In this scene from Ryan Murphy’s 2014 adaptation of Larry Kramer’s polemical 1985 play, The Normal Heart, I am reminded how radical the call for normal once was. Ned Weeks (the fictional Larry Kramer) approaches his brother, Ben, seeking funding for his AIDS crisis organization. Ben cannot yet accept that he and his brother are alike, leading Ned to forcefully assert that it is Ben and straight America’s refusal to see gay men as normal that will lead to an ever increasing number of deaths.
But normalcy needs its deviancy to survive. Gay love is normal; gay sex is not. Kramer’s own views of gay promiscuity are legendary, and ground much of the play. Murphy makes a number of choices that reinforce this view of normalcy, effectively silencing the complex histories of the past 30 years. He foregrounds the love story between Ned and Felix through casting choices and the visual spectacle of Matt Bomer’s (Felix) weight loss. Felix’s love for Ned reunites Ned and Ben, allowing Ben to witness a makeshift exchange of marriage vows between the couple on Felix’s deathbed. The film invites us to see the progress between this moment and the “New Normal” Murphy imagines – marriage, babies, upper-class comfort.
Gay sex is still taboo. Ned tries to brush off his brother’s disgust at what he sees on TV by insisting that it is a fringe part of gay culture. Ned/Kramer is fine with sex as meaningful, but not as casual. Murphy’s choices in filming the play’s sex scenes visually highlight this view. Ned and Felix’s “love” scene begins with urgency, but continues with tenderness and intertwined bodies in the bedroom. But a bathhouse and group “sex” scene are shot in highly stylized ways, one as a cheesy infomercial, one as a dreamlike sequence, that distance us as viewers and reinforce sex outside of the private sphere as deviant. These choices swirl around the rumors that the movie took so long to make it to the screen because of its sexual content. Thirty years later there is still so much about gay culture that does not count as normal. In 1985 a definition of normalcy was recognized as key to fighting a disease that linked gayness to death. But in stressing the telos of the new normal, the film can't acknowledge that its version of normal continues to stymie efforts to fight AIDS/HIV.