Here’s some exciting news for people who love depressing films about dying gay men: Ryan Murphy’s upcoming adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart has added some big names to its cast: Alec Baldwin, Jim Parsons, and Matt Bomer. They’re joining Mark Ruffalo, who will play the protagonist and Kramer’s doppelgänger Ned Weeks.
Larry Kramer’s play is an autobiographical account of the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City. It follows a group of gay men who struggle to bring awareness to the disease by forming an advocacy group, based on the efforts of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, from which Kramer himself was ousted after bringing negative attention to the group with his out-spoken demands from the city’s leaders (particularly Mayor Ed Koch). It recently won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play for its run last year, and Ellen Barkin picked up a statue for her role as the wheelchair-bound Emma Brookner, a doctor who is one of the few in her field to pay attention to the disease’s spread among the gay population in New York.
Julia Roberts will play Emma Brookner in the film, which Ryan Murphy is directing. For those who got to see the fantastic production on Broadway last year, this pairing is quite surprising. First of all, the source material works best as a performance piece — it’ll be difficult to transfer a script that is primarily a string of loud, angry monologues. It’s also hard to imagine Julia Roberts stepping (or, really, sitting) into a role that was performed with such vigor and fierceness by Barkin, who completely earned her Tony by taking over the stage solely with the power of her famous voice. Can Roberts compete with an actress who was so able to demand the attention of an audience as she sits nearly motionless in a wheelchair?
While I can see the importance of bringing Kramer’s story to a mainstream audience, it seems like the folks behind the film already have diluted the power of The Normal Heart. On the one hand, the HIV/AIDS crisis is still very much a crisis, and delivering Kramer’s (albeit divisive) message to those who would not seek out the play on their own is an admirable feat. But putting Ryan Murphy in charge, the guy behind such important and politically conscious offerings such as Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, and Eat, Pray Love, seems like a major misstep. Let’s hope that there are some altruistic motives behind this proposed film (LOL, right?), which already seems like the kind of movie that solely exists for the potential to gather Oscars for the people who made it.