Larry Kramer Revives 'A Normal Heart'

The writer and ACT-UP founder has been called "the angriest gay man in the world." But as Jacob Bernstein discovered at a Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer has a little sunshine.

Larry Kramer. Credit: Newscom

The best and worst thing about playing a role well is that if it gets enough attention, you may wind up in it for the rest of your life. Yet there Larry Kramer was on Monday night, after a star-studded preview of The Normal Heart, the seminal AIDS play he wrote 25 years ago, now being revived on Broadway.

And he looked not like the angriest gay man on the planet—as he's frequently been described because of his founding of ACT UP, his searing novel about gay life called Faggots, and his prodigious habit of screaming at every politician in sight. He appeared, instead, a total mensch.

He embraced Ellen Barkin, who's playing the doctor who treats many of the first AIDS patients in the play. He offered Joe Mantello, who stars as the fictional version of Larry Kramer, one of his signature turquoise rings. "Don't order one," Kramer said, when Mantello said he wanted one to wear onstage. "Just see if this fits you and you can have it." He was singing "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," with Daryl Roth, the play's current producer, just moments later.

Who on earth was this Larry Kramer, and what did he do with the man everyone knew so well, the one who just a few weeks before practically started a tour of his apartment with a show of his HIV medications?

From the outside, he looked exactly the same. He was still wearing his trademark Carhart overalls, the aforementioned jewelry still adorned nearly all of his fingers, his round black glasses were where they always were. In short, he was still perfectly maintaining that biblical "is he a prophet, is he a hysteric" look. But something was different about this Larry, and that something may be this: after several decades in which his brand of activism frequently overshadowed his artistic work, this opening on Broadway was giving him a new lease.

Just this week, CAA's Bryan Lourd sent word that he was working on getting the play developed as a movie. Elton John's people emailed to say the Rocket Man was going to take the show to London. Even Tony Kushner, a man with whom Kramer no longer speaks (more on that in a minute), was declaring it time for a reappraisal of Larry Kramer the artist. In a separate interview with The Daily Beast, Kushner said: "I think The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me are genuinely great works. I think Faggots is a great novel, and I don't think people understand entirely the price Larry has paid for his devotion to his politics. This is someone who has a prodigious artistic ability and has made a decision to channel an immense amount of his life's energy into public service cognizant of what the sacrifice meant in terms of his work as a playwright and a screenwriter and a novelist… I can't wait to see the play."

Does Kramer ever think the glass is half full? "Never," he says. "For those of us who live in New York and San Francisco and L.A. who have nice jobs, things are better…But that still does not exist in most of the rest of the world or a great part of this country."

So forgive old Larry a bit of enjoyment. Don't throw him out of the play of his life just because something sort of great is happening to his actual play. His righteous indignation barely got a night off. And there's more than enough anger to still go around.

In the interview just a few weeks back, he was in full court Larry mode, railing about how maddeningly disappointed he is at the rate of progress, both in HIV/AIDS research and gay rights. "Why aren't drug companies looking for cures?" he said. "Why are they spending all this money to extend our use of their drugs while we stay infected? It's almost like they want to keep us in this never, never land of not being quite well and not quite healthy but being able to buy their drugs."

"We're still leaderless," he continued, "we still don't have strong organizations that are fighting for us, there isn't a national AIDS organization out there worth squat in my opinion. There isn't one gay leader you can identify. We still don't have rights, too many kids are sero-converting, there's no sense of urgency. So, yes, we've made process but, no, we haven't made progress."

Though Barack Obama has shown signs of improvement on gay issues of late—notably overturning Don't Ask Don't Tell, hiring a gay social secretary, and striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, Kramer wanted it known he was angry at him too.

"Don't get me started," Kramer said, before launching into an attack almost entirely without provocation. Regarding the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he said, "It's passed. It's still going to take another year before it goes into effect. Everything is delay, delay, delay…He says the right thing and does nothing…No, I don't like Obama. I haven't liked a president since…" He pauses. "I never have."

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Also earning his ire was Marjorie Hill, the current head of Gay Men's Health Crisis, whom he said is "useless" and "unintelligent." And Ron Chernow, whose 2010 biography of George Washington just won the Pulitzer Prize. "How can Ron Chernow get the fucking Pulitzer Prize for the eight zillion pages on George Washington and never indicate that the man was not only gay but a raving queen?"

Anthony Fauci, the government's point person on HIV/AIDS for the last 25 years, said that at this point, he and Kramer are "like brothers"—although that comparison is somewhat relative since the pair are about as combustible as Cain and Abel. ("But he wants to kill me more than I want to kill him," Fauci said.)

Indeed. Kramer said Fauci "has blood on his hands" for not fighting harder, for not shaming one administration after another for more research money, for not "being the leader we needed him to be."

Fauci continued: "He says 'I'm not the leader he wanted me to be,' but it depends on what you are leading. I am leading the bio-medical effort. When we don't have enough money for the Aids Drug Assistance Program, Larry says, 'Tony's not the leader we needed him to be.' I have nothing to do with ADAP. He says 'Tony's not the leader we needed him to be because the drugs cost too much.' I have nothing to do with the price of drugs. Years and years ago, when I was developing a relationship with the Reagan administration, Larry didn't see things happening exactly as he thought they should. He said 'Tony, what you really should do is tie yourself to the White House fence.' Well, I beg to differ with you, because if you chain yourself to the White House fence you will be a hero to Larry Kramer for an hour-and-a-half and then you will never again get into the White House."

"I concede there were things he couldn't do in the early years, that he needed to get inside, but after that there's no excuse," Kramer said.

Does Kramer ever think the glass is half full? "Never," Kramer said. "For those of us who live in New York and San Francisco and L.A. who have nice jobs, things are better. You can live openly because everybody you know does not give a shit whether you're gay or not. But that still does not exist in most of the rest of the world or a great part of this country. And we are not protected. We should have everything they have [i.e. straight people] and we don't."

From time to time, close friends of Kramer wind up in his line of fire too, and when they do, it's rarely pleasant. Last year, a piece in New York magazine described Kramer as being in feuds with Michael Cunningham, Tony Kushner, and Edmund White, arguably the three other most important gay writers of the last 30 years.

The bust up with Kushner (well, we promised we'd get back to it!) was perhaps the most memorable. It happened a few years ago when Kushner was tapped to write a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg. Kramer has long believed that Lincoln was gay, and told Kushner at lunch that he hoped he would make sure this theory would be propagated in the script. Kushner demurred. And thus began the war of the gay theater Gods.

Never mind that the movie hasn't even been made yet. Or that Kushner isn't ruling out putting something in about this question. "I think it was likely Lincoln was bisexual," Kushner told me. "Nineteenth century relationships between men before the category of homosexuality are complicated, so I'm weighing it and sifting it and I think the script will reflect my sense of it."

"Oh, horseshit!" fired back Kramer. "Men had cocks then just as they do now and they figured out the same ways to use them. I am so sick of people hiding behind 'bisexuality.' If he's going to include it why not just say so? Then I would shut up."

At any rate, the question of Lincoln’s sexuality will likely get quite a workout in Kramer’s The American People, a magnum opus about the history of gay people in this country he’s writing for Farrar Straus and Giroux.

Kramer can live with a few lost friends. "Somewhere along the line, very early on in the GMHC days, some article ID'ed me as the angriest gay man in the world, and I remember thinking at the time, what am I going to do with that? I'm angry but I'm not the angriest gay man in the world. But it stuck and I came to realize it's a great tagline…so I've learned to live with it and to adjust to it."

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.