'The Normal Heart,' playwright/activist Larry Kramer's landmark 1985 play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, is currently enjoying a Tony-nominated revival on Broadway. Also being revived: the blame war between Kramer and Barbra Streisand over why, to this day, 'The Normal Heart' hasn't made it to the silver screen.
Streisand purchased the film rights not long after the play opened off Broadway in 1985. She had planned to direct and co-star as a sympathetic doctor, but a decade later the film still hadn't been made and the rights reverted to Kramer. Last summer, it was announced that the film would finally be made, with Ryan Murphy (the 'Glee' creator and director of 'Eat Pray Love') directing and Mark Ruffalo starring, but that version is apparently being set aside as well.
Streisand and Kramer's war of words heated up this weekend, in a he-said, she-said article on Entertainment Weekly's Inside Movies blog over whose fault it was that the movie never got made. The war continues with a statement Streisand issued Monday, disputing Kramer's allegations. The outspoken Kramer will likely issue a response of his own, meaning that this quarter-century-old dispute between two of the entertainment world's most prominent gay rights activists won't die down any time soon.
The war was really revived last August, however, after Streisand praised the U.S. District Court ruling that declared California's Proposition 8, which forbids gay marriage, to be unconstitutional. Kramer's response was to call the singer-actress a "hypocrite," adding, "If she had made my play about AIDS, 'The Normal Heart,' in 1986, when she first acquired the rights, only to sit on them for a full ten years without filming it, she could have done something for gay rights when we were really in the sewer of death. But no, she chose to go off and make such vitally important and classic movies as 'Nuts' and 'The Mirror Has Two Faces.'" He concluded that, with the Murphy/Ruffalo version in development, he hoped it would turn out "that the best thing that happened for 'The Normal Heart' is that Barbra Streisand didn't make it."
Streisand declined to respond at the time. Talking this month to EW about Kramer, however, she called him "brilliant, courageous, stubborn and self-destructive." She said Kramer refused to allow changes to the screenplay that would have made it more cinematic. "I was using the best of [the play]. But there are certain things you do for film," she told EW. She added that that the studios were generally unwilling to make a movie about AIDS (this was during the years before the release of 1993's 'Philadelphia,' the first mainstream Hollywood film about AIDS, which made the subject less risky for the major studios), so she shopped the project to HBO. She said that the cable channel offered Kramer $250,000 for the TV rights, but that Kramer was unwilling to accept less than $1 million.
For his part, Kramer said Streisand tried to have the screenplay rewritten to make the doctor the primary character, at the expense of the gay characters, including the protagonist, Ned Weeks (a character based on Kramer himself). "She cut Ned's part so much that when she offered the movie to a major star who had played the part on stage, he said, 'I can't play this. The character has no motivation anymore,'" Kramer told EW. He also said he never heard about the HBO offer and noted again that Streisand repeatedly set aside 'The Normal Heart' to star in or direct other movies.
In her response on Monday, Streisand pointed out that two of those projects she produced ('Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story' and 'What Makes a Family?') were both pro-gay rights stories. Of Kramer's charge that she tried to rewrite the screenplay to make her character the protagonist, she said, "He is rewriting history. My objective was not to be in this movie. I only wanted to direct it and I was willing to play the doctor only if that would help get it made." She also said that, after the rights reverted to Kramer in 1996, she still tried to get the movie made, approaching such stars as Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper in the hope that, with A-listers on board, Kramer would agree to make the film. "I think it's unfair to blame me for the movie not getting made," she said. "After all, Larry has had the rights for the last 15 years and he couldn't get it made, either."
At least Kramer has walked back somewhat on his charge that Streisand is a hypocrite on gay rights. "She's a mighty force, and I certainly agree she has done a good deal for the gay world," Kramer told EW. "She just wasn't going to make this movie right."
Will Murphy make it right? As of last month, it's not clear whether he will make it at all. Two weeks ago, Ruffalo told MTV's Movies Blog that he's going to be busy shooting 'The Avengers' for the next several months (he's playing Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Incredible Hulk), so he won't be available to shoot 'The Normal Heart' anytime soon. "I don't know if that's going to happen this year," the actor said. "That's kind of been put on the backburner."
Uh oh. Looks like Ruffalo and Murphy might be the next people in line for a verbal attack by Larry Kramer.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.