AIDS drama wears its ‘Heart’ on its sleeve
To win a war, you have to start one—and, with Julia Roberts and Matt Bomer in tow, that’s exactly what Mark Ruffalo does in Ryan Murphy’s “The Normal Heart,” shown on HBO last weekend. The exceptional drama based on Larry Kramer’s blisteringly polemical Tony-winning stage production about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the ’80s couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time.
Since the epidemic began in 1981, 36 million people have died from the virus—and 6,000 more are infected every day! In the Philippines alone, 1,825 new cases have been reported between January and April—and we’re just talking about those that have been diagnosed and reported. More disturbingly, nobody expects the alarming rise in morbidity and mortality to slow down any time soon—unless we stop shrugging it off as an issue that doesn’t concern us.
Before AIDS had been given its name, writer Ned Weeks (Ruffalo) knew that something drastic had to be done, because “something awful is going on out there.” In fact, when many of his gay friends started getting very sick, not even medical experts knew why.
So, when people contracted the unknown and much-feared virus, they were left unattended to in dingy hospital rooms, because medical staffers didn’t want to risk getting infected. With some prodding from Dr. Emma Brookner (Roberts), Ned channeled his activism into raising awareness for the disease, but his confrontational style turned people off.
He gathered his friends in the gay community to listen to a lecture about the so-called “gay cancer” by Emma, who told them to “stop having sex altogether, to prevent new transmissions.” But, her warning was met with outrage and resistance because, as one of Ned’s friends cheekily (and half-jokingly) pointed out, “A lot of marginalized gay men have singled out promiscuity as their single ‘political agenda’—because they think sex is all they have!”
Ned’s spot-on accusations and rancidly inflammatory outbursts scared the living daylights out of everybody—from his straight older brother, Ben (Alfred Molina), and advocacy partners (Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello), to former New York City mayor Ed Koch and ex-US president Ronald Reagan, who only publicly acknowledged AIDS four years after the health scare broke out (the following year, he called for an 11 percent reduction in AIDS spending)!
Weeks needed the mainstream media to get in on the action, but even gay New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Bomer), who would later become his lover, refused to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole for fear of “compromising” his job.
Movies that tackle “big” issues always tend to be too soggy or chatty, but despite its multi-character narrative threads that burst with melodramatic possibilities, the incisive HBO drama avoids cornball contrivances by keeping its focus uncluttered. Murphy captures a real sense of urgency that gives “The Normal Heart” its gritty appeal.
It’s never been easy to hide Julia Roberts’ movie star looks and million-dollar smile (“August Osage County” comes to mind), but the role of the polio-stricken Dr. Brookner enables the famous actress to snugly vanish into the role—warts, facial creases, eyebags and all.
The deglamorized superstar’s moving soliloquy directed at an apathetic city official should transform naysayers into believers. In one confrontation scene with a distraught Ruffalo, she turns her one-liner into a rallying cry for the hopeless: “Polio was a virus, too. Nobody gets polio anymore!”
The openly gay Bomer, who was once considered for the role of Superman, himself, turns in a thespic vanishing act that has him looking gorgeous one moment and terrifyingly emaciated the next! But, his achievement goes beyond physical transformation—he is the calm and sensible yin to Ruffalo’s fierce and feisty yang.
The performances of the supporting actors (Kitsch, Molina and Mantello, who played Ned on Broadway) are uniformly effective and affecting—but, it’s Ruffalo who keeps the complicated elements of the film together. Like the movie itself, he wears his heart on his sleeve. Weeks isn’t easy to play—he “outs” closeted men who refuse to see things his way and doesn’t mind crossing the line of political correctness just to get his message across!
But, Ruffalo, in his most vital portrayal to date, does the “impossible” by turning the indefatigable rabble-rouser into a vulnerable and likable advocate for equal rights. He doesn’t mind getting vilified as long as he gets things done because, as he explains, “You can’t stop fighting for the people you love!”
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