Flashback Against AIDS: Retro-Activism in HBO's The Normal Heart

Curator's Note

Ryan Murphy’s 2014 adaptation of Larry Kramer’s 1980s stage play The Normal Heart translates a canonical cornerstone of early queer cultural politics to HBO’s subscription cable brand of quality gay and HIV/AIDS themed programming with a sexy, slick style associated with Murphy’s televisual authorship. The autobiographical period drama embeds layers of history and memory around activist-writer Kramer’s protagonist-double Ned Weeks. In the first date scene with Felix, a Midwestern transplant to Manhattan who now critiques culture for The New York Times, dialogue about a shared nostalgia for chintz and Weeks’ obsession with Holocaust history gives way to a highly edited flashback sequence of their first meeting at a bathhouse, recounted by Felix and forgotten by Ned. What begins as a pastiche of the historical ad for Man’s Country complete with a retro voiceover by a male announcer transitions into more "live action" memory, accompanied by a disco soundtrack and the haunting undertone of AIDS loss.  

The video clip here is the original ad which Murphy reconstructs in the HBO film using Ned and Felix as models.  The Normal Heart's faithful mimesis of the images, music, and voiceover evokes nostalgia for a pre-AIDS past of liberated sexuality and uncompromised masculinity.  The inevitable association of sex with death in representation of the 1980s crisis and early activist responses becomes a contentious site of division between Weeks and the Gay Men's Health Crisis, who fought too hard to fornicate freely just to give up in shame and abstinence.  Here sexuality is transgressive and dangerous, politically and medically, reinforced by the Award-winning makeup depicting the ravages of the disease.

The incorporation of the sex-charged commercial into Murphy's adaptation of Weeks' 1980s era play disrupts and diffuses the queer activist politics into nostalgic gay consumer desire for an edenic moment of 1970s sexual freedom and the hairy hunks of pinups past. Giving way to the scene of the first sexual encounter between Ned and Felix at Man's Country, followed by their more intimate recoupling, the commercial integrates with the foundational moment of the film's leading love story. Looking longingly through contemporary lenses at layers of tragedy, triumph, and taboo, Murphy delivers new audiences a beautified elegy to a monstrous moment.


Gabriel, I'm interested in this notion of nostalgia that you say the film works to evince, especially when we think about the layers of history and memory at work here. The 1980s characters Ned and Felix flashing back to the carefree pre-AIDS days, but on top of that is us in 2014 flashing back to terrifying days of early epidemic. The casting of Ruffalo and more importantly Matt Bomer really highlights how these layers of nostalgia are entangled with different attitudes toward sex and sexuality, since Bomer's "outing" was in the guise of a speech thanking his partner and children. His "good guy" star persona seems in many ways to be a poster for homonormativity. This works in some ways alongside Felix's belief in true love, sure, but it also adds interesting extratextual layers to the "Man's Country" flashback. Since T.J. brought up the idea of star readings on my post, and since I've brought up casting here, I want to ask also what you think about Ruffalo as Ned Weeks. When I first saw The Normal Heart, it was impossible not to think about Ruffalo's sexuality, and that colored my reading of Ned's vehement disavowals of indiscriminate sex. I'm curious to know what you think.

I'm fascinated by this Man's Country ad and Murphy's decision to incorporate it into his adaptation of A Normal Heart. The voice-over lacks any hint of suggestive sexuality while the singer in the disco song exclaims "You nasty!" Of course, the beauty of this is found in its innuendo and, as you say, Gabriel, it captures an irretrievable era of "liberated sexuality and uncompromised masculinity."

Thanks for your insights Bridget. Ruffalo is neither gay nor Jewish, but he is a Method actor who worked with Larry Kramer gaining his blessing and mannerisms. Matt Bomer's homonormativity certainly helped the straight lead gain a broader audience for a work of radical political theater transformed into Murphy/HBO brand consumer fetish of sex-drenched muscle bodies with a layer of quality AIDS programming. Thus the 2014 adaptation rewrites the urgency of the 80s play and characters into quality queerness made for subscription cable enjoyment. The number of stars studding this production, including Taylor Kitsch, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, and Jim Parsons, brings a whole baggage of artifice and masquerade. After all Kitsch, playing a closeted homonormative character, is also not gay, Roberts is neither disabled nor a doctor, Molina performs American rather than Brit, and Parsons is associated with his Big Bang character who is straight (despite the actor's now openly gay sexuality). So the casting choices clearly sell the adaptation to executives and audiences. It is the nostalgic consumer pleasure of the HBO film that bothers me more as an adaptation. Ruffalo as Weeks channels great anger, but the production tantalizes viewers with beautiful bodies and sequences undercutting Kramer's radical activist politics by selling a slicked up version of the past.

Thanks Molly! I too am fascinated by the faithful pastiche of this ad. Murphy chose the same music, but the voiceover and visual text are even more sex-charged than the original! The original ad itself offers a camp appeal to late 70s/early 80s gay men with knowing humor. Its incorporation into Murphy's film text adds an additional layer of camp nostalgia and knowing memory, designed both to evoke a lost era and remind survivors of their queer past. In this sense the ad serves less the homogenizing consumerist impulse of the HBO adaptation, and more as a unique address to older gay audiences who understand the context of the pastiche and are not alienated by raunchy bathhouse sex.

Following Nancy Reagan's memorial and Hillary Clinton's terrible gaffe about the Reagans' AIDS legacy yesterday, I wanted to revisit your post. It strikes me as bizarrely timely, but I wanted to figure out what it was more than just the theme of AIDS. I think in particular your emphasis on aesthetics - the "slicked up" version of history, as you say - is what strikes me as serving the same function as Clinton's gaffe. Both are examples of AIDS nostalgia that erases the grimy, bloody, deeply political, deeply sexual history. My intention isn't to open a debate about Clinton's suitability as a presidential candidate here, but I do wonder if you would attribute her gaffe to a similar cause?

Bridget, that is a great parallel. At the same time the layers of the HBO adaptation, part Murphy part Kramer, also show monstrosity, not just in the prosthetic grotesque of the disease meant to stir sympathy, fear, and loss, but in the dehumanizing Reaganite policies and ideologies which homophobically erased dignity, disease, and death. Normal Heart nostalgia comes from AIDS loss, seeking to regain a hedonistic empowering freedom for contemporary consumers with a stake in the fight against HIV and the history of the epidemic. So the nostalgic revisionism nonetheless carries a politically progressive, socially radical valence quite unlike the conservative whitewash of the Clinton-Reagan eulogy fiction. The shameless reclaiming of the sex-positive past in the Man's Country pastiche works contrary to the institutional propaganda which exculpates the Reagans of their homophobic legacy.

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