LAST YEAR, HBO aired the movie version of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the autobiographical play that he wrote in 1985, a fictionalized account of how he came to found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in response to the AIDS epidemic—Kramer insists on the word “plague”—only to be expelled from the organization a few years later due to irreconcilable differences. Now a new documentary on Kramer has been released by HBO, Larry Kramer In Love and Anger, which airs this month.
The movie starts with director and friend Jean Carlomusto at Kramer’s hospital bedside in 2013 when he was recovering from complications from a liver transplant he’d received a decade earlier. The scene is hard to watch if you’re used to Larry Kramer the fearless firebrand giving a speech, as it shows a vulnerable and loving side that hasn’t often been seen in public. It ends with Kramer and his longtime lover David Webster being married in the same room.
Director Jean Carlomusto blends interviews with many other activists and writers who were involved with or wrote about AIDS, among them Andrew Holleran, Vito Russo, and Lawrence Mass. She does a stellar job in highlighting Kramer’s accomplishments, some of which are not as well known as his AIDS activism, such as his authorship of the screenplay for the great Ken Russell movie Women in Love (1969). What first made Kramer famous as a gay writer was his controversial novel Faggots, published in 1978. Completing his arc as a novelist is the recent release of The American People, Part I: Search for My Heart. In the intervening years he founded ACT UP and became the leading agitator for a host of causes around HIV treatment and care, the development and testing of new drugs, and the practice of safer sex.
Larry Kramer in Love and Anger underscores the central importance of its subject in educating the gay community about AIDS and in changing the course of the plague itself by challenging the American healthcare system and those in charge of it in both government and Big Pharma, often employing provocative tactics. But this anger, as the documentary argues persuasively, was completely justified by the circumstances, and without it gay men could have been, in Kramer’s words, “wiped off the earth.” The film highlights the crucial role of ACT UP in jolting the medical research establishment into action, culminating in the development of protease inhibitors and other effective HIV drugs. Many people would argue that Kramer’s contribution extends, albeit less directly, to progress on other areas related to GLBT equality, such as same-sex marriage.
That said, this is a “warts and all” documentary that shows Kramer in some of his darker and more vulnerable moments. Whatever image the viewer may have of Kramer the firebrand or Kramer the writer, the reality is undoubtedly more complicated.
Larry Kramer in Love and Anger
Directed by Jean Carlomusto
Playing at the 17th annual Provincetown International Film Festival, which takes place June 17-21.