A Normal Heart Viewing Party: Two Generations of Gay Men Watch the Past Turn Into the Future on HBO

By Avram Finkelstein
27 May 2014

Avram Finkelstein
Avram Finkelstein

Two gay men of different generations — artist and activist Avram Finkelstein, a founding member of the collective responsible for Silence=Death and AIDSGATE, and theatremaker and author Dan Fishback — sat down to watch the HBO screen premiere of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart.

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When Playbill.com editor in chief Adam Hetrick asked me to write something for Playbill.com, I knew I wanted to write about the moment we find ourselves in: a period of advances in HIV treatment, counter-balanced by decades of Draconian HIV criminalization case law, and a growing interest in the story of the early days of AIDS.

And here's my thing about that last one: All I can think about is how to take the lessons of the past and apply them to the future during this rare moment of intergenerational overlap, between those who witnessed it firsthand and the generation who has inherited this struggle.

And then it hit me, what if I had a viewing party for the HBO movie version of The Normal Heart with pal, playwright and performance artist Dan Fishback, whose thirtynothing (his 2011 play, which he is now adapting into a book) is a personal view of this moment from his generation's perspective? I thought something might be revealed if we compared notes.

Boy, was I surprised by what was.

Dan: I don't even know where to begin. I don't think either of us was prepared for how intense it would be to watch this film together. I think we were both expecting to see some glossy, fluffy cartoon of AIDS history, but as we were watching, I found it difficult to even consider the film's politics or aesthetics because what was happening in the room was much more meaningful than what was happening on screen. I was experiencing you experiencing the movie, and thinking about the memories it brought up for you — the ones you shared with me and also the ones I imagined you were contemplating. So, first of all: Are you okay? And second of all: What do you think happened? You told me you've seen movies about early AIDS before without getting emotional. What was different about this one?

Avram: I'm trying to figure it out myself. I was completely blindsided. I went into it feeling extremely removed — I even said to you, "I'm not really sure what we'll have to talk about. We're going to have the same political take on it," as if it would be an abstract exercise and neither of us had made the densely layered meanings of HIV/AIDS our life's work.

And when I saw the Fire Island travelogue opening, a wall went up. It seemed bloodless, and that was not my world at all. I'd never even been there until after I was in ACT UP, and then only once. But after we'd begun our requisite critiques of the period inaccuracies, we started to compare notes about the stage versions we'd seen. And while I was telling you about the production I'd seen at the Lucille Lortel [Theatre], which was after I'd met Larry [Kramer], I remembered I'd seen it with my boyfriend, Steve Webb, who killed himself right after that, and how Larry blamed himself for it, and I'd written his eulogy on Larry's computer because I didn't have one and was afraid to go back to Steve's apartment and use his old IBM DOS system that looked like a submarine navigation system.

I was human aspic from that point on, and realized that even though I had a completely different experience of my boyfriend Don's illness and dying than Larry was having across town, it was a vanity to pretend I had no dog in the fight, that I could view it objectively, and it wouldn't be riddled with subtext for me.

And what about you? You went in girded for battle, same as I did, but were wiping away tears in no time. What was happening for you? That couldn't all have been because of me.

Dan Fishback

Dan: In a way, it was. I've been studying the early history of HIV/AIDS in NYC's gay community, in one way or another, for the past five years, and most of that time has been defined by isolation. I initially felt very distant from this history, and from this community (or these communities), and I did all of this research and made all of this theatre in order to draw myself closer to my people. And you know, you and I talk about this all the time - that, as Jews, we need to have some sense of history in order to function in the world. That's what I was looking for, and I found it through all these mediated, artificial methods. And now that we are actual friends, in a completely true and natural way, it makes all of my "research" seem kind of silly. Like: instead of going to libraries, I should have just been hanging out with you – or with anyone else who is totally 100 percent alive today, and lived through the events that I wanted to learn about. But I didn't do that because I was scared and shy, and had all sorts of baggage about age that I needed to get over. And this is all just to say that, sitting with you and watching this movie, I'm not thinking about "history," I'm thinking about my friend's dead boyfriends, and wondering if you're okay, and if I should hit pause, or get you a glass of water, or any other normal awkward human stuff that people do.

And the only moment when I felt like the film itself was having that effect on me was in that devastating scene where Joe Mantello's character demands that his defense of gay sexual culture be taken seriously as a legitimate response to homophobia. He keeps saying, "Am I a murderer?" And you can really feel how impossible that seems to him — this historical accident that HIV intersected with gay sexual liberation — all of that monumental horror is so palpable in Joe's performance, and it felt so real.

And I could have watched it alone and felt the same way. Because Joe's performance of Larry's words was just that powerful, and hopefully accomplishes something profound for the majority of viewers who don't have the privilege of, you know, being in your living room.

Avram: That scene was probably the most powerful moment in the movie. But again, I couldn't help but see Larry in there, real-life Larry, not just Larry the polemicist, but Larry at his most human, circling back to forgive that character's frailties and perhaps asking forgiveness himself, for any pain his dogmatism may have caused. It was so layered, and masterful, and we were grappling with who was responsible for the truth in it. Remember, we went back and forth; was it Mantello's generosity as an actor, was it Larry putting his dukes down in the text, was it the director making room, or possibly making choices?

But in the end, didn't you and I also add something to that moment, with everything we have learned as a result of our awareness of the earth-shattering human moment that is HIV/AIDS? Maybe every living room will have its own version of what we just experienced.

And now your comment has me thinking about something else we touched on: This story has nothing to do with my social setting. In the circles I traveled in, we were worried about Klaus Nomi [the influential downtown NYC performance artist and musician who died of AIDS in 1983], or whom we shared needles with. But even though we had different experiences in those early years, I met Larry through ACT UP, and he became an integral part of my life at a moment we both were exorcizing what had happened to us through a shared activism.

So, he was in my living room the whole time I was watching the film, as a touchstone that allowed me to get lost in it. And I was in the room as yours. Now, who wasn't in the room for you?

Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons in The Normal Heart
Photo by Jojo Whilden

Dan: You know who wasn't in the room for me? Marsha P. Johnson [the late, Black transgender artist and rights activist]. At least, not until that scene where Ned proposes to Felix on the piers, and a bunch of Black women in the distance start cheering them on. That felt like a major Ryan Murphy moment to me — the kind of tone-deaf identity gag I'd been dreading, where women and people of color become accessories to the white gay man's primary narrative. Like: it's the piers in the 80s, so we're meant to believe that these women are trans, or drag queens, and here they are applauding these two white guys who want to move into a nice apartment together. That's when I thought about Marsha and Sylvia Rivera [the late bisexual and transgender activist who was a contemporary of Johnson], and how trans women of color were a catalyzing force for gay liberation, but then got kicked to the sidelines through the present day. I get that these women weren't part of Larry's story, but I thought it was tacky and insulting to throw them in as window dressing in that scene, particularly in light of the history of the piers, and the past 15 years of activism by queer youth of color in that neighborhood to resist police harassment and bullying by white gay residents.

Which kinda brings us to the thing you're always saying about how "history is turf," and how the past few years of AIDS historicization has been fraught with battles over who's story gets told by whom, and who is missing from the narrative. But at the same time, I was very aware that this is just Larry's own story. It can't be anything other than Larry's story, and it would be weird for me to expect otherwise.

Which is why the ending felt so strange to me — and we were talking about this as we watched it. The tags at the end tell us about what happened in AIDS history after 1984, but they completely skip over ACT UP, which is really the logical next step in Larry's story — that he gets kicked out of one group and then plays a pivotal role in the creation of another. Instead, we just get these depressing statistics, with no sense that the queer community actually rallied together and made a difference in between depressing 1984 and depressing 2014.

The credits started rolling and I thought to myself: What is this movie telling people? What's the effect of this story being told today, in this manner, with these absences?

Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch inThe Normal Heart.
Photo by Jojo Whilden

Avram: I was also puzzled by the omission of the generations of activism that Ned Weeks and Larry himself were screaming for. But I also acknowledge there is at least one generation who knows nothing about the terrors of that moment, and mightn't that be what the revival of interest in the play is about? This production certainly stands on its own two feet in that regard.

And still, loads of people see it in the abstract — I mean, you kinda admitted some version of that yourself. And, apparently, the same might be true for me.

My every sleeping and waking moment is centered around HIV/AIDS, and I was familiar with the scene where Ned Weeks throws a milk carton at the wall because he thinks his dying boyfriend isn't fighting hard enough. I had even talked about that scene with Larry, but this time, for the first time, it reminded me of my greatest regret about Don's illness.

After his last, second hospitalization he asked me if it would be okay to refuse the Pentamidine we had to requisition directly from the Centers for Disease Control, because the treatments caused him severe pain. And I screamed at him, right there on 42nd Street, a block away from our apartment, for asking my permission to die over the pain of living. It is a source of great shame for me, but I couldn't agree to let him go. I was your age, Dan, when that was happening to me, too young to understand what he was asking of me — what he needed of me — and I was going through this terrible moment alone because I was too afraid to lean on him to help me through it. We had shared everything as a couple, but I robbed both of us of sharing the most important thing you can go through with someone, because I felt so lost.

And to make things worse, he had sworn me to secrecy so he could continue to work. That was a scene in the movie. And the last time I took him to the hospital, they thought he was my father, another scene. And so was having to bring Don's food in from the hospital corridor.

As I was watching, I was remembering it all and realized: that milk carton scene, it wasn't just theatrical histrionics. It was real; it is what I was going through the year you were born, Dan. And on the other side of town, Larry was going through it as well.

Maybe watching it with you — a person I trust completely when it comes to understanding the vast complexity of this moment — freed me to see something I hadn't noticed before. I am extremely conscious of my connection to all of my comrades in the trenches back then. Like Larry, it's all I think about, write about and talk about. But I am also connected to everyone before that activist moment, everyone else who went through it, on the other side of town.

So it seems that in my living room, Larry, the polemicist, had finally reached Avram, the propagandist, because Dan, the mensch, was there in the room with me. Three generations, in a room, watching the past turn into the future, on HBO.

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Mark Ruffalo
Photo by Jojo Whilden/HBO