Even as Larry Kramer, the lifelong gay activist, worked with producer and director Ryan Murphy on the HBO adaptation of Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart, which premieres May 25, Kramer kept asking the question: Why did it take so long? Why, he lamented, did it take so long to make the play into a film?
For Kramer, now 78, The Normal Heart — set in the early, terrifying days of AIDS when gay men in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles were dying of mysterious and rare diseases like Kaposi’s sarcoma — was always more than just a play. Its plot told of how Ned Weeks, Kramer’s alter ego, rallied then alienated his fellow gay activists who banded together in the battle against AIDS. It also served as a furious denunciation of the institutions — from The New York Times to the New York mayor’s office to the federal government — that Kramer blamed for initially ignoring the escalating epidemic; it was an urgent call for gay men to fight back to save their lives; and, nearly 30 years before the Supreme Court opened the door to federal recognition of same-sex marriage, it envisioned a world in which two gay men could wed.
But despite the support of high-profile directors and actors — at various times Barbra Streisand, John Schlesinger, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes have been attached or interested — for nearly three decades the film adaptation remained in limbo. In part, it fell victim to Hollywood’s timidity about telling gay stories in general and AIDS dramas in particular — and Kramer’s play is a fiercely, explicitly polemical work. “Way back then, it just felt like an incredibly depressing tale that looked as if it would appeal only to a narrow demographic corridor,” says one source familiar with the project’s history. “It was viewed as a major downbeat story that didn’t seem to have any wide appeal.” And, too, Kramer never was the easiest collaborator. In 2012, recounting the years he and Streisand put into trying to make a movie version, Kramer accused her of lacking “the burning passion to make it,” a charge she resoundingly rejects. “It was hard for me to be attacked like that by Larry. I worked for so many years on it without ever taking a penny,” Streisand told THR recently. “I will always believe in Larry’s play and its powerful theme of everyone’s right to love.”
And so the property languished until Murphy, who’d broken ground by injecting gay storylines into his TV series Glee and The New Normal, came along in 2009. After winning Kramer’s trust, he sold the project to HBO with a blue-chip cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch. “Larry had his heart broken so many times,” says Murphy, “I promised him I would not stop until it got made.”
The Normal Heart had never been an easy sell. “It was a fight for Larry from the very beginning,” remembers Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who directed the original stage production, which bowed at the Public Theater on April 21, 1985. “At first, nobody wanted to produce it. People were frightened, worried that it would hurt their careers.”
Back then, mystery and misinformation surrounded the disease. While the play was still in rehearsals, the director recalls, he attended a party where he was introduced to a man who asked what he was working on. After shaking hands, Lindsay-Hogg explained he was directing a new play about AIDS. The man took a step backward, rubbing his hand against his pants leg. “There was a great deal of ignorance, a great deal of fear,” Lindsay-Hogg says.
At first wary straight theatergoers stayed away. The play appeared so early in the epidemic, when a scared public could dismiss AIDS as a “gay disease,” it almost was a work of reportage. But almost immediately, he found an enthusiastic supporter in Streisand, who was eager to direct a film version in which she’d play the key supporting role of the polio-stricken doctor who becomes one of Ned’s few straight allies. “It’s a fabulous, fabulous play and I thought it could make a great movie,” says Streisand, who optioned the rights by 1986. “It was so ahead of its time in terms of understanding gay marriage. I wanted it out in 1987. Everyone who goes into that play comes out understanding why you want to get married to someone.”
Even today, she can recount the opening sequence she imagined for her version, introducing the characters as they go about their lives in New York, not revealing each of the men is gay until they meet in a doctor’s office. To underline the politics of the time, she intended to show in the background TVs playing images of President Ronald Reagan — who infamously did not utter the word “AIDS” until September 1985, four years into the epidemic.
Streisand and Kramer quickly fell into arguments over the direction of the script. She insisted it needed to be opened up to make it more cinematic. They fought over other things like how quickly Ned and Felix, the New York Times reporter whom Ned comes to love, should fall into bed. Years dragged on as they worked their way through various drafts until Streisand decided to bring in another writer, Ramsey Fadiman, who’d written for the TV series thirtysomething.
By the mid-’90s, Streisand, who had a deal at Columbia, felt the script almost was ready. While she originally had thought Dustin Hoffman should play Ned, she talked to Kenneth Branagh about the role, with Ralph Fiennes playing Felix. But a green light proved elusive, and Streisand went on to direct and star in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
A number of smaller independent films (Parting Glances in 1986, Longtime Companion in 1989) and the occasional TV movie (like 1985’s An Early Frost) had grappled with the growing epidemic. And in 1993, Columbia’s sister company, TriStar Pictures, released Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Hanks’ portrayal of a gay man fired for having AIDS won him a best actor Oscar and the film grossed $207 million at the worldwide box office.
Says Ruffalo, who plays Kramer’s alter ego, “Larry is the godfather of modern activism, breaking a little bit free from the civil rights movement and reinventing it, and that’s had an impact on the activism that I’m involved in today, from fracking to climate change to abortion rights.”
But the studios continued to shy away from the much franker, far more incendiary Heart, which went so far as to accuse then-mayor Ed Koch of being a closeted gay man. Refusing to give up, Streisand meanwhile had turned to Schlesinger, telling him if he’d take over directing Heart, she would still be willing to play the doctor. “John thought it was a great theater piece and he and Larry worked together for several months in our living room in Los Angeles,” says his partner, Michael Childers (Schlesinger died in 2003). Laurence Mark and David Picker came aboard as potential producers, and more actors, including Richard Gere, entered the discussions. “But then it just sort of fell apart,” says Childers.
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