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Entertainment

Larry Kramer's 'The Normal Heart' bleeds for all of us

"SPEAK WHEN you're angry and you'll give the best speech you'll ever regret," said Ambrose Bierce.

THE GREAT activist/playwright Larry Kramer would beg to disagree. Kramer's most powerful speeches and his seminal stage work -- "The Normal Heart" -- were products of his often controversial rage, an anger so profound that he perhaps alienated more people than he converted. He saw himself as something of a pariah in the gay community that he was trying to warn and save in the early 1980s.

Time has proven Kramer's foes wrong. Larry was, as described here recently, "a ferocious Cassandra, telling truths nobody, straight or gay, wanted to hear."

Now 30 years since "The Normal Heart" opened off-Broadway, it has finally made it to the screen via HBO and director Ryan Murphy. The last time I saw this show revived three years ago, it almost killed me. I just didn't think I could take on once again the giant screen of the Ziegfeld where it premiered on Monday night. (Kramer attended and received a thunderous standing ovation.)

My longtime assistant, Denis Ferrara, is not so squeamish. So if you will forgive me for not being brave, I want to give him his say!

Denis: I'm gay. I'm 61. I lived and almost died the story of AIDS. I can't say I was "eager" to go back to those days, but this was an event and I felt an obligation. After sitting through the film, I now understand why it took 30 years to get it made for the screen.

Essentially, it is un-filmable. Often, a play being opened up for film benefits the story. Here, oddly, all the great rhetoric, the speeches, the emotion seem smaller. How much better it would have been as a dramatically filmed play, or even a film in which the central character Ned Weeks/Larry Kramer wasn't really a part of the action, more like a narrator, an ominous Greek chorus? I'm no screenwriter, and can't even fathom how Ryan Murphy could have improved upon this. The movie is made with care and passion, for sure. But everything is laid out so starkly, you are hit over the head with emotions and scenes that hardly need embellishment.

There's no need to detail every flaw I found, although the Fire Island opening was so poorly done, and presented Ned Weeks so unpleasantly, I almost felt I'd seen enough. This is one of the most difficult characters to play. Ned/Larry is furious, obstreperous, interfering, insensitive -- and right! And the actor has to portray this and still be palatable. Mark Ruffalo, a terrific performer under other circumstances, can't get it. He kinda ... pouts. His anger is annoying but not epic. He also seems considerably more, ah -- flamboyant in gesture than I ever recall Larry Kramer being. (Press rep Scott Gorenstein, the only person in attendance wearing a "Silence Equals Death" pin, recalled one of Larry Kramer's speeches at a college in the mid-1980s. He said, "Everybody on the right side of the room stand up." Then he pointed to the left side and said, "Most of you will be dead in a year or two." It was terrifying and electrifying. I didn't see that Larry onscreen.)

If the central character doesn't work, you've got a problem. The slack is pulled up by Matt Bomer as Ned's lover, Joe Mantella, portraying one of the founding members of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, played Ned in the last stage revival. (He has one searing scene which makes one wish he'd been able to reprise his role here). ... There are fine performances by Denis O'Hare, Jonathan Groff, Taylor Kitsch and Julia Roberts as Dr. Emma Brookner.

Emma is based on a real-life person, Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who was mostly confined to a wheelchair because of a bout with childhood polio. Roberts gives a gripping performance, free of scenery chewing. However, what appeared so dramatic (and even funny) onstage -- Emma wheeling out to deliver her diagnosis and verdicts -- somehow doesn't translate. Perhaps they could have given her a less aggressive form of polio or even another handicap -- unlikely, as that is such an integral (and completely true) aspect of the story, but it simply looks odd.

Jim Parsons as another member of the fledgling GMHC is, well -- Jim Parsons. He has created a character which has made him rich and famous, but every time he appeared on screen, I expected his TV buddies from "The Big Bang Theory" to come tumbling in.

"The Normal Heart" is by no means un-affecting. How -- especially if you have lived through it -- do you not sob as the deaths mount and frustration reaches epic proportions? Julia Roberts' reading of the line -- "There are no objections" in the hospital room scene where Ned and his dying lover marry, caused a palpable wave of emotion through the giant theater.

But in the end, it's unsatisfying. And the more I think about it -- and compare it to the stage productions, the less impressed I am. This will make me no friends. Only a few brave souls at the Four Seasons after-party whispered their objections, some considerably stronger than mine. Most people claimed to have been devastated and "definitely needed a drink." And maybe they were. Or maybe they just wanted to drink? Perhaps life has rendered me, finally, a curmudgeon? Perhaps I have seen too much?

To be honest -- I know this film stands almost as a complete vindication for the oft-vilified Barbra Streisand, who was first, and for so long attached to the project. Whatever the problems, whatever her vision, I feel sure, now, her vision would have been more satisfying than the talented Mr. Murphy's.

There was a nifty, if poorly air-conditioned party after that. It was star-studded. (The floor beneath Brad and Angelina section almost caved in from frantic looky-loos. Brad is one of the producers.) But I don't have the heart to frolic through the star sightings after the above.

Hard work, love and dedication and some superior acting went into "The Normal Heart." I just wish my heart had been more open to it because I love and respect Larry Kramer. He helped save my life.

P.S. My own doctor, Jeffrey Greene, and Jill Frickenhause, my nurse practitioner, who both treated me as my weight went from 160 to 127 pounds in a month back in 1997 sat an aisle away from me. This added to my emotion, and my unhappiness that I wasn't more invested in the film.

So, there! Denis has had his say and he is entitled to it. I am so grateful I don't have to see or review "The Normal Heart" as a movie. But creator- playwright Larry Kramer is an international hero to me, Liz, and I love him, even if I can't take his message again. The warning he gives here has taken root all over the world; we can never pay it the attention it deserves. Everybody is everybody else's keeper.

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)

(c)2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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