Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch
[Warning: The following article contains major spoilers about HBO's The Normal Heart. Read at your own risk!]
HBO's The Normal Heart chronicles the emergence of AIDS in New York City in the early 1980s. Ryan Murphy's adaptation, based on the 1985 play by Larry Cramer, offers a shattering examination of both the physical effects of the disease itself, as well as the personal and political implications of the government's lack of response to the growing epidemic. The film tells the story through a group of characters who are struggling to make their voices heard amid the crisis. Here are 10 ways the movie broke our hearts:
1. A naïve response: The fact that HIV and AIDS are sexually transmitted is knowledge that we take for granted today, but that wasn't always the case. When Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) tries to tell a group of gay men that the mysterious new "cancer" may be spread through sexual intercourse, and suggests that they "cool it for a while," she's literally laughed out of the room. But the negative response isn't rooted in hedonism alone. As Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello) tells her: "We will be scapegoated worse than ever. The world will think we're carriers, and the moral majority will have even more of a field day."
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2. Family matters: The movie's central character, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), repeatedly tries to convince his straight brother Ben (Alfred Molina) to provide pro bono legal services (as well as his name) to the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Ben is sympathetic to his brother's cause to a point, but his true feelings emerge during a scene in which Ned begs Ben to admit they're the same, and he can't bring himself to say the words. "Every time I lose this fight, it hurts more," a crushed Ned tells him.
3. Emma's battle: After the wheelchair-bound Emma tells Ned her own medical history over Chinese food (she contracted polio at age 5 when a woman came to her town from the Bahamas carrying the disease), he touchingly helps her to use her braces. She's so out of practice that she stumbles into Ned's arms, and a wistful glance from Roberts tells viewers that it's been quite a while since Emma was embraced by another person. "Polio was a virus too," she tells Ned sadly. "Nobody gets polio anymore."
4. Tommy's eulogy: At the latest in a long string of funerals for his friends, Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) gives an angry, emotional eulogy that exposes a devastating truth. "We're losing an entire generation," he notes. "Young men, at the beginning, just gone. Choreographers, playwrights, dancers, actors. All those plays that won't get written now. All those dances never to be danced. ... Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us? And here's the truth. Here's the answer. They just don't like us."
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5. Mickey's breakdown: Mickey, a city worker, reaches the end of his rope when he gets snubbed by the mayor's office. As he laments the lack of information about the virus and starts to question whether conspiracy theories about the government manufacturing AIDS might hold water, Mickey has a complete breakdown in the GMHC offices. "All my life I've been hated — for being gay, for being short, for being Jewish," he says. "We're the fighters."
6. Albert's death: In The Normal Heart's most harrowing sequence, GMHC president Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) tells Ned the horrifying story of his boyfriend Albert's (Finn Wittrock) death. With Albert's mother, who lives in Phoenix, wanting to see her son one final time, Bruce flies to Arizona with Albert — who becomes sick and disoriented on the plane and dies before they even reach the hospital. Then, because none of the hospital staff want to handle Albert's body, an orderly unceremoniously puts him into a garbage bag and releases him to Bruce and his mother in the back of the hospital — where the rest of the trash is taken out.
7. Emma's NIH presentation: As Emma implores the National Institutes of Health to provide more funding for her research, her presentation is an exercise in futility. In Roberts' standout scene, Emma's frustration is palpable as the government suits coldly tell her that her application has been denied. "We could all be dead before you do anything," she tells them.
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8. Felix and Ned fall apart: Felix's (Matt Bomer) rapid decline as AIDS takes hold is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the movie, from his first discovery of a lesion on his foot until the scene in which he and Ned stage a wedding of sorts in his hospital room, with Emma officiating. Bomer's physical transformation is also an accomplishment in itself, as he's reduced to skin and bone by the end of the film. But the scene that most embodies Felix and Ned's relationship is the one in which, despite Ned's efforts to keep Felix on a healthy regimen, Felix tells him that there's no hope. Though Ned's initial reaction is anger — "If you want to die Felix, die!" he shouts, while hurling groceries at his lover — he eventually resigns himself to Felix's fate and collapses in his arms.
9. Felix visits Ben: In the days before domestic partnerships, civil unions and gay marriage, Felix needs to navigate several legal barriers in order to make sure Ned is the recipient of his insurance policy and a piece of land. He goes to see Ned's brother to ask for help. "Felix, I wish we'd met sooner," Ben tells him, days before he's present at Ned and Felix's hospital room wedding.
10. Tommy's Rolodex cards: Tommy's method of honoring the dead is to remove their information card from his Rolodex and keep it in a special pile in a desk drawer. In the film's closing montage, we see that Tommy's catalog has grown to three stacks of cards. The last name we see him removing? Bruce Niles.
Did you watch The Normal Heart? Which scenes affected you the most? What did you think of the adaptation?