Larry Kramer Talks Gay Marriage and 'Normal Heart' Sequel, Says Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy "Were Both Gay"

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
"Larry Kramer in Love and Anger"

At 80, Kramer is the subject of a glowing HBO documentary and the author of a controversial new book. After he barely survived a near-death experience last fall, many people expected the activist and author to gently exit the stage. But now recovered, and feisty as ever, he opens up to THR about everything from Lincoln's homosexuality to his own marriage.

Few people have had more impact on the modern gay rights movement than Larry Kramer, the combustible Oscar-nominated screenwriter, author and activist who's played a supporting role in every gay milestone of the past 30 years. So when news of the Supreme Court's landmark gay marriage decision broke last Friday, it seemed only natural to give him a call. Kramer, who celebrated his 80th birthday a day before the ruling, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. He recently finished writing a screenplay that's a sequel to The Normal Heart, his transformative AIDS-era play that was adapted into a hit HBO movie last year. In April, he released a mammoth new novel called The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart, an in-your-face epic romp through American history from an unapologetically gay perspective. And at 9 p.m. Monday, HBO is airing Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, an intimate biopic by Jean Carlomusto that debuted at Sundance earlier this year. Last week, as rainbow-clad crowds swarmed the Supreme Court, America's gay eminence held forth from his Fifth Avenue apartment on Washington's secret gay presidents, Hollywood's most fabulous closet cases and his star turn on HBO.

What was your reaction to the Supreme Court decision? Did you ever imagine that you'd be around to see same sex marriage legalized?

No! I honestly I never expected this would happen while I was still alive. Honestly, the whole thing is a bit surreal.

Gay people of this generation will live in a much less dangerous world than previous generations did. Do you wonder how your life would have been different if you were coming of age today? Are you wistful about the fact that all this progress came so late in your life?

It's a good question. I certainly don't feel wistful or resentful. I'm happy that this new generation of kids won't be condemned to the same unhappiness as I was. But I guess there is a little anger there. My anger fuels most of my activity, certainly all my writings. I'm angry that the world has been so unkind to gay people from the beginning. I'm furious that so many years of my life were spent under a cloud of self-hatred and shame. That's why I wrote The American People. It was my attempt to remind gays and lesbians people that we have played an instrumental role in this nation's history right from the beginning. I was tired of reading history books written by straight people who seem unaware that homosexuals ever existed.

Your new book is marketed as a novel, but you insist that it's an accurate history of gays in America. But many scholars are a bit dubious about the historical figures you claim were bisexual or gay. Lincoln, Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Franklin Pierce, J. Edgar Hoover, just for starters. I can understand wanting to claim Alexander Hamilton, but Herbert Hoover?

(Laughs.) You know, I did 10 years of research on this book. And I have collected evidence to back every claim I make. What's surprising to me is how much of it has been ignored by mainstream historians until now. They've basically cut gay people out of our history. It struck me as a great disservice that had to be corrected. I want every gay person in America to read my book. Every population should know their history.

You were pretty upset with your friend, playwright-screenwriter Tony Kushner, because his screenplay for Lincoln made no reference to the president's homosexuality. Have you patched things up?

We did. We're only recently talking again. Though I still don't understand what happened to make Tony de-gay the film like that. I had introduced him to lots of academics who filled him in on the evidence of Lincoln's love affair. I wasn't asking for a whole love scene. Just a second or two of acknowledgement. But Tony wouldn't go there, which made me lose a bit of respect for him. We're still friends, but it's not the same.

One reviewer blasted your book as an absurd commingling of fact and fiction. How much of it are we supposed to believe?

All of it! People say to me, "Can you prove x? Can you prove Lincoln was gay?" And my reply is: "Can you prove he was straight?" (Laughs.) Point I'm trying to make is that historians always assume the heterosexuality of their subjects, sometimes in direct contradiction of available facts and evidence. Take Hamilton. Even some mainstream historians like Ron Chernow have begun to acknowledge his homosexual relationships. During the war, he wrote lots of love letters to a fellow officer whom he was very much in love with, a man who got killed during the war. And the letters are unmistakably love letters; he referred poignantly to their feelings for each other. Also, people forget that Hamilton was practically brought up by a gay couple in one of the islands of the Caribbean!

I don't think many people realize that you began your career as a script doctor for Columbia Pictures and earned an Oscar nomination for your 1969 adaptation of Women in Love. Did you ever write a screenplay on a gay subject?

I tried writing one after the success of Women in Love, a film I also produced. I thought I had a little more freedom to write what I wanted. I optioned a book about homosexuality, Forbidden Colors by Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer, but I couldn't get anyone to buy it. I had worked as a story editor for both Columbia and United Artists, and I knew that they were not going finance gay stuff. But no one else would touch it, either. So I never wrote another screenplay about anything gay. Actually, I only took one more screenwriting assignment after that, a dreadful movie named Lost Horizon. I'm ashamed to have my name on it, but I made so much money from it that I could afford to be a full-time author.  

What was the gay scene in Hollywood like when you started working there? I assume it was pretty secretive?

Well, it certainly was very, very discreet, but everyone knew what was what. The truth is, Hollywood has always been a gay town. Even in the '30s and '40s, there were plenty of famous gay actors and directors who partied and socialized together. Cary Grant. Randolph Scott. Barbara Stanwyck. Cole Porter was famous for his parties — glamorous dinner parties where all the guests had to be nude.

Really? Cole Porter seemed like such a gentleman.

(Laughs.) Yeah, well, I hate to disappoint you. And the great director George Cukor was more or less openly gay; he was replaced on Gone With the Wind because Clark Gable didn't want a gay guy directing him. George Cukor, of course, was very friendly with Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were both gay. They were publicly paired together by the studio. Everyone in Hollywood knows this is true, but of course I haven't seen it printed anywhere.

Do you think Hollywood movies have had a positive or negative effect on the public perception of gay people?

They've been a mixed bag, really. For decades, the only gay characters we saw were either evil or effeminate or both. Beyond these stereotypes, most people had no idea what gay people looked like. It's only recently that more real, more honest portrayals have made it to the screen.

The first big gay movie I recall is Boys in the Band, which wasn't exactly a joyful film.

Not joyful at all. Everybody in that film was morbidly depressed or fucked up. Not exactly an ad for homosexuality. (Laughs.)

Are there any gay-themed films you admire?

I loved the one based on the Annie Proulx story, Brokeback Mountain. So beautiful and well done. But British films have always been more sophisticated about gay subjects than Hollywood is. When Columbia Pictures sent me to England in '61, one of the first films I saw was called Victim with Dirk Bogarde, which was about a man who was being blackmailed by somebody he had sex with. A man! That was years before an American film would dare to tackle that subject.  

The upcoming documentary about you features a particularly poignant scene showing your marrying your husband, David, from a bed in a hospital ICU. Do you have much memory of that day?

Well I was pretty out of it when we got married. I was really, really sick. They still don't know what was wrong with me, but I had some kind of infection that just clobbered me physically and mentally. It had nothing to do with HIV. Something was infected and then they couldn't find out what. But in any event, two days before we were supposed to get married on our terrace on Washington Square, I got sick and they rushed me to NYU intensive care. As soon as I was stabilized, we got permission to have the wedding right there in the hospital. And as you'll see in the documentary, I was completely out of it. After the "Do you take this persons" and the "I dos," I slumped into my bed, and couldn't sign my name. Eventually I had to sign the marriage certificate with an X.

Why didn't they postpone the wedding until you were out of the hospital? Were they afraid that you were going to die?

I did almost die. I don't know if that's why he did it, but if there's anyone who kept me alive it was David Webster, my lover.

How long have you been together?

We first met in 1966. I picked him up in the Metropolitan Museum! Our first go-around was in the '70s, but things didn't work out and we eventually split up. He's the leading character in my novel Faggots. After that, we didn't see each other for 15 years. By then I had lost a lover — the lover that I wrote The Normal Heart about. David had lost his lover too. So one day, after 15 years, I called him up about designing a house for me — he's an incredible architect — and that's how we started up again. At first I was reluctant because I didn't want to go through the pain I experienced the last time around. But he makes me incredibly happy.

How did getting married affect your relationship?   

Well, we've been living together for 15 years now, so it didn't really.  

How did the HBO documentary come about? Despite your in-your-face reputation, I know you're kind of squeamish about too much personal publicity.

It's true. I was walking home one day from an Act Up meeting and ran into an old filmmaker friend named Jean Carlomusto who came up to me and said, "Larry, I wanna make a documentary about you." I was horrified. I told her, "I'm not ready. It's too final. I've still got lots of work to do." She laughed at me and said, "Well, I'm gonna make the movie whether you like it or not." So I let her do it, and I'm thrilled with the result. In many ways it's about the movement more than it is about me. It's about fighting back. There's a lot in it about Act Up and gay anger and pain. I think it's a historical record that the kids will look back on as they go forward. Hopefully it will have a long life.  

Would you be rather remembered as an artist or as an activist?

Can't I be both? I mean, I still see myself as a writer — it's what I love to do — but activism runs in my bones. It's only in this country where they make these distinctions. In countries like France or Germany or South America, novelists regularly write about society and politics. And they're not shut out of the mainstream because of it. It's different here in America. I think of myself as a literary writer, but I have been shut out of being taken seriously because of my political stance. The reviews of The American People from the straight press were just awful. They just crucified the book.

I've read a few good reviews.

Yeah, well, a few. But for the most part, they all tend to review me, rather than my book.  

Isn't that the risk you take by being such a brash, larger-than-life figure?

Well, all writers are larger-than-life characters in some way.  

Well some more than others. Not all writers have harangued Ed Koch as a murderer in the lobby of his Fifth Avenue apartment building. The Normal Heart was a huge hit for HBO. Have they agreed to air the sequel?

Well, I've just recently finished the screenplay. Now I'm waiting for HBO to figure out what to do with it. Everyone from the original cast is up for it. Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello and Mark Ruffalo, they're all here in New York — and they're all longing to do the sequel.

Does the movie pick up in modern times or in the midst of the AIDS crisis?

It picks up pretty much where it left off, after Felix's death. The main character, Ned Weeks, has been cast out as a pariah and struggles to find his way back. Eventually he goes on to form Act Up.

Has Julia Roberts agreed to reprise her role as well?

Well, she said she wanted to. The cast on the movie became intimate and a very close, thick cast, which often happens with this play. Everyone bonds in very moving ways. I hope she will come back.

What kind of response did you get after that aired?

All I know is that some 15 million people have seen the movie one way or another! It was one of the most viewed movies on HBO. Interestingly enough, the Liberace movie [Behind the Candelabra] was also right up there. So, two of the biggest watched movies on HBO were films that the studios all turned down. They all turned down The Normal Heart. They turned down Liberace too. And HBO was smart enough to take both on.  

This Supreme Court decision must be a kind of closure for you.

Well, it's certainly a incredible scene and a joyful day for us. Going forward, our lives are going be very different. But the fight isn't over. Far from it. I've just written a piece commemorating the 34th anniversary of the day that the first AIDS cases were reported in The New York Times. It was July 3. The Times reported that there were 41 cases of this baffling disease. And now, as you know, there are some 60 million people living with AIDS around the globe. After all these years, AIDS is still eradicating entire communities. Research for a cure has slowed down to a trickle. Even in America, infection rates are going up again. So I don't think it's a good idea for us to get too comfortable or apathetic. This has been an astounding week, but now is not the time to rest on our laurels. I'll take a little time to enjoy the victory and then get back into the fight. Not much time left, you know.