Larry Kramer: The Extraordinary Heart

The thing I will always remember most about Larry Kramer is that he was angry. Righteously and unapologetically angry. Most people quite correctly know Kramer as a fiery LGBTQ activist who spoke with fury against the Reagan Administration and their wanton disregard for the gay community during the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. If Harvey Milk was the yin, Larry Kramer was the yang. Milk was fiery and fearlessly queer, but he found a way to put a sense of cheer into his activism. He was the so-called “happy warrior.” Kramer was a whole other creature. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Larry Kramer smile. People were dying and he had no time to make anyone feel comfortable with that.

Before Larry Kramer became that Larry Kramer he was a screenwriter for Columbia Pictures. His first credit was for “additional dialogue” on the long forgotten counter-culture comedy, Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush. His next film (and first screenplay) was for Ken Russell’s remarkable adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s novel about love and sex in the upper classes, Women In Love. The film received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Kramer’s screenplay adaptation. Perhaps best known for the nude wrestling scene between male leads Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, Women In Love wasn’t just a critical success, but also a financial one. Of course, it did not lack for controversy—the wrestling scene caused the film to be banned in Turkey, and England’s decision to release the film in its uncut form raised many an eyebrow as well.

His followup screenplay, 1973’s musical remake of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon starring Peter Finch and Liv Ullman, was a complete disaster. Critics tore it apart and moviegoers didn’t turn out. After the failure of Lost Horizon, Kramer turned his attention to the stage with his first play, Sissie’s Scrapbook (later retitled Four Friends) that same year. The homoerotic overtones found in Women In Love were replaced by more forthright gay themes. While Scrapbook received a good review from The New York Times, the play closed in short order, leaving Kramer to say he would never write for the stage again.

Kramer released his first novel in 1976, the bluntly titled Faggots—a semi-autobiographical story about a Manhattan man unable to make a loving connection, who carries on in promiscuity one dalliance after another. The book’s depiction of gay life was so controversial in gay circles that New York’s only gay book store took it off the shelves, and Kramer’s community grocery store banned him from entry. Kramer offered no apologies, stating:

“You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing. That’s what I do: I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met.”

Faggots went on to become one of the best-selling gay novels of all time.

Up until 1980, Kramer did not consider himself an activist. Then his friends started to get sick. And then they started to die. HIV/AIDS began to cut a path across the country, but it burned hottest in the gay community. Ronald Reagan was the president, and he could not have cared less. One could say that this is when Larry Kramer became Larry Kramer. When Kramer wrote, it was typically essays on what AIDS was doing to his friends and gay men across the country. He also became a defiant orator who would rail against the Reagan Administration and its disregard for the mounting deaths of those afflicted. “Like a man possessed” is an overused and often silly cliche, but, thinking about Larry Kramer, I can come up with no better phrase.

Kramer’s abrasive nature was difficult for even his fellow advocates and partners in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) group he created in 1981. After Kramer turned his ire towards NYC Mayor Ed Koch in 1984, comparing his weak response to the crisis as being tantamount to murder, the GMHC kicked him out.

After his unceremonious removal from the GMHC, Kramer fled to Europe where he visited the Nazi concentration camp Dachau in Germany. After learning that the camp had started in 1933—eight years before the United States entered the war—and no one objected to its creation, he found the inspiration for his greatest work, the 1985 play, The Normal Heart. A landmark of partial biography, journalism, and riveting human drama, The Normal Heart covers the AIDS crisis from 1981 to 1984 through the eyes of its protagonist (and Kramer stand-in) Ned Weeks. It was something more than a play. It was a document filled with anger, grief, and in its own blunt way, a shattering beauty.

The reviews were rapturous, but the impact was something greater—it took to task all those who knew and did nothing. It was a ferocious and anguished wail that came from some place deeper than the soul. The Normal Heart was the essence of Larry Kramer’s being.

Hi 1988 play, Just Say No, A Play About A Farce was also AIDS-themed and well received. His collection of writings, Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist was published the next year and again made the connection to Germany in the 1930s and ’40s. In Reports, Kramer took his own community to task, saying:

“I must put back something into this world for my own life, which is worth a tremendous amount. By not putting back, you are saying that your lives are worth shit, and that we deserve to die, and that the deaths of all our friends and lovers have amounted to nothing.”

Kramer’s next play, The Destiny of Me, served as a sequel to The Normal Heart, chronicling Ned Weeks’ efforts to find a cure for AIDS. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won two Obies.

When Ryan Murphy decided to do a TV movie of The Normal Heart starring Mark Ruffalo in 2014, Kramer adapted his play for the film. Murphy’s film was nominated for nine Emmys, winning for Best Television Movie.

Kramer continued to write and remained an activist for all of his days. Just this year, despite dealing with great infirmity (he was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1988), Kramer had begun writing a play called An Army Of Lovers Must Not Die, based on the unfolding COVID-19 Pandemic, this generation’s own plague. I’m not certain how far Kramer got before succumbing to pneumonia, but I am certain that whatever words he had spilled onto the page were written in fire.

Larry Kramer died today. He was 84 years old.

 

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