Kevin Sessums on ‘The Normal Heart’ (Sunday, 5/25, HBO, 9 PM)

By Mad Dog
Published: May 21, 2019

Kevin Sessums, a colleague from long gone Vanity Fair days, is now editor-in-chief of FourTwoNine Magazine. We’re Facebook friends, which is where he posted this. You’ll need Kleenex.

I finally watched “The Normal Heart” last night. I will wait to write about my aesthetic impressions about the film since I don’t feel comfortable writing any sort of review about it because it hasn’t been aired yet on HBO and folks there were kind enough to send me the DVDs to watch it early.

I had a lot of personal emotions come to the surface while watching it though apart from my critical faculties.

In my role as a kind of Zelig in my life, I even had a very small part in shepherding this film into being. Larry and I back in 2010 went together to the premiere of “Rabbit Hole,” a film beautifully directed by John Cameron Mitchell who played the young version of Larry in his other autobiographical play The Destiny of Me. To this day, John gave one of the most nuanced and stunningly heartfelt and heartbreaking performances I’ve ever seen. Larry called me up before the premiere of “Rabbit Hole” and told me we had to make a plan for him to talk to Bryan Lourd from CAA at the party because he had finished another draft of the screenplay of “The Normal Heart” and wanted to get it to Bryan. The premiere was at the Paris and the party afterward was at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. I emailed Bryan to let him know that I was going to introduce Larry to him and that Larry was going to talk about his push to get “The Normal Heart” made one more time. Larry was convinced that Bryan was the person who could do that. And he was right. I put them together at the party and Larry went into his pitch and sent Bryan the script the next day. Bryan loved it and he, as much as (or more than) anybody else, was the person behind making sure this time the film got made. So I’d like to thank Bryan for his support of Larry from the very beginning in all this. Bryan, being the consummate macher, doesn’t like public thanks but sometimes he just has to get used to it. He deserves one here.

What struck me about the film was the depth of the love story even more than the politics of it all. “Heart” is in the title after all. But I’m not sure why I was so surprised by the depth of the love depicted in the narrative because that is what has always driven Larry more than his anger: the depth of his love for his gay brothers and sisters. I think it scares him sometimes how much he loves us all. I will say this about the two main performances. Matt Bomer as Felix is giving the performance of his career so far. He is extraordinary in the film. And Mark Ruffalo as Ned — the Larry character — captures something that is at the essence of Larry: how perplexed he is that not everyone can love as deeply or be as politically engaged or get as enraged by injustice as he can. It is Larry’s bewilderment more than his righteous anger that Ruffalo rightly burrows down into so deeply and comes up with something very true to the man.

Not everything in the film worked for me — as I stated, I won’t get into specifics about the film — but what it did was get me in touch with memories that I had been able to shut down for so long. Those telephone calls I got – as so many of us got – from friends shut up alone in their apartments back during the darkest days of those plague years because they didn’t have the strength or the will anymore to walk outside to be stared at and feel the silent horror at their appearances. Many of them were monstrously eaten up with KS legions as well as being emaciated. The cruelty of how that disease could steal one’s beauty and youth as well as one’s health is hard to describe to those who didn’t witness it.

Last night, I recalled one specific phone call I got from a dear friend of mine during that time. We had met at an audition for a regional theatre production of “Streamers” and had a short affair that turned into a deep friendship. He lived down Bleecker Street from me on the corner of Perry and I thought of him when I saw that was Felix’s address in the film last night.

One beautiful spring day my friend called in tears to tell me that he needed me to come over but please don’t be shocked. I knew he had contracted KS and by this time this young man — one of the most handsome I’ve ever known — was a kind of monstrous version of what KS could do to you at that point. His eyes were almost completely shut with lesions and his nose was one huge one hidden under them somewhere. He told me he needed someone to help clean him and his apartment because he couldn’t. I arrived to find him lying in his own vomit and shit — as so many of us found our friends or our lovers back then, I am not special in this story at all, so many of us did this for others back then. I cleaned him up — trying not to vomit myself at the smell — and then he suddenly projectile vomited all over my legs. It looked like he had thrown up blood and I began to freak out. He started screaming at me that it was the grape juice that he couldn’t keep down and began to scream at me to get out, all his pent-up anger directed at me. I let him scream and rant as I continued to clean up the mess, wrapping my hands in towels since I didn’t have gloves, before using more towels to clean it all up.

His apartment’s curtains were drawn against the day’s beautiful spring sunlight since he said the light hurt his eyes, which were but creases there in his face between the lesions. I put him back to bed after he stopped his ranting and covered up his shivering body and walked back out into the light of the beautiful spring day. I stopped at a drugstore on another corner of Bleecker and bought a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and knelt at the corner and in a panic poured it all over my hands, hating myself for feeling such panic but doing it nonetheless.

I stopped off in Father Demo Park and sat down in the spring sunshine to gather myself. I watched all the people that day so happy and going about their lives seemingly so unaware of how many of my gay brothers were shut up in their apartments on such a beautiful day waiting for others to come and visit them and maybe clean them up where they lay in vomit and shit. I remember sitting there that day thinking the world had no idea what we are all going through, what a war we were living through and how we could not leave our brothers to suffer alone on that battlefield of decimated bodies in their loneliness even if it meant having a panic attack and pouring hydrogen peroxide on ourselves while kneeling on Bleecker Street.

And then, sitting on that park bench, I put my head in my hands and sobbed, not caring who saw me. Sobbing in the light was as much a part of the plague years as keeping it together in the darkened apartments of friends.

That is what The Normal Heart last night did for me. It brought back up that memory, one I share with thousands of others who helped friends in just such ways over and over and over back then. We all took care of one another and didn’t ask for any appreciation for it. We did what we had to do. And now years later we have all, so many of us, locked those memories away where they too are now curtained off from the light of day in so many ways because they are so painful to revisit. But sometimes revisit them we must to remind ourselves what we all went through and to honor those who didn’t make it.

I am so grateful that this latest generation of young gay men does not have to live through such a time. And I am grateful that I have lived long enough to be grateful about that.

And I love Larry for not letting us forget.