The "New Normal" Heart

Curator's Note

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.


Our posts echo one another very nicely and we didn't even plan for that! I like your reminder that normalcy was once a radical thought. That's easy to forget considering how widespread and nearly stifling the call for normalcy is today, especially in media representations. I hadn't noticed the different formal characteristics of the various sex scenes, so thank you for pointing out those differences. Your observations remind me of Philadelphia, which only has one very fleeting scene of gay intimacy (a flashback in which Andy recalls sex with another man in a movie theater), which is also filmed in a dreamlike, distancing way. I'd say the reason why certain aspects of gay culture don't count as normal today is precisely because they were reinforced as deviant during the AIDS crisis in the '80s.

Like Melanie, I was really struck by your observation about the dream-like nature of the sex scene. Brilliant close reading! Kramer's recollections are not always so dreamy and your post really has me thinking through the politics of crafting his stark realism as more formally fantastic. Of course, the visual appeal of this makes plenty of sense in the televisual context. One thing that I'll give The Normal Heart, that is not as readily transparent in a film like And the Band Played On, is that one really gets a sense of the centrality of pleasure and desire at the time, even in the face of a politically fraught and complicated world.

Thanks for you comments, Melanie and Jeff. I was really struck by the way the scenes were framed and filmed. It was hard to say much in 400 words! Melanie and Jeff, as I read your posts earlier I was excited to see how much they echoed each other. Like Jeff, the scene with Julia Roberts reminded me a lot of the clip from And the Band Played On. The scene with the closing elevator door further cemented her and Ned's prophet role. I agree, that the film/play really does acknowledge the world of pleasure. It does not shy away from this fact at all - and the speeches of the other characters provide an array of viewpoints on the crisis - even, if course, they are framed as wrongheaded, they are there to witness. Melanie, I agree, that it is at this moment (the mid 1980s) that we see the disarticulation of sex from gay identity. I had more to say about this, but, of course, ran out of space. I was working toward the point that it is precisely this normalization of monogamous committed sex as good and other sex as bad that continues to shape contemporary discourses, not just for gay men, but for women as well. Its sort of interesting to see The Normal Heart in post Sex and the City age - which queered heterosexual sex, and the in rise of hook-up apps. Our whole discourse around sex remans so convoluted.

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