Is 'The Normal Heart's Ned Weeks a Real Activist?

by Casey Rackham

Although many people — okay, probably just me — are referring to The Normal Heart as "the HBO movie that's airing instead of Game of Thrones ," it most definitely deserves way more (positive) attention than that. More specifically, its leading character, Ned Weeks, deserves all of the attention we can give him. Why? Because he's based on Larry Kramer, the playwright and HIV-AIDS activist who began his journey with The Normal Heart when it debuted at New York's Public Theatre in 1985.

Kramer, a Tony Award winner and Academy Award nominee, famously penned the play and watched as it evolved from an off-Broadway production in the '80s to a 2011 Broadway revival, which earned five Tony nominations, to an HBO made-for-TV-movie directed by Ryan Murphy. The story takes a look at the nation's sexual politics and the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City while following Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) as he begins his mission (with the help of other gay activists and supporters in the medical community) to expose the truth about the disease to the public. The play and film also explores his affiliation with the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and the deaths of friends and loved ones due to HIV-AIDS.

In addition to Weeks, a handful of other starring and supporting characters in both the play and film are based on real people. Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, a woman who treated AIDS patients and used a wheelchair due to her childhood polio; Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) is based on the GMHC co-founder Paul Popham; Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) is based on former GMHC Executive Director Rodger McFarlane; and Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello) is based on Dr. Lawrence Mass, another co-founder of GMHC.

Of course, Kramer's involvement with the play-turned-movie was neither the beginning nor the end of his relationship with HIV-AIDS awareness or the gay community. Take a look at just a few of his many other achievements:

1. He wrote the novel Faggots.

In 1978, Kramer wrote a satirical (and extremely controversial) novel about the gay community.

2. He held meetings in his apartment in NYC, which eventually led to the formation of the GMHC.

In the early '80s, the writer invited groups of fellow men and activists to his home to discuss the crisis. However, his "brash style — raging and combative with anyone who stood in his way — clashed with GMHC membership" and eventually led to him leaving the group.

3. He founded AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987.

Kramer created the organization, a decidedly "more vocal and confrontational AIDS organization, that funneled energy into political action, protests, and lobbying, mostly for access to new AIDS drugs."

4. He wrote The Destiny of Me in 1990.

The play focuses on Weeks' death due to AIDS, and was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

5. To this day, he continues to be a part of the world of writing and HIV-AIDS activism.

According to HBO, Kramer said in a 2002 New Yorker profile, "People need to talk about what you did if you want to make an impact. Otherwise, why bother having a fit in the first place?"

Images: HBO