characters in a drama that is about 50 percent true to the play and 50 percent reworked as new for HBO. The new opening, for example, is like a pre-age picture of gay culture, showing Ned Weeks and a bunch of friends and strangers descending upon Fire Island in 1981 for a very festive vacation.

The scene isn't at all gratuitous, though. It establishes the social environment in which HIV would spread so freely, and also alludes to one of Kramer's pre-play novels which was set there. But on the beach, one of the gay men drops suddenly to the sand, an early victim of a disease as mysterious as it was potentially fatal.

Ned, played Mark Ruffalo, visits the office of Dr. Brookner, played by Robert. He's there only to ask questions, but she spins around in her wheelchair, pushes him onto the examination and treats him like any other patient. He likes her directness and pushiness and she likes his even more.


JULIA ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) Who are you?

MARK RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) I'm Ned Weeks. I spoke to you after "The Times" article.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) Come in. Take your clothes off.

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) I only came to ask some questions.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) You are gay, aren't you?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Yes.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) Take your clothes off. Don't be nervous. I've seen more men than you have. To answer all of your questions, I don't know. I've never seen or heard of anything like this. Have you had any of the symptoms?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Most of the (bleep) "The Times" said, amoebas, gonorrhea, hepatitis. You know what it's been like since the sexual revolution.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) What make you think I don't? Any fever? Night sweats? Weight loss?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Don't I wish. No.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) And purple lesions? Open your mouth. It's a cancer. There's a strange reaction in the immune system. It's collapsed. Won't fight. So the diseases most of my patients are coming down with are brought on by terms that wouldn't hurt a baby.

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) I'm ticklish.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) At least not a baby in New York City anyway. And the immune system is the system we know the least about. Oh, where's this big mouth I hear you got?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Big mouth a symptom?

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) No. It's a cure.

BIANCULLI: "The Normal Heart" covers only a few years, during which the disease spreads rapidly, yet little is accomplished either medically or politically. Eventually, Jim Parsons, playing one of Ned's friends and activist allies, attends yet another memorial service for a dead, gay friend and vents his anger without once raising his voice.


JIM PARSONS: (as Tommy Boatwright) I have this tradition, it's something I do now when a friend dies. I save his Rolodex card. What am I supposed to do? Throw it away in the trash can? I won't do that. No, I won't. It's too final. Last year, I had five cards, now I have 50. A collection of cardboard tombstones bound together with a rubber band.

BIANCULLI: He goes on. And so does "The Normal Heart," watching and acknowledging as one of Ned's friends after another fights AIDS and dies. Many of them fight Ned in the process, unwilling to come out as gay or out others or spread the as yet unproven theory that the disease can be transmitted sexually. Ruffalo modulates his performance very well in channeling both the anger and the fear. And Roberts, in a few key scenes, is so pressure cooker angry that she makes her earlier activist movie role as Erin Brockovich look like a pushover.

A few scenes in this HBO drama are painted too heavily with the author's message brush. But in the best scenes, Murphy lets his camera sit back and record the dramatic action as it builds like a stage play, with each character throwing coal into the same fire. It's a drama studded with sensitive performances. And I don't think it matters at all, other than as some sort of evolutionary pop culture mark of progress - that Murphy and Bomer and Parsons are openly gay - or that Ruffalo is not gay.

Television, like the country, has matured since 1981 when "The Normal Heart" begins. The first depiction of AIDS on primetime dramatic TV came in 1983, when a patient was diagnosed with the HIV virus on NBC's "St. Elsewhere." NBC also did an excellent made-for-TV movie in 1985 called "An Early Frost" with Aidan Quinn as a gay man who, after contracting AIDS, goes home to out himself to his parents.

And HBO has a solid track record of exploring the subject with both documentaries and dramas, including its superb adaptation of the Broadway play, "Angels in America."

It's fair to say that television not only informed viewers about HIV and AIDS, it slowly but surely helped change national attitudes about it. Much too slowly - many would say, but the same could be said of the attitudes and actions dramatized and "The Normal Heart." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.