Larry Kramer stirs it up

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday March 29, 2016
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When the documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger screened last year at Frameline, one could overhear audience comments such as, "I know he did great things, but I still can't stand him!" This ambivalence about the complex Kramer is honestly explored in this film now available on DVD from HBO, distributed by Amazon. The opening scene is Kramer at the AIDS Forum in NYC, Sept. 1991, shouting, "Plague! We are in the middle of a fucking plague. Forty million infected people in the world is a fucking plague, and nobody acts as if it was." Kramer reflected the sense of despondency of the time, with the near-miraculous protease inhibitor drugs still 4.5 years off. Kramer crystallized the rage many people felt about the lack of government response to the crisis. Kramer's message was a simple one: the LGBT community must learn to be powerful or it was going to die. He didn't care about being unpopular or called obnoxious. As a friend observed, "Larry's qualities of being a scene-maker and a person who could spoil a dinner party became useful and heroic."

The combative Larry probably had his source in his unhappy childhood, rooted in his hatred of his father. "He called me sissy all the time. We fought like tigers, and we screamed at each other constantly." Having few friends, he lived in his own imagination, performing musical songs and plays in his bedroom. Larry had his first gay sex in 7th grade with a friend over several months, only to have him call Larry a faggot in front of their classmates. At Yale, flunking his exams and thinking he was the only gay student, he attempted suicide by swallowing 200 aspirin. By Larry's own admission, his older brother/lawyer Arthur saved his life by getting him to his first shrink, with later psychiatrists convincing him he could like himself for who he was and didn't have to change his homosexuality.

Living in London during the 1960s, Kramer became an assistant to the head of Columbia Pictures, charged with finding writers and stories for movies, eventually crafting his own screenplays, including his Oscar-nominated script for Women in Love (with its notorious male nude wrestling scene). Inspired by his shrink to write a novel about the gay world, he penned Faggots in 1978 about the fast-lane gay lifestyle in Manhattan and Fire Island. A morality tale saying "gay men's emphasis on sex and treating each other like meat devalues us and makes love relationships impossible," it resulted in Kramer being crucified by the gay press, who warned readers not to buy the book, which many saw as an act of self-hatred and a threat to the sexual freedom so hard-won by the community.

When AIDS reached public consciousness in July 1981, Kramer became a leader by founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a service organization which distributed what little medical information was available. Then he published incendiary articles to shock the community out of denial by saying they had to stop having sex, "until we figure out if the disease was being caused by a virus and we were giving it to each other, endangering our lives." His fiery and threatening rhetoric alienated his fellow GMHC members, who fired him. Exiled to London and turning life into art, he wrote his drama The Normal Heart to get his message out. He formed ACT UP, a civil disobedience group, in 1987 to gain access to new drugs/treatments, with demonstrations ("street theater") on Wall Street, the FDA, and most controversially, at St. Patrick's Cathedral. "We are no longer limp-wristed effeminate drag queens usually put on television. Our image has changed overnight!" Kramer would lash out at Anthony Fauci, the federal government point-man on AIDS, calling him a murderer, even though, as Fauci noted, "We disagreed on how to do things, but not on what needed to be done." His eviscerating comments could cause heads of pharmaceutical companies to shake in their chairs.

This masterfully produced documentary makes clear that without ACT UP's medical activism, those drugs would not have appeared when they did, saving thousands of lives. With the reprieve, Kramer, long infected by HIV, went into a depression after realizing that men were continuing their old pre-AIDS-era sex habits, with Kramer screeching to audiences, "We are more than our cocks!" Most of the film is based on previous press interviews of Kramer and his friends/supporters, as well as those with the director Jean Carlomusto. They alternate with scenes of a fragile Kramer (cantankerous and bossy even when near death) in the hospital in July 2013, recovering from complications of a liver transplant brought on by years of battling HIV, cared for by his longtime patient lover David Webster. Before leaving the hospital in May 2014, they were married at his bedside. Today Kramer continues to write novels on gay American history. This emotionally wrenching film's point of view is aptly expressed by a friend: "I'm alive today because of Larry Kramer. He was the pain in the ass everyone needed him to be, and there are thousands of men, women, and children who are alive today because of Larry Kramer. I'm very grateful for his life." Love him or hate him, Kramer's mark as "one of the men who won the war [against AIDS]" is undeniable.