Film legend Barbra Streisand and gay activist Larry Kramer would both like to set the record straight about their failed attempt to bring The Normal Heart — Kramer’s 1985 play about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic — to the big screen. The problem is, each of them says it’s the other’s fault. In an exclusive interview with EW, Streisand calls Kramer “brilliant, courageous, stubborn, and self-destructive.” The writer’s response? “She never put her money where her mouth is.”
“I love this play, and I love its cause,” says Streisand, who first purchased the film rights to The Normal Heart after seeing its original Off Broadway incarnation in 1985. (A Tony-nominated revival is currently running at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre.) Over the next ten years, she worked with Kramer and another screenwriter to adapt the story, which focuses on the struggles of writer Ned Weeks (Kramer’s literary alter ego) during the early days of the AIDS crisis in NYC. Streisand intended to direct the film and take the part of strong-willed Dr. Emma Brookner, a supporting role in the play.
But a movie never materialized. According to Streisand, Kramer was unwilling to allow adjustments that were necessary to make the script more cinematic. “I was using the best of [the play]. But there are certain things you do for film,” she tells EW. “Larry only wanted to use his screenplay. I couldn’t have my hands tied artistically.”
Kramer has another version of the story. He says Streisand rewrote the script to make her character the star, marginalizing the gay characters who are at the center of the play. “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,’” claims Kramer. “She subsumed all of the motivations into her part, as the doctor.”
UPDATE: “Larry’s claim that I wanted to expand the role of the doctor to make her the star and marginalize the gay characters is nonsense,” Streisand writes in an email to EW. The star has also posted a “truth alert” about the matter on her official website, claiming that Kramer is “rewriting history.”
Streisand also says Kramer rejected a deal from HBO to turn the play into a TV project after major studios balked at its subject matter. “Larry wouldn’t accept their highest offer of $250,000. He wanted a million dollars,” says Streisand. “Larry held out for the money. I didn’t. Why not advance your cause? Why keep this movie unseen for all these years?” Kramer claims he never heard about such an offer and says Streisand repeatedly abandoned the project to work on other movies.
Even after the rights to the play reverted back to Kramer in the mid-nineties, Streisand says she never stopped supporting the project. Then, last year, Kramer posted a missive on the website of AIDS-awareness organization ACT UP, calling Streisand a “hypocrite” for failing to make The Normal Heart. “When he printed that diatribe on the web, I was very hurt by it, because it’s not true. I started to write [a response] but then decided not to do it,” says Streisand. “It was wonderful to read some of the comments from the gay community about this. They fought the battle for me. It was really lovely for all these people to come to my defense.”
Streisand says she was most upset by Kramer’s accusation that she had sabotaged the fight for gay rights. “At a time when we are all pulling together to achieve such giant steps for gay equality, it is anguishing to me to have my devotion to this cause so distorted. I think my efforts for the gay community and my immersion in securing its constitutional entitlement and other equitable rights is quite evident and a matter of record.”
On that point, at least, the two agree. “She’s a mighty force, and I certainly agree she has done a good deal for the gay world,” says Kramer. “She just wasn’t going to make this movie right.”
But there’s still hope for fans who dreamed of seeing Streisand in a movie version of The Normal Heart. The Oscar winner says she would consider playing Brookner in Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s planned adaptation starring Mark Ruffalo, although it would be difficult for her to let go of her creative vision for the movie. “If I could direct it today, I would direct it today,” Streisand says. “Because it’s been very hard for me to find a piece that I feel as passionate about. I mean, I love this play.”