December 11, 2019

Gay-rights pioneer, playwright Kramer subject of new HBO doc

When young gay men began dying in 1981 of a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, waves of shock and fear spread throughout the gay community. The media coined the term “GRID,” for gay-related immune deficiency, until the term “AIDS” replaced it the following year. 

Watching his friends die one after the other, author and screenwriter Larry Kramer knew he had to act. By 1982, he’d helped found Gay Men’s Health Crisis to provide support and needed services to people living with HIV and AIDS. In 1987, he founded the more militant ACT UP to demand political action to fight the epidemic of AIDS. As Kramer said in a TV interview during that era, “We have to start being powerful or we are going to die.”

In the documentary “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” which screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and premieres June 29 on HBO, filmmaker Jean Carlomusto weaves together interviews with Kramer and other gay- rights leaders, shot over more than three decades with footage of street protests and tense activist meetings, to uncover the complex man at the heart of the story.

The film begins in September 1991 at an AIDS forum in New York City. AIDS had already killed 150,000 people in the U.S., and the death rate showed no sign of slowing. Kramer took the podium. He looked tense, his brow furrowed, his head resting on his palm. Finally he broke his silence and screamed out the word no one wanted to hear: “Plague!” People around the world are despondent, he shouted, as his eyes searched the room as if looking for a solution. Throughout the film, Kramer is as fiery as a biblical preacher railing against apathy and effeteness, going so far as to call his fellow homosexuals “sissies” for not being aggressive in demanding more.

In his semi-autobiographical 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” which won a Tony Award for best play revival on Broadway in 2011, Kramer made the protagonist Ned Weeks (based on himself) an obnoxious character. Kramer has a reputation of being a bombastic loudmouth and a contrarian. He admits it openly, almost gleefully. But, as the writer Calvin Trillin points out in the film, “a certain generation of gay men have reason to believe that Larry saved their lives.”

Kramer was, and still is, a controversial and divisive figure. He alienated many in the gay community for criticizing promiscuity and recreational drug use in his 1978 novel “Faggots,” though he was slightly redeemed when those activities were shown to have increased the spread of AIDS. He resigned from the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1983 because the other members weren’t as confrontational as he felt they needed to be. His next group, ACT UP, galvanized a community of activists to demand the Food and Drug Administration speed up the approval process for AIDS drugs, staging violent demonstrations and singling out government and medical officials for criticism.

Although much of the film takes place in New York, AIDS activism also had a strong presence on the West Coast, with groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles marching in solidarity. Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger,   one of the country’s first openly lesbian rabbis, began working at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in 1988 as its first full-time rabbi, at the height of the AIDS crisis. 

“People were diagnosed and dead within six weeks,” Eger said. “It was a very bad time. People were in deep mourning, in crisis and traumatized.”

Eger ran a support group for HIV/AIDS patients and their loved ones, which continues to meet. 

“Most of my days as a rabbi were spent simply driving from hospital to hospital,” Eger said. She went from West L.A. to downtown, Sherman Oaks, Long Beach and UCLA, visiting sick congregants. “In 1988, people didn’t understand the disease. You’d go into a hospital, and they’d make you put on a full-body gown,” she said.

In “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis are shown visiting hospital patients in New York, bringing them trays of food that nurses had left outside their doors because they were too afraid to enter. 

The documentary also explores lesser-known aspects of Kramer’s life: his contentious relationship with his parents, the affection he shared with his older brother, Arthur, and his difficult experiences as a closeted gay college student at Yale, where he attempted suicide. Kramer lived in London in the swinging ’60s, where he came to terms with his sexuality and also blossomed creatively. He worked for United Artists on several films and wrote the screenplay for “Women in Love,” a provocative adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel that won him international recognition.

Kramer tied his background in the film industry with his success as an activist. “We really were doing street theater, and we had a lot of really talented people,” he says in the film. “I was trained in the movie business. You call it direct action, I call it putting on a show.”

It’s remarkable to see Kramer deliver fiery, impassioned speeches in the 1980s and ’90s, contrasted with footage of him in July 2013, hospitalized for complications from a liver transplant related to years of living with and battling HIV. At 78, the disease that he spent much of his life fighting, both politically and personally, had taken its toll. He could barely lift his head or speak.

The film ends triumphantly, as Kramer marries his longtime partner, David Webster, while in the intensive care unit of New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Kramer left the hospital in May 2014 and is currently at work on a book about gay history in America. He has led an unconventional life, and continues to fight for AIDS victims as they continue to wait for researchers to develop an AIDS vaccine and cure.