One day in January at the TV critics press tour in Los Angeles, Len Amato, president of HBO Films, sounded especially proud as he opened his presentation of a specific and major HBO production.
He said: "In 1981, an unknown disease began to ravage the gay community in New York City. Leaders and bureaucracies on both the local and national level were indifferent to the growing epidemic. In 1985, Larry Kramer debuted his groundbreaking play about those early years of the AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart, detailing the heroic struggle of a handful of people who knew the disease intimately and were determined to do something about it. And almost 30 years later, director Ryan Murphy has brought Larry Kramer's screenplay The Normal Heart to the screen for HBO."
Murphy is the co-creator of Glee and American Horror Story. He's clever, inventive and possibly the best person possible to adapt Kramer's play. The Normal Heart (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) is angry, heartbreaking, shocking, sometimes overcooked and sometimes poignant. All of those things. This production is also star-studded, with Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory in a leading role, along with Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.
This fine film, like the play, is about both the apathy of authorities and the tortured panic in the gay community as AIDS spread. It's about pain, loss and fighting back. Ruffalo plays the key character Ned Weeks (who represents Kramer himself), a gay man we first meet during one of those bacchanalian romps that still happened in 1981. Soon, we realize the days of romps are ending because, as Weeks realizes, many of his friends are becoming ill, and horrendously so.
Ned visits Dr. Emma Brookner (Roberts), an abrasive figure, wheelchair-bound from childhood polio, who is one of the few New York doctors treating early sufferers of HIV-AIDS. She has a blunt message for him: "I want you to tell gay men to stop having sex." The reality of HIV is slowly becoming clear to Weeks – it's spread by sexual contact. But there is no proof of that yet, and gay men are dying. Still, nobody really wants to know: The gay community is paranoid, resistant to change; the medical community is indifferent.
Weeks' task, he knows, is to set off alarm bells. He is angry, frustrated and full of rage as more men die and New York mayor Ed Koch and the Reagan administration remain unresponsive.
There are a handful of occasions when the movie's stage origins become clear – angry speeches are made and the drama is far from subtle, though heartfelt. But the main point is crystal clear: The initial panic could have been mitigated, and the establishment response was flavoured with cruelty. The Normal Heart is profoundly disturbing to watch.
Parsons, far from his Sheldon character on Big Bang, is at the emotional core of the drama, playing activist Tommy Boatwright, who's involved with the Gay Men's Health Crisis organization. He also played the role on Broadway, and it shows. Although new material has been added, Parsons is utterly at ease in what are some of the film's most searing scenes.
Back in January at the critic's tour, Parsons was asked about being an openly gay actor working mainly in mainstream TV. "Am I surprised to be able to be successful and on TV or whatever, a public medium, and be gay at the same time?" he asked back. "No. It's not that I didn't think about it, going into this career, but if I'm thinking about it in those terms, I guess I was really only ever anxious about the moment that the conversation would happen, and 'Is this still a deal?' It's a deal. It's a deal. And then it happened, and the conversation, it was out there as it was, and it was: 'Well, it's a deal like anything else, but it was no big deal.' And that was a relief, you know, because it was no big deal for me, obviously. Not to be general or glib about it, but you don't think of yourself as bringing gay qualities or straight qualities to a role."
At that point Julia Roberts interrupted with: "I'm just shocked that you're gay." Which brought the house down. And Parsons replied, "Oh, shut up." It was a light moment in a serious discussion about a serious subject, about death and despair and how, for a time, as The Normal Heart illustrates, nobody cared much.
Also airing this weekend
Girl Model (Sunday, CBC NN, 10 p.m., on The Passionate Eye) is a repeat, and a must-see if you've missed it. It teems with beautiful people but could make you scream with despair. It's an unflinching, low-key look at the traffic in teenaged girls from Russia to Japan for modelling assignments. It opens with hundreds of thin young girls, usually 13 to 15 years old, auditioning in a grim hall in a town in Siberia. There are rows of them in swimsuits, all attracted by the modelling company's promise of work in Japan. The focus is on Nadya, a guileless 13-year-old who is flown to Japan, endures mindless and humiliating casting sessions, and never makes it. Simultaneously with Nadya's harrowing journey, the doc allows Ashley, a modelling scout and some-time photographer, to talk about her own experience as a model and enabler in the sick game. The woman is clearly depressed by her work and her experience, but she declines to break the cycle. It's Nadya and what she endures, stoically, that's unforgettable in this remarkable film.