Matters of the Heart

by David Waggoner


Maybe I’m getting sappy in my middle age years, but I’m actually excited that May 25 will be the debut of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart on HBO. After this year’s big Oscar win for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s performances in Dallas Buyers Club, who in HIV-positive America wouldn’t be ecstatic that HIV/AIDS is once again in the mainstream media’s spotlight?

It’s as if the commercial and critical success of Dallas Buyers Club, and to a lesser extent last year’s Liberace biopic on HBO, have paved the way for more mainstream acceptance of a once-difficult subject matter into America’s family rooms. I call it the continued mainstreaming of a once-feared but isolated plague. It’s as if film and television studios have figured out a way to make palatable what was once considered box office poison and served it on one of the glorious table settings created by top-notch designers for DIFFA’s Dining by Design (see this issue’s Gallery).

It is truly an honor that Mark Ruffalo chose A&U to be interviewed for this month’s cover story. Long a gay rights and civil rights advocate, Mr. Ruffalo is the costar (along with Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, among an all-star cast) in what could revolutionize how mainstream America views people living with HIV/AIDS. It fits right in with the premise of this magazine—to destigmatize HIV/AIDS through an attractive and empathetic medium for both people living with HIV/AIDS and those who aren’t positive but are the caregivers, husbands, wives, partners, and loved ones of those who are. Others have taken the arts-as-advocacy route as well. In this issue alone, we feature interviews with creators of two other cinematic gems, Test, a film about HIV in the dance world, and Front Seat Chronicles, a Web/television series that drives audiences toward social issues like AIDS.

Interviewed by A&U’s Dann Dulin, Ruffalo doesn’t disappoint. He turns out to be an eloquent and impassioned cover story subject. His scruffy good looks have always appealed to movie audiences. But his nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for 2010’s The Kids Are All Right attests to his acting chops. A good deal of the credit, of course, must go to Larry Kramer, a playwright, novelist, and premier AIDS activist, who rewrote the way men and women can take ownership of their disease and push for fast-tracking of lifesaving drugs. This model of citizen intervention has been replicated in other diseases, but it is perhaps unique to the AIDS cause that Larry’s initial anger and frustration over the slow pace of drug discovery will always immortalize both the man and the madness.

And I mean madness in the best possible way. Larry’s anger was a reaction to the stupidity of the Reagan administration and the then well-documented ineptitude of the FDA in the early years of the epidemic. Although Larry Kramer has not given any interviews in support of HBO’s production, his words (of which there are tens of thousands in print) will attest to how important his mission was and is in the fight against AIDS. What it boils down to is how television is still the most efficient way to change minds. Witness how abortion was first spoken of on Norman Lear’s Maude. How racism was pilloried on All in the Family. How gays and lesbians have become part of the television family because of such shows as Will & Grace and most recently Modern Family. TV is the great common denominator in America. Everyone has a TV. For all intents and purposes it is where new and sometimes difficult subject matter gets a wider audience than anywhere else.

Perhaps almost thirty years after the discovery of the virus, in the words of Ruffalo’s character, Ned, the normalization of HIV/AIDS is now upon us. But in the words of Mark Ruffalo, it is terrible that it has taken this long: “It’s a shame how [the epidemic] was handled…if somebody had had the courage or the humanity to stand up in some leadership position and say, ‘No, we can’t turn our backs on this.’” The implication is that millions of lives could have been saved. And that is why The Normal Heart is anything but an aberration. It’s a reason to believe again that miracles do happen, and humanity will beat this terrible disease, once and for all.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U. He founded A&U—the first national magazine dedicated to HIV/AIDS—twenty-three years ago.