The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer is as mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more; powerful doesn’t do this movie justice.

I’ve heard people say that it seems like any movie about gay people will inevitably end in someone dying of AIDS but with the advent of ‘Love, Simon’, ‘Call Me By Your Name’, God’s Own Country’ and ‘The Weekend’ we are seeing more stories that focus on individuals and their relationships without them getting sick. However, the reality is that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is a major chapter in our history and if you don’t retell it, it gets forgotten – and it mustn’t be forgotten.

‘The Normal Heart’ is a valuable addition to the litany of movies that includes ‘Philadelphia’, ‘Angels in America’ and ‘Longtime Companion’. Where this movie differs is that it charts the rise of a movement as well as telling the very personal stories of the individuals involved.

‘The Normal Heart’ begins with our lead character Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) visiting the East Coast gay party central, Fire Island in 1981 for his friend Craig’s birthday.  Mark Ruffalo is playing a fictionalised version of the movies’ screenwriter (and activist) Larry Kramer. As they celebrate, Craig begins to exhibit symptoms that he is very ill.  From here, the movie then charts the genesis of a movement that led to the recognition of a global health pandemic and ultimately to its detection and treatment.  It’s semi-autobiographical in that all the main characters existed (though their names have been changed) but the events have been condensed and heightened to work effectively to tell the story in 2 hours.

One of the two central relationships of ‘The Normal Heart’ is between Ned and Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch).  They’re both desperate to help where no-one else will but they clash wildly on how to go about it.  Ned is an angry, loose cannon, unwilling to compromise while Bruce is more careful and conciliatory – the heart vs. the head.

Julia Roberts is Dr Emma Brookner, wheelchair-bound due to contracting Polio as a child. She is the catalyst that fuels Ned’s anger and indignation whilst also providing him with hope, ‘Polio is a virus and no one gets Polio any more’.  Her initial advice to gay men is that they should refrain from sex in order to survive.  While she is driven initially by logic, through getting to know the people setting up the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group she learns that there are larger, societal and political reasons why this advice is untenable.

Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatright really stood out for me, in a sea of anger and passion, he is the voice of calm and reason.   He’s the most relatable and it feels like he takes you by the hand and leads you through a story that often feels more like a war zone.

The wider political story here is juxtaposed with the effect that this new disease is having on the individuals.  The first, is the dramatic difference we see through Ned’s eyes of an acquaintance, Sanford, who he bumps into in the Dr’s waiting room, he has a couple of scars on his face ‘that keep getting bigger and won’t go away’.  A bit later on, Ned is visiting an isolation ward at the hospital and we see Sanford, totally alone, covered in scars and out of his mind in one of the rooms.  It’s also here that we see the inhumanity, driven by fear, that vulnerable people were subjected to by those meant to be caring for them.

The other central relationship is the love story between Ned and Felix Turner (Matt Bomer). Having met very briefly before, Ned is now more open and their relationship enables him to fall in love for probably the first time.  But like a character in a horror movie, the disease doesn’t discriminate between its victims and Felix soon finds a scar on his foot that ‘keeps getting bigger and doesn’t go away’.

Originally written as a play, there are half dozen instances when a character will give an impassioned speech and I felt that in this context it worked and didn’t seem stagey.   The speeches are immensely powerful, heartfelt and moving whilst punctuating the story and succinctly summarising where a character is at.

In the great honour roll of civil rights leaders, the ones fighting for LGBTQ+ rights are much less welll-known and so the stories of people such as Larry Kramer, Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones & Peter Tatchell require telling.  These people define ‘hero’ as they dedicate their lives fighting for the basic equalities that should be available to everyone despite being portrayed as a nuisance at best or a villain a worst.

Shamefully, their/our fight is still relevant today, nearly 40 years later.

28 May 2020 – Yesterday Mr Larry Kramer died aged 84; the LGBT community has lost one its true heroes. Fearless in the face of unabashed hatred, he fought for our very lives. One of the truly heartwarming things since yesterday has been the outpouring of genuine love for this man. RIP Larry x

Larry Kramer (1935-2020)
Larry Kramer (1935-2020)
StoryScreenplay by Larry Kramer, based on his own play
CastMark Ruffalo, as Ned Weeks
Matt Bomer, as Felix Turner
Taylor Kitsch, as Bruce Niles
Jim Parsons, as Tommy Boatright
Julia Roberts, as Dr Emma Brookner
DirectorRyan Murphy
Running Time132 mins

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (S1 & S2)

I came to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s work when stumbling across the ‘Gilmore Girls’ on Netflix, liking the first episode so much as to then commit to the next 150+ episodes over the next couple of years. What is great about the ‘Gilmore Girls’ is mainly the script, the lead character of Lorelei is annoying and palm-to-forehead-slappingly fickle but she’s charming and funny and loveable. However, it’s the relationship between Lorelei and her daughter Rory that is then the glue that holds the series together.

And now again, with ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’ we have another brilliantly written lead character who is in no way as annoying as Lorelei but at least as charming and even more funny, which is a good thing given her line of work. And here too, the relationship between Mrs (Midge) Maisel and her manager and reluctant friend, Susie is the key component.

The first season starts as Midge accompanies her husband to a seedy club, The Gaslight, as he attempts to kick-start a career in stand-up. He’s ok but nothing special. Later on, he walks out on his marriage and Midge finds herself on stage at the same club inadvertently tearing the house down with hilarious stories of her recent life. This first episode thus sets up the premise for the show as she independently carves a life on her own, getting a job whilst finding that she loves making people laugh and developing as a stand-up. Well, I say on her own, she lives with her very affluent parents and their maid so money isn’t a concern neither is having to worry about who will look after the kids.

The writing of this show really is incredible. Each time we see Midge in front of an audience, be it on purpose on stage or in some random, sometimes inappropriate situation, she is properly, laugh-out-loud funny. I watched this on my commute to work, and that can garner some strange looks from folks at 6.30am. But it’s not just the stand-up routines, it’s the interactions between the characters, the sadness, the frustrations, the banter, it’s all perfectly pitched.

Another ‘Gilmore Girls’ similarity is that the creators are superb in their casting. The lead roles typically going to relative newbies and some of the supporting cast are well-known character and Broadway actors. Rachel Brosnahan is a revelation (I haven’t seen the US version of ‘House of Cards’) and inhabits the role with the vulnerability and confidence it requires.

In support are Alex Borstein as Susie and Tony Shalhoub as her father. There’s also a brilliant cameo by Jane Lynch as a very established and successful fellow stand-up that crosses over the latter end of season one well into season two. There are some wonderful touches too such as with the appearance of the original stand-up, Lenny Bruce who pops up throughout both seasons. He acts as Midge’s mentor and guide, there’s a very delicate flirtation between them that’s never going any further than an affectionate witty remark but it’s lovely to watch.

I don’t know if it’s because they did search a sterling job in portraying Midge’s husband Joel as so fickle, directionless and unreliable but I really didn’t know if I wanted them to get back together. It sometimes seemed like they’re meant to be together (especially when you see some lovely flashbacks) but I also thought… she can do much better. However, the over-riding theme of this show is showing Midge shine as an individual and so a love interest could detract from that.

Much in the same way that ‘Mad Men’ pulled off the 1950’s style so well, this shows plops you directly into that era. Don Draper could easily walk past Midge & Susie on 5th Avenue or turn up to The Gaslight with one of his lady friends. Also, when they leave New York in season two for a few episodes to go to Paris and then later to the Catskills, the styling again is perfect.  I was talking to an American friend of mine recently who told me that his parents got together whilst on vacation at the Catskills in the 1950s, his story grounded what I saw on screen with a touch of reality.  Then there are the odd random musical numbers and we’re whisked away to an MGM, Gene Kelly movie for a few minutes.

The music choices in season two are especially a work of genius. I don’t know how they thought to use contemporary tracks to end episodes but it works SO well in that they compliment what you’ve just seen and it doesn’t make it seem odd to hear a 80’s track from the Pet Shop Boys singing out a show set in the 50’s.

I’m very much looking forward to season three, and I hear there’s a story arc right up to a possible season five.

NetworkAmazon Prime Video
CastRachel Brosnahan, as Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel
Alex Borstein, as Susie Myerson
Michael Zegen, as Joel Maisel
Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman
Tony Shalhoub, as Abraham ‘Abe’ Weissman
SeasonS1 (2017): 8 episodes
S2 (2018): 10 episodes
S3 (2019): 8 episodes