How does it feel seeing your life pass before your eyes in a documentary?
"Very strange," admitted Larry Kramer, his plaintive voice a shadow of the nasal bullhorn that excoriated New York Mayor Ed Koch and President Ronald Reagan in the terrifying early days of the AIDS epidemic.
The once fiery, now frail (yet still combustible) AIDS activist and writer is the heroic subject of "Larry Kramer in Love & Anger," Jean Carlomusto's affectionate though by no means hagiographic documentary. The film, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, will air Monday on HBO.
Sitting in the living room of his Greenwich Village apartment, Kramer gives the impression of an old prophet convalescing after a long career of productive wrath. Like Oedipus and King Lear in their final acts, he hasn't exactly mellowed, but his bursts of anger culminate now in a philosophical shrug.
When asked which part of his life was most emotional for him to relive, he answered without hesitation: his wedding to his long-term partner, David Webster. He wasn't being sentimental. The ceremony, which was supposed to be held on Kramer's terrace overlooking Washington Square Park, was moved to an intensive care unit after he fell ill.
"Something was wrong with me, and they didn't know what it was," Kramer said. "I had some kind of infection — nothing to do with AIDS. I had lost it in my head. I couldn't write my name, couldn't speak all the time. As you can see in the film, my husband had to answer for me. It's very hard to watch."
Kramer was happy to discuss any subject, but there were times when he seemed reticent about the film, making me wonder if he had mixed feelings about it. When I remarked that HBO has been very good to him in recent years, having also aired the film adaptation of his groundbreaking AIDS play "The Normal Heart," he replied with a dutiful "Oh, yeah."
Carlomusto, who has long been documenting various facets of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, said that Kramer is happy with the way the film turned out, though he was initially reluctant to sign on.
"It felt a little too final," said Carlomusto, speaking by telephone from Cape Cod, Mass., where the film was being shown at the Provincetown International Film Festival. "Larry also has difficulty being the center of the story. He likes to observe from the view of an outsider. Here comes a documentary, and he really is center stage. I don't think it's easy for him. We're in Provincetown, and he's this gay icon. I asked if he enjoys all these people coming up to him to say 'thank you.' He's embarrassed. There's a preconception that he's a loudmouth drama queen. The notion that he can be a shy, sweet and vulnerable man is kind of alien."
Rough path to 80
Kramer just celebrated — improbably, given his medical records — his 80th birthday. A longtime AIDS survivor, he was brought back from the brink of death by a liver transplant in 2001. He had another close call during the making of the documentary. Carlomusto feared she might have to complete the film without him.
"I wanted to make a film about a complex hero, not eulogize Larry as a saint, which he isn't. If you make him a saint, you lose all the richness of this raging, compassionate man. We're very fortunate that he's still around and that we can honor him in this way."
Kramer doesn't have the energy he once did and admitted that he spends much of his time going to doctors and taking pills. But when we met in May it wasn't just his health that was getting him down. He was recovering from the clobbering reviews of his book "The American People, Volume 1: Search for My Heart," an epic sweep of history through a gay lens.
The work, which he considers his magnum opus, has been labeled a novel by his publisher. But Kramer set out to write the history of his people, and the occasional flight into magical realism — a talking AIDS virus, for example — doesn't in his view undermine the book's veracity.
"Why aren't we teaching gay history?" he asked. "You should know that Abraham Lincoln was gay, George Washington was gay, Mark Twain — all these other people I say are gay are gay. We should be studying how to academically prove that instead of saying, 'Oh, he's made all this up.'"
"The straight critics hate the book, and the gay critics have been very positive," he said. In the aggrieved tone of Philoctetes draining his wounded foot, he added, "I've never, ever had a good review in the New York Times of anything I've ever done."
When I mentioned that Ben Brantley raved about the 2011 Broadway production of "The Normal Heart," which won the Tony for play revival, Kramer countered that "Frank Rich was not kind" when the play premiered at the Public Theater in 1985. (As for that Tony, Kramer admitted, yes, it was nice, but punctuated the sentiment with a long, derisive exhalation of the word "awards.")
If Kramer's ire isn't easily soothed, few have put their irascible natures to better use. As the documentary stirringly recounts, Kramer channeled his outrage over the government's shockingly lackluster response to the AIDS epidemic into communal mobilization. He helped found Gay Men's Health Crisis and, after dissension over his troublemaking tactics drove him out of the organization, ACT UP — two organizations that changed the course not just of the epidemic but of healthcare in America.
In those frightening early days when reports of a mysterious "gay cancer" were circulating, Kramer was known mostly for his Oscar-nominated screenplay, "Women in Love," and his controversial novel "Faggots." He was living off the smartly invested money he made from "Lost Horizon," the disastrous 1973 movie musical he wrote based on the 1937 Frank Capra film, and summering in Fire Island, N.Y., the hedonistic gay mecca that had him questioning some of the tenets of the gay liberation movement even before AIDS.
"What happened started in my age group, with my group of friends," he said. "The house next door to us in Fire Island — everyone died very early, and no one was saying anything. I often make the comparison with a war reporter whose parachute drops behind enemy lines and he realizes he's faced with the greatest story he can tell. I was not a political person before all this. I did not march in the parade."
But when the community called him to serve, his indignation was at the ready. While organizing, protesting, railing, hectoring and shaming — all at full blast — he continued to write, recognizing that it was through his words that he could make the most powerful contribution. (Writer-activist, in that order, is the designation he prefers.) From his typewriter shot newspaper jeremiads and a thinly veiled autobiographical cri de coeur that would turn out to be his greatest artistic triumph, "The Normal Heart."
"I had a terrible flop off-Broadway and didn't want to write a play," he recalled. "But I knew that I had to get the word out and that I could write a play faster than I could a novel. So I just sat down and wrote it. No one wanted to do it. Every director, every theater company, turned it down. Joe Papp was the last person I went to because I was afraid of him. He was from the era when they hated gay people. I didn't know he had a gay son. He took it and kept it running — it was the longest-running play the Public had ever had."
To anyone familiar with Kramer's highly autobiographical oeuvre, the details of his early life recounted in the documentary will hardly be new. But the film movingly charts the often painful and isolating progress of his uncompromising conscience.
The question of what prompted him to transform into a crusader doesn't interest him all that much, though he'd like to figure out how to rouse more gay people from their apathy. When asked if his awareness of the Holocaust in any way informed his activism, Kramer considered the matter at length before making a heartbreaking admission: "I was never particularly a good Jew because I don't believe in God, and I knew that from when I was 15. I realized that after I had been assaulted sexually by one of my uncles."
He immediately went on to say that the philosopher Hannah Arendt and in particular her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" was formative to his development as a writer. What impressed him was not just the sharpness of Arendt's mind but her ability to withstand attacks from all sides.
"Everyone says you should be so happy we've come so far," he said when the subject of same-sex marriage was raised. "I don't think we've come so far. People are still being attacked all over the country. Michelangelo Signorile has just written a book in which he says, 'They still hate us out there, fellows, so let's not rest on our laurels.' My book takes a cumulative look at how badly we've been treated over the centuries. This gets built into the genetic being of all gay people, who don't have the pride they should."
Age obviously hasn't made him more conciliatory, and the old fury was unleashed when the subject of an AIDS cure was raised.
"We just discovered how little actual research the government has been doing," he said. "We had been led to think otherwise. The money that has been voted to NIH [National Institutes of Health] for AIDS research has been held up. The people who hate us in Congress don't want it spent for research. The drug companies, which have created a big market with anti-HIV drugs, have no motivation to find a cure. This plague has been with us for 35 years — that's a long time. I think that's genocide."
Kramer discovered his literary voice not when he found his medium but when he landed on his subject — the oppression of gay people. Although playwriting would seem to be a natural outlet for such a public-minded writer and he'd like to see a revival of his other major AIDS drama, "The Destiny of Me," he feels no special loyalty to the stage. "Millions of people watched 'The Normal Heart' on HBO," he said. "It almost doesn't pay to write for the theater."
A sequel to the film version of "The Normal Heart" is being planned, but Kramer said he's not supposed to talk about it. He did, however, let slip that Ryan Murphy, who rescued "The Normal Heart" from screen oblivion after Barbra Streisand's option on the play (don't get Kramer started) ran out, is behind it. And that it will involve the same characters, play freely with time and likely expand Jim Parsons' role.
"Ryan is hugely busy," Kramer added, his shoulders rising fatalistically.
In the meantime, there's the second volume of "The American People" to finish. It's a daunting prospect given his health concerns, but he said that resentment over the reviews of the first book will fuel him.
"Anger," he impishly admitted, "has always been a great motivator for me."