The Normal Heart is not a movie that you should watch on a long-haul flight (which is what I did). This is a movie that you need to watch somewhere quiet, with plenty of tissues, and a strong drink. I sobbed the entire way through this film — those ridiculous, weepy sobs that you try and hold in but can’t, the kind of wretched sobbing that makes people look at you weirdly. I kept pressing the call button for more red wine — the sympathetic stewardesses didn’t even need to ask me what I wanted, they could see the tears rolling down my face.
1981 was a long time ago. I was alive in 1981. I was nine years old. A different generation to the men portrayed in The Normal Heart. I remember the early reports of the “gay cancer”. I hadn’t identified as gay yet, but I remember the fear and the confusion as details began to emerge about this new virus — one of my aunts explained that she didn’t test lipstick in stores on the back of her hand anymore because she’d heard that you could catch the virus through any sort of physical contact.
Perhaps if you were some sort of movie purist you would try and separate out the questions of “Is The Normal Heart a good movie?” from the question of “Is The Normal Heart an accurate representation of the early stages of the HIV virus in New York City?” But for me, emotionally, it’s impossible to be that clinical.
I’m not exactly sure how historically or factually The Normal Heart is. I actually don’t care. There’s enough that rings true (from my own personal experiences) that this is a movie that leaves me emotionally devastated. This is based on Larry Kramer’s play, and both Kramer and Ryan Murphy are to be commended for capturing a lot of elements of gay life, gay relationships, and gay men, as I know and recognise them.
I’m not pretending to be any sort of expert in movies, but I thought Mark Ruffalo did a great job with a difficult character, Matt Bomer committed everything he had and it was great, Alfred Molina was perfect, and Julia Roberts brought her A-game to a fairly pivotal role in this story. Taylor Kitsch (John Carter; Battleship) was an interesting one — you’d have to think that this role in The Normal Heart was a risk for him career-wise, but he was good. He was still Taylor Kitsch but he committed to this performance and he committed to this movie. Jim Parsons also impressed me — he’s made his money on The Big Bang Theory, but he’s a proud gay man and he can fucking act, that impresses me.
As a gay man, after shedding a lot of tears and probably drinking too much red wine, I think you have to see The Normal Heart as more than just a movie, more than just an interesting time capsule of history. It really is essential viewing for all gay men. You can’t understand what being a gay man today means without understanding that roller coaster of sexual repression, sexual liberation, the onset of this virus, and the demonisation and marginalisation that occurred as a result.
To me, an example of that is Peter Tatchell. In my mind Peter Tatchell is very much a Ned Weeks character. Uncompromising, ready to name names, confronting hypocrisy, shaming people into taking action. It may not make us popular, but what else have we got?
Once I finally realised that I was gay (it was about 1983 and I was about 11), I knew that sex was dangerous, that gay men were dying, and that I needed to do whatever it took to not be gay.
Things are different now, there’s still no cure for HIV, but improved medication means that the virus probably won’t kill you, and preventative tools such as PrEP will reduce the number of new infections.
As gay men there is a lot that we can learn from the men portrayed in The Normal Heart — the fear, the anger, the sense of hopelessness as the world turned its back on us.
We owe it to the men who died, and the men who are still dying, to keep fighting. The fight is different now but the fight continues. We cannot be defined by this virus.