Recipient of Isabelle Stevenson Award revels in his role as playwright-provocateur
Count on Larry Kramer to tell you how it is.
“I was surprised,” he says, when he heard the Tony Awards had decided to give him its annual Isabelle Stevenson Award for significant contribution to humanitarian or charitable causes. “The establishment doesn’t usually recognize gay activists who start civil disobedience organizations like Act Up.”
He’s not wrong there. But on the other hand the Tony kudo seems a natural fit, since Kramer’s fiercely vocal activism for gay rights has long been linked to his plays — including “The Normal Heart,” soon to be a film from Ryan Murphy — and to his other creative output.
Kramer started out in Hollywood, where he landed after Yale U. and a stint in the Army, eventually penning the screenplay to Ken Russell’s 1969 bigscreen adaptation of “Women in Love.” But to hear Kramer tell it, his life’s mission has always been to write about “my people,” as he calls the gay community. “’Women in Love’ is one step removed from a gay story, but I knew I couldn’t go any further in Hollywood,” he says.
Soon enough, he left behind his Tinseltown career — including his screenplay for the flop 1973 movie-musical “Lost Horizon” — and his fiction, plays and activism took centerstage. Following his controversial 1978 novel about gay men on Fire Island, “Faggots,” his frustration at the response to the AIDS crisis from the gay community and the medical establishment drove him to co-found service org Gay Men’s Health Crisis. In 1985, he wrote a play chronicling the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
That show, “The Normal Heart,” ran for a year at the Public Theater in the mid-1980s. In 2011, it won a Tony for play revival, as well as thesping awards for Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey.
The modern-day response to “Normal Heart” surprised Kramer. “Suddenly it had a whole new life,” he says. “It wasn’t agitprop, it was history.” The success on Broadway added momentum to the movie version, which begins filming in Gotham this summer with a bigname cast that includes Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo.
Kramer’s split from GMHC over his confrontational tactics led to the 1987 founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up), the protest org that has targeted government bodies and big pharma for inadequate treatment and funding in the fight against AIDS. He also wrote “Just Say No: A Play About a Farce,” about the government’s apathy in the AIDS crisis; and nonfiction collection “Reports From the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist.”
He’s 77 now, but still in the fight. In 2005, he published “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays,” based on a speech he made in the wake of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, and for decades he’s worked on a 3,000-page novel about gays through the years, “The American People: A History.” He’s working on the final edit now, while he collaborates with Murphy on the screenplay for “Normal Heart.”
When asked to consider whether art works as activism, Kramer responds, “Who in hell knows?” and cites statistics that, after the victories of GMHC and Act Up, HIV infection rates are on the rise among young men. “I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that.” (On many nights during the run of “Normal Heart,” Kramer was found in front of the theater handing out fliers and stirring up awareness among exiting aud members.)
There’s more to accomplish. He’s working with director Pam MacKinnon (who’s up for a Tony for her staging of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) as well as on a new production of his unperformed play “A Minor Dark Age.” Besides that, he’d like to write a sequel to “The Normal Heart” — another one, following his 1992 play “The Destiny of Me.”
Clearly, Kramer is not slowing down.