'The Normal Heart's' 30-Year Journey From Barbra Streisand to Ryan Murphy
This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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."
Parsons reprises the role he played onstage. Click the photo to view more portraits of the cast.
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.
By 1996, with her option about to run out, Streisand also had enlisted Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, with whom she'd produced the 1995 Emmy-winning TV movie Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, starring Glenn Close in the true story of a National Guard officer who challenged her discharge for being a lesbian. Says Streisand, "When it became clear that we couldn't raise the money to do it as a film due to the controversial nature of the material, I thought, 'All right, we'll do it on TV.' At least it would reach a wide audience."
Then she and Kramer hit another impasse. As Streisand tells it, she had an offer from HBO to pay Kramer $250,000 for the rights, but he was demanding $1 million "and no company was willing to move on it." In a 2012 email to Streisand that became public, Kramer offered his own version of events in typically lacerating style: "You had other movies and tours to make first. I sat back with increasing sadness as I watched you (often at the last minute) choose something else to do. … When your options lapsed, I said you could buy it for a million dollars and do whatever you wanted with it. … You kept telling me I wanted too much money. I kept telling you this is my only asset to sell and live on for the rest of my life."
For nearly 15 years, the project sat idle. Despite occasional interest from directors like Paris Barclay and George C. Wolfe, who co-directed a Tony-winning Broadway revival with Joel Grey in 2011, the film version of Heart couldn't gain traction. Even though she no longer had formal ties to the project, Streisand persevered, convinced that if she could put together a great cast, she could win over Kramer and revive the project. She talked with Ruffalo and Bradley Cooper about playing Ned and Felix, respectively, and says she suggested to Roberts that she step in to play the doctor. "We've been associated with a lot of people who've had passion projects," says Meron. "But I think Barbra's passion for The Normal Heart surpassed all of them put together."
By then, though, Murphy had entered the picture, introduced to Kramer in 2009 by Dante Di Loreto, who works as an executive producer on Murphy's TV shows. Sitting down with Kramer in the writer's New York apartment, where the first meeting of the Gay Men's Health Crisis took place in 1981, Murphy, 48, won over the older man. Even though Murphy had directed one film, 2006's Running With Scissors and was about to begin 2010's Eat Pray Love, he says, "There really was nothing in my body of work at that point that would have suggested I could direct it. I had a lot of gay-friendly characters, but my work was more sardonic and comic and satirical." But he told Kramer about how much the play had meant to him as he was growing up. And Kramer, just as passionate as ever, argued that, given all the history that had taken place, Heart couldn't be just another AIDS movie.
Playing a closeted gay activist, Kitsch explored “how one person deals, or doesn’t deal, with the loss of a love."
"In his mind," says Murphy, "it really was a movie about prejudice and civil rights. He wanted young people to see it. And he really got me stoked. And I took it very seriously because it was the work of his life."
Kramer's script, which the writer had kept working on over the years, had ballooned to around 200 pages -- he called it his "kitchen sink draft." It wasn't filmable, Murphy thought, but he convinced Kramer he would work with him to get it right. Together they struck up a transcontinental working relationship even though, Murphy says, they "fought a lot at the beginning about stupid stuff." Murphy would write Kramer with questions like, "What were you afraid of?" Kramer wrote back, "I was too damn angry, being a caregiver [to my sick friends], to be afraid. I never had the luxury of fear." "What do you mean?" Murphy asked, and Kramer said, "Well, I was literally cleaning up shit." And out of that developed a montage in which Ned is seen taking care of the ill Felix, washing him, cleaning his sheets.
The story, says Murphy, "isn't just about the people that we lost. It's also about the caregivers, the doctors, the nurses. And what it was also like to be young and going through that brutal kind of existence." Eventually, they got the script down to a lean 97 pages.
Envisioning Heart as a theatrical release, Murphy also was working to find financing, eventually lining up support from Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions. He hadn't planned to pitch it to HBO when he found himself in a meeting with HBO programming president Michael Lombardo about another project, a proposed movie about the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon. Lombardo wasn't interested in that concept but asked what else Murphy was working on. When he heard about Heart, Lombardo immediately said, "Ryan, that's what I want to do with you." Says the exec, "I used all my powers of persuasion to convince him more people would see it on HBO and we would treat it more respectfully in the way we marketed it. Thank goodness it didn't take much convincing."
It also helped that the cable network had established a tradition of dealing with both gay- and AIDS-themed projects. In addition to 1993's And the Band Played On, based on Randy Shilts' 1987 history of the epidemic, HBO aired Mike Nichols' adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America in 2003.
"Movies about gay subject matter, particularly when they involve issues like AIDS, dying, fighting for your life, are hard sells when you have to worry about selling tickets -- but we've been the beneficiary of that," says Lombardo.
Plus, HBO offered Murphy a richer budget (about $17 million to $18 million) than he would have had for an indie feature, allowing him to film on a broader canvas.
To lose weight to play an AIDS victim, Bomer left his family for a few weeks that were “really monastic and solitary — to create the physical reality of what Felix was going through.”
By the time the cameras began rolling last summer, Murphy had no trouble recruiting actors, both straight and gay. Bomer, who recalls reading the play when he was 14, asked to read for any available part. "The piece meant so much to me," he says. "People like Larry and the Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP were the catalysts for the gay rights movement, and we stand on their shoulders."
For Ruffalo, the work's themes are as current as ever. "The play served as an agitprop theater piece when that kind of politics and strategy really needed to be employed," says Ruffalo, who stepped into Ned's shoes after bonding with Kramer over their shared commitment to activism (the actor is a lead voice in the anti-fracking movement). "The movie opened up a much more humanistic and universal tale about love, mostly about love."
The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons brought a dual perspective to the part of Tommy, who tries to mediate between Ned and the more cautious early activists, since he'd also played the part in the 2011 Broadway revival. "We're at another really right time for this story," he says. "I felt it doing the play and I feel it now that the movie is about to come out. Time has been very good to Larry's script. This story has only gotten richer."
Even as Murphy filmed, the politics of gay rights and same-sex marriage were shifting in profound ways. On June 26, the cast and crew assembled on a set decked out to resemble the Paradise Garage, an early '80s Manhattan disco. Murphy was re-creating "April Showers," the first fundraiser held by Kramer and his friends.
A frail Kramer, his own health in question (he was too ill to be interviewed for this story), was visiting that day. Before Murphy called action on the first shot, an electric jolt ran through the set: The Supreme Court had just issued its landmark ruling in the case of United States v. Windsor, declaring that the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional.
Suddenly, the crowd erupted in celebration. Ebullient, screaming and cheering, the actors milled around Kramer, wanting to applaud, to hug him, to thank him for all he had contributed to the fight. The once-fiery Kramer summoned the strength to tell them, "Today's a triumph, but there's still a lot of work to be done." The moment, says Murphy, "was pretty historical and great." Seconds Taylor Kitsch, who plays a closeted gay politico, "We had a blast that day -- it was the kind of day where we recognized this is why we do what we do, to tell these kind of stories."
Like a soldier who couldn't quite believe the battle was over, Kramer was trying to process the fact that history -- and Hollywood -- had finally caught up with him. For three decades, he had been at the forefront of the gay rights movement -- and just as often, he had been at odds with it, often accusing his fellow activists of not fighting hard enough, hectoring other gays for not fighting at all.
"Larry is the toughest person I've ever met," says Murphy. "And the thing that touched me so much at the end was, he doesn't understand that he doesn't have to fight anymore. It was my fight to get it made, to make sure it's good. I was just so moved because he felt so f---ing alone for so many years that even in success, even when he was proven right, he didn't feel it."
In January, as Murphy was still editing the movie, Kramer's health took a precarious turn. Murphy rushed a print to New York, showing the nearly completed film to Kramer and his husband, the architect David Webster. (The couple had married the previous July in Kramer's hospital room, where he was recovering from bowel surgery.) Kramer was overcome with the emotion of finally seeing the play committed to film, at least this one long battle finally behind him.