The Normal Heart: One of TV's Best Portrayals of Gay Romance, Ever

Ryan Murphy's moving HBO film about the early AIDS crisis, unlike the play from which it's adapted, runs on love, not anger.
HBO / Jojo Whilden

Since it debuted in 1985, Larry Kramer's incendiary play The Normal Heart has first and foremost been associated with rage. Its central character, Ned Weeks—a thinly veiled but egoless version of Kramer—channels the kind of blistering fury that ignites everything in its immediate path. Kramer wrote the play before President Reagan had ever publicly acknowledged the existence of AIDS but after several thousand men, a number of whom were his close personal friends, had died of a mysterious "gay cancer." Ned's rage at the apathy and hostility he encounters while trying to publicize the emerging plague is extraordinarily potent, but it still isn't enough.

The Ryan Murphy-directed HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart, airing Sunday at 9 p.m., does its best to channel the intensity of Ned's blinding, uncomprehending anger. Mark Ruffalo offers a tight, deliberately understated turn as someone who, in the midst of what feels like a war, finds true love and then loses it.

But Murphy's unexpectedly rich portrayal of Ned's love affair with Felix (Matt Bomer) ends up eclipsing rage as the defining emblem of the film. If TV doesn't quite have the same potential as theater does for letting an audience tap into Ned's anger, Murphy’s adaptation makes up for it by offering a much more detailed portrait of romance—one of the most emotionally honest depictions of two men falling in love ever seen on television.

Fuelled but not defined by the urgency of the plague around them, Ned and Felix meet, have a painfully awkward first date during which Ned manages to defy most standards for socially acceptable behavior, move in together, and even get "married" in an unofficial ceremony by Felix's hospital bed.

And, yes, they sleep together. In an interview with the New York Times, Kramer alleged that the movie had been held up for so long because of squeamishness about portraying graphic sex scenes; Barbra Streisand, who owned the film rights and intended to play Emma Brookner, the doctor who treats some of the virus's earliest cases, was apparently uncomfortable with the subject. Thank heavens for Murphy, then, who seems to understand how integral sex is to love. He draws raw pathos from Ned and Felix's first night together, making it as much an emotional coupling as a physical one.

As the film opens, Ned is shown on the periphery of gay culture at a rowdy beach party on Fire Island. He's shunned by some for a novel he wrote criticizing promiscuity, but he's also a self-imposed outcast, uncomfortable and socially repressed in a new world of shaved chests, naked sunbathing, and gleaming, cartoonish muscles. When Dr. Brookner (an exceptional Julia Roberts) finally alerts him to the existence of a rare cancer that's destroying the immune systems of gay men in New York, you could uncharitably argue that one reason for Ned's urgent attachment to the cause is his discomfort with the liberated, hypersexualized culture his friends have embraced. Preaching the virtues of abstinence is nothing new for Ned, who wrote in his book that "having so much sex makes love impossible."

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Sophie Gilbert is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees The Atlantic Weekly. She was previously the arts editor at The Washingtonian.

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