Photo by Daniel Cheon
Written by Alexander Cheves
Something rare happened yesterday. Gays lined up outside the Trustees Theater to see “The Normal Heart,” HBO’s 2014 film adaption of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play, excited to see Matt Bomer and gossiping about each other in the waiting line. Afterward, we left as brothers, nodding at each other, wiping our eyes.
Aside from the powerhouse performances, the best part of the film is its frank portrayal of gay male life in the early 1980s: a world of sex, drugs, and free love. As a closeted minority, we had our parties, our culture. We weren’t going to get anyone pregnant – it was time for fun. The film starts with Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) arriving on Fire Island for a sex-charged beach weekend in 1981. On the way home, he reads a strange newspaper headline: “Rare Cancer Diagnosed In 41 Homosexuals.”
That number would multiply to thousands dead before three years had passed, without any recognition from the U.S. government. Ned Weeks’ character is mostly autobiographical — Kramer, who wrote the screenplay, was one of the earliest activists to accuse the United States of ignoring AIDS (first called the Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease) simply because it affected gay men. Ruffalo gives manic fury to Ned, while Julia Roberts shines as a fierce nurse who recognized the start of an epidemic.
Matt Bomer appeared after the film, along with President of HBO Films Len Amato. They took questions from the audience. I raised my hand.
I said, “I’m president of SCAD’s gay and lesbian student support group, and I’ve found that when reaching out to my peers about HIV, the only images they’ve seen of it are movies like this one that show the early days of HIV/AIDS but don’t mention what life with HIV today is like. Living with HIV today is very different than it was even 30 years ago. Film is a tool to tell a historical story and for education, and I was just wondering how, as filmmakers, did you address that question? How do you choose to educate on the reality of HIV today or to focus on the film as a historical timepiece?”
Mr. Amato responded. “I think the idea was that if you make the best movie possible that’s accurate to the period, that’s accurate to what was going on, that has a high degree of authenticity and truth, that would serve as the best learning tool for where we are today,” he said. “The quickest way to drag the movie into the ground is to say you want this movie to be a kind of a lesson. That’s what puts people to sleep. You want to make a movie and you want people to be entertained and inquisitive. I think one of the aspects of this for us was, if people were to learn of the history of the disease, be aware that the disease is not eradicated, be aware that it’s a worldwide epidemic, they would continue to get tested.”
“The Normal Heart” certainly didn’t put anyone to sleep. It was, in fact, the most honest and well-written film on gay life I’ve seen. The erotic intimacy between Ned and his lover, Felix (Bomer), finished with conversations that I’ve had with guys after sex: “Did you ever sleep with a girl?” “Yeah.” “Tell me about it.”
Still, it’s a plain fact that HIV is now a livable illness, not a death sentence, but nowhere in the film did they state this. With the success and popularity of films like “RENT” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” and with no modern representations of what HIV today is like, 20-somethings have grown up with a terror of HIV that only adds to its stigma. Stigma only hurts the spread, and ours is the demographic with the highest rate of new annual infections in the U.S.
Walking out, I was reminded that, although we never lived through the ’80s, we young gays are nevertheless products of this painful history. To embrace it is to bear the weight of so much oppression and the loss of an entire generation of men before us. Few of them lived to pass on any advice, but I think I know what they would say: that excitement is worth more than fear, and coming together in remembrance is almost as important as coming together in hope.