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Ambitions of The Normal Heart

Monday 9th June 2014

HBO has become somewhat of a haven for Hollywood filmmakers and more open attitudes to sexuality and representation in recent years. The most memorable statement of late is, of course, renowned filmmaker Steven Soderbergh announcing his retirement from the profession, only to release Behind the Candelabra – his long-gestating Liberace biopic – as a TV-movie on the network soon after (a project previously stuck in development purgatory due to Hollywood studios fearing it “too gay” to fund).

The Normal Heart is as much about the cultural struggles of homosexual life in the 1980s as it is about the Aids epidemic.

Photo: HBO

Most recent to take the television route is Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart, an adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Tony award-winning play on the outbreak of Aids in New York City, which premiered on HBO (or on Soho for New Zealand audiences) last week. Boasting a star-stuffed ensemble led by Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, and backed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production outfit, the initial kneejerk question is why Murphy and co wouldn’t have tried their hand at a theatrical release somewhere around Oscar season.

But as we consider the dissolve between Hollywood prestige and small-screen stature, not to mention HBO’s more liberal policies on commercial incentives and the “edgier” content of their properties, the advantages of working within this platform are only becoming more obvious by the year.

I found it difficult not to reflexively measure The Normal Heart against Hollywood’s most recent depiction of the Aids epidemic Dallas Buyers Club, but doing so seemed to illuminate what was so valuable about Murphy’s film in contrast to the tendencies of mainstream cinema. My feelings on Dallas Buyers Club had always been mixed: I found much to admire in both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s central performances and appreciated the wily humor texturing most of the beats, but my chief issue was that the film was yet another example of history filtered through a more “palatable” prism for mainstream audiences.

On the other hand, writing in the Advocate, Parker Marie Molloy highlights the issues with Jared Leto playing a trans* women: “when was the last time anyone saw a transgender woman portrayed on-screen as a t-shirt and jeans-wearing, makeup-free accountant? Or how about as an advertising executive, or maybe a doctor?”

Essentially, Dallas Buyers Club was to homosexuality what The Help was to civil rights: a well-meaning sympathy vehicle structured around a straight (or white) crutch to make the broader majority feel more comfortable. At first, seeing a bigoted asshole inadvertently provide an invaluable service made for a pretty interesting character study. But as the film veers into scenes like that in which McConaughey emotes that he wants his life to mean something while Jennifer Garner nestles her head into his shoulder, or where a humbled McConaughey enters a room to thundering applause, it became apparent that the film was as much about straight, white self-congratulation as it was about understanding the context of those most affected in that time period.

as much as I understand the cynicism of those who draw up the network’s penchant for graphic violence, explicit sex and colorful language as mere shock value, the very fact there’s a platform where the mention of a love scene between two men won’t send a studio executive running to the editing suite is something to be commended

The Normal Heart is rife with problems of its own, of which didacticism and histrionics are two of the most significant, but it’s thankfully devoid of a central cipher for straight audiences to “identify” with (largely because such a thing is totally antithetical to the point at hand). This is a film as much about the cultural struggles of homosexual life in the 1980s as it is about the epidemic that plagued it. 

We are exposed to a climate thick with frustration and pain, and while Kramer’s roots in theatre means most of that is inevitably channelled through either quietly emotional releases or thunderous monologues of outrage, for virtually every actor on board it’s an atmosphere affectingly palpable in its proximity.

How one reacts to emotionally charged melodrama or recurrent episodes of righteous anger in general will play a large part in their response to the material here, but I have no reservations about admitting being reduced to a blubbering mess by the end of it. It’s a film that’s certainly blunt in its ambitions, but also, one that certainly has every right to be.

From the tension surrounding the socio-political ethos of the sexual revolution, to the agonising alienation of being ignored in suffering, The Normal Heart is undoubtedly effective at making us feel the agony, fury and extreme isolation of this historical chapter, and not at the more comfortable remove that a conventionally-masculine, drawling cowboy might provide. In fact, having some figure to “identify” with really is a pretty offensive conceit when you consider that America’s inability to do just that with the homosexual population is the chief source of this pain to begin with.

I realise that I blow the trumpet for HBO an awful lot, but as much as I understand the cynicism of those who draw up the network’s penchant for graphic violence, explicit sex and colourful language as mere shock value, the very fact there’s a platform where the mention of a love scene between two men won’t send a studio executive running to the editing suite is something to be commended.

I’ve totally noticed in the past how often HBO shows, in particular, seem to have a quota for breasts or gory ends per episode, but I think the network are only in part responsible for how gratuitously their show-runners wield that freedom. The Normal Heart exemplifies how this space can also be used for fleshier representations of demographics previously compromised; for gradually breaking down barriers of identification to seek something more universally resonant and human in the ache; for cinema or television as an “empathy machine” as Roger Ebert so brilliantly put it. I think I can put up with another season of True Blood for that.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.



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When he isn't writing about film or television, Judah avidly watches it, discusses it and attempts to pen his own for the screen. He graduated from Victoria University with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Media Studies, and has yet to adjust his lifestyle.
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