HBO debuted their latest television film this past Sunday, an adaptation of the 1985 off-Broadway play The Normal Heart. Directed by American Horror Story and Glee show-runner Ryan Murphy, the play is based on Gay activist Larry Kramer’s experience’s during the early years of the AIDS crisis, along with his creation of and expulsion from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
The film, as well as the play, is direct, emotional and confrontational. More so than entertainment, both are a call to arms to help and support those affected by the AIDS virus while damning the ignorance of those in office who did little or nothing to help with the disease when it simply known as “the Gay disease.” Moved by the story, we listed a few locations used in the film, which gives us a glimpse into Gay culture during the early 1980’s.
In the Summer of 1981, Mark Ruffalo’s character Ned Weeks (based on Larry Kramer) heads to Fire Island Pines in Long Island for the birthday of one his friends. When he arrives, we are introduced to a community of young and older men, of different ethnicity and backgrounds. Known as “The Pines,” it features the most expensive real estate on Fire Island and along with its neighbor Cherry Grove, make up the gay community on the southern coast of Long Island. Known as “Chelsea with Sand,” it first became a gay hot-spot in the 1960s due to former model John B. Whyte, who owned 80 percent of the Pines properties until 2000.
Fire Island remains a major gay destination today, hosting events throughout the year. Major ones include the Fire Island Dance Festival and The Invasion of The Pines, a celebration of drag queen culture.
On his return trip to NYC, Ned Weeks sees an article in The New York Times about a rare cancer that has already infected a few dozen gay men. After meeting with Julia Robert’s character Dr. Emma Brookner (based on real life doctor Linda Laubenstein), he goes to the Times Building, where he meets reporter Felix Turner, played by Matt Bomer, an openly gay actor.
The building where Weeks first meets Turner is not the large, gray building that “The Grey Lady” now occupies. The former residence of the celebrated newspaper was located on 229 West 43rd Street. Built in three stages from 1912 and 1937, the NYT held residence in the building designed by Mortimer J. Fox until 2004 where it sold the building and moved to its current residence. The Building was sold repeatedly until 2013, when it became occupied by Yahoo!
For those that haven’t gotten the connection yet, The New York Times is how Times Square got its name.
Ned asks for the aid of his straight brother Ben Weeks to work pro bono for his cause. Ben is supportive but hesitant to help his brother, due to his confusion over his brother’s lifestyle. Ned gets him to call for a cabinet meeting with the other partners of his firm, to see if they will be the first major lawfirm to support a gay cause. The two brothers begin their conversation in Ben’s office and end it in the French restaurant Brasserie Ruhlmann. The restaurant, located on 45 Rockefeller Plaza is known for its Art Deco interior design made by French designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann.
During their first dinner together, Felix reveals to Ned that the two have met before. Their first interaction was inside of a gay men’s bath house located on 28 West 15th Street. The bath house, Man’s Country, closed down in 1983 due to the AIDS crisis. Before the epidemic, it was a place where gay men would meet and have sexual intercourse. While the NYC location closed down, there is still a Man’s Country location in Chicago. Not much information on the bath house is available, except for this 70’s commercial, which Murphy re-makes, but with much more explicit content.
Using a connection, Ned tries to speak to the former Mayor Ed Koch (someone always suspected of being a closeted homosexual). The Mayor’s security (aware of who Ned Weeks is) forcefully escorts him away from the mayor and out of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, home to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. The Mayor and his assistant, both believed to be closeted, scurry away from being seen with Ned in a display of cowardice and ignorance which left the gay community feeling isolated, with their pleas for help ignored by their own city’s government.
The Museum was also featured in a much less serious film, Wes Andersen’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
Ned and closeted Wall Street broker and President of the GMHC Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) are having a few drinks at the Killarney Rose bar in the Financial District. Niles has already lost one lover to the virus, and now is going to lose another as his current boyfriend has also caught it. Ned tries to offer some encouragement, but ends up having to drag Bruce to his home. The Killarney has been in business for the last couple of decades with an impossible to predict happy hour. The only way patrons at this bar/restaurant know when happy hour begins and ends is when the bartender sounds a bell.
The Paradise Garage, formerly located on 84 King Street, is remembered as a prominent location in the history of Dance and Pop music and was a popular nightclub for the city’s gay community. Owned by Michael Brody, it is known as the blueprint for the modern dance club. Legendary DJ Larry Levan made his name here, experimenting with drum machines and synthesizers. The nightclub sold no alcohol and because it was a private establishment, people were interviewed beforehand to gain entry. While the club was not exclusively for the gay community, Saturday night crowds were predominantly gay.
Famous performers include Salsa star Willie Colon, the late Whitney Houston, NYC pop icon Cindy Lauper, freestyle stars Lisa Lisa and The Cult Jam and one of the biggest NYC music stars in history, Madonna, filmed the video for her debut single Somebody at the nightclub.
The Garage was the location for the first ever event thrown by the GMHC. On April 8th 1982, they raised more money for AIDS awareness than any other gay organization in NYC. The nightclub closed down in 1987, drawing 14,000 people to its final two day non-stop dance party. Today, the legacy of the Garage continues to live on in tribute parties, which all are events to spread AIDS awareness.
During the course of the film, Ned and Felix fall in love, with Ned asking Felix to move in with him after the fundraiser at the Paradise Garage. With love comes tragedy, as Felix becomes infected with the AIDS virus. Ned, desperate to save the love of his life, fights harder, all the while supporting his boyfriend who looks sicker and sicker as the film progresses. Once Felix is gone, Ned calls his only friend left at the GMHC, Tommy Boatright, played by The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons. The inspiration for the character comes from real life activist Rodger Macfarlane, who began as a volunteer for the GMHC and would later set up the advocacy groups ACT UP and Broadway Cares.
His role in the film is crucial for he speaks (in voice-over) of a routine he has picked up. When he receives the news of another friend passing, he take their name out of a Rolodex and places it among a pile of other names that he has already collected. By the time he plucks Felix’s name out, he already has two stacks of names, indicating the amount of people in his community Tommy has lost.
All film stills courtesy of HBO Films and Plan B Entertainment.
To contact the author of this piece, contact him @TatteredFedora