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.”