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Writer and activist Larry Kramer has figured as a significant player in a number of excellent recent docu-chronicles of LGBT history and HIV/AIDS in particular, among them Vito and How to Survive a Plague. His landmark autobiographical dramatization of the early evolution of the AIDS pandemic, The Normal Heart, was produced in a shattering 2011 Broadway revival and adapted last year as an HBO film directed by Ryan Murphy, which brought the powerful 1985 play to a wider audience. But Jean Carlomusto‘s intimate portrait, Larry Kramer in Love & Anger, fills a gap by providing, for the first time, a complete picture of this fiercely contentious crusader.
As befits a man famous for his fiery tirades and aggressively confrontational manner, the documentary is both a celebratory tribute and an unapologetic acknowledgement — by Kramer himself, as well as by his allies and sometime adversaries — of his legendary prickliness.
The film, which airs on HBO in June, contains a wealth of photographic material and archival video, forthright interviews and terrific clips from Kramer’s work — including both the Broadway and film productions of The Normal Heart, and its 1992 follow-up play, The Destiny of Me, featuring a young John Cameron Mitchell as Kramer’s alter ego. It’s an invaluable addition to the annals of LGBT rights, most of all for younger generations that tend to forget the struggles of their predecessors.
Carlomusto is uniquely positioned to chronicle the life and achievements of Kramer, having been involved in both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP. Those two cornerstone activist groups were instrumental in eroding the gridlock of institutional indifference toward AIDS research and treatment in the 1980s, when the government, the medical establishment and the media continued to drag their heels and ignore the escalating death toll.
Read more ‘The Normal Heart’: Theater Review
To anyone who has seen The Normal Heart, Kramer’s painful history as the co-founder of GMHC will be familiar. He was eventually ousted when his scathing attacks on the administrations of New York City mayor Ed Koch and president Ronald Reagan were judged to be counterproductive in the fight for funding and support. Well-chosen clips from TV interviews illustrate his uncompromising style and disdain for standard diplomacy. Later, when he forms the more militant ACT UP, his statements became even more inflammatory, labeling the government’s inaction “intentional genocide.”
Many commentators acknowledge that while Kramer’s abrasive approach alienated a lot of people, gay and straight, the progress toward breakthrough protease-inhibitor treatment would have been even slower without his unrelenting assault against conservative callousness and liberal complacency. Perhaps the most moving testament to Kramer’s role as a galvanic agent of change comes from a man he once publicly called an “incompetent idiot,” NIH chief Anthony Fauci. The admiration Fauci expresses for Kramer’s tenacity, and his account of how the two men came to agree they were on the same side, is quite moving.
Irrespective of the viewer’s knowledge of those dark crisis years of stigmatization and despair, and the countless deaths that could have been avoided with swifter action, the ignominious chapter still seems inconceivable when compared to, say, the instant global mobilization that followed the 2014 Ebola outbreak. It’s hard to dismiss Kramer’s outraged assertions that AIDS remained a low government priority because its victims were primarily gays, blacks, Hispanics, prostitutes or junkies. (He uses less politically correct terms.)
Read more ‘The Normal Heart’: TV Review
Carlomusto expands her view of this period by contextualizing it within a bigger picture of Kramer’s life, starting with his troubled relationship with a father who scorned him as a “sissy.” She also details the role of his late brother, Arthur, an establishment lawyer, in getting him into therapy after a suicide attempt at Yale in the early ’50s, a time of zero gay visibility on campus.
One of the most entertaining sections deals with Kramer’s emergence in the liberating environment of swinging ’60s London. He made a notable foray into the film industry with his Oscar-nominated screenplay adaptation of D.H. Lawrence‘s Women in Love for director Ken Russell. The homoerotic nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed gave an entire generation of gay men some choice fantasy fuel and, seen here at length, it remains astonishingly uninhibited even today.
But Kramer’s difficulty with the art-commerce equation made him an awkward fit for the movie industry; his exit was hastened by his embarrassing association with producer Ross Hunter‘s 1973 camp classic, Lost Horizon. A hilarious extended clip from that rarely-shown musical howler features a poolside dance number with shirtless Asian gym bunnies twirling streamers, like a Nepalese Pride tea dance.
Perhaps the most illuminating chapter of Carlomusto’s film — particularly in terms of how it impacted the gay community’s response to Kramer’s polemical statements in the early days of AIDS awareness — deals with the publication of his divisive 1978 novel of gay New York life, Faggots. The book was embraced by some as an affirmative survey of the newly liberated post-Stonewall gay community, but vilified by others as a self-loathing depiction of promiscuous, drug-fueled hedonism taken to extremes.
The unease Kramer expressed in the book about a subculture so eager to define itself through sex that it minimized the possibility of love was seen by some as a reactionary stance against hard-won freedoms. That led to strong resistance within the community when, in the early ’80s, Kramer began urging gay men to rein in their sexual activity until definitive research findings became available on the ways in which the HIV virus is spread.
Carlomusto and editors Geof Bartz and Gladys Mae Murphy effectively frame the biography with footage shot during Kramer’s hospitalization in 2013 while recovering from complications following a liver transplant. The signs of enduring feistiness in a frail, 78-year-old man who has been living with HIV for going on three decades are extremely touching. Even more so is the hospital-room ceremony in which Kramer and his longtime partner, David Webster, are married.
Sorrow, fury and frustration are major themes here, and Kramer has been a consistent cautionary voice over the years, emphasizing that the breakthrough treatments that have made HIV/AIDS a treatable illness are still not a cure. But there’s also a bittersweet uplifting side to the juxtaposition presented, with gay men getting married in hospitals where 30 years ago their fallen brothers were being refused treatment.
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Cresting Moon
Director: Jean Carlomusto
Producers: Jean Carlomusto, Ellin Baumel
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Directors of photography: Alex Rappoport, James Wentzy
Music: Wendy Blackstone
Editor: Geof Bartz, Gladys Mae Murphy
Archival coordinator: Rena Zager
Sales: HBO Documentary Films
No rating, 81 minutes.
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