Remembering Larry Kramer: Why 'The Normal Heart' Is Just as Urgent and Relevant Now
By Stacy Lambe
HBO / Getty Images
When activist and playwright Larry Kramer died in May, many remembered his voice -- and the way he spoke out during the AIDS/HIV epidemic, especially as the government looked the other way. “We lost a hero. We lost a mentor. We lost a warrior in somebody who wasn't afraid to stand up and demand action,” Matt Bomer tells ET.
Understanding the urgency of speaking out and the power of his words, Kramer formed groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, the latter of which is known for its motto, Silence = Death. “Gays have been discriminated against since day one,” he told ET decades later. “That's why AIDS has become a plague.”
In 1985, he also wrote the autobiographical play The Normal Heart about a writer and his friends who join forces to expose the truth about the AIDS crisis as a community of gay men die all around them. It first premiered Off-Broadway in 1985, at The Public Theater in New York City, before making its Broadway debut in April 2011 with Lee Pace, Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin and Jim Parsons. The Big Bang Theory star later reprised his role as Tommy Boatwright opposite Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Taylor Kitsch in Ryan Murphy’s 2014 HBO film version with Mantello returning in a different role. “I feel fortunate that I’ve had such an incredible story to write,” Kramer later said of the play.
Despite being written 35 years ago, the story’s core message -- the need to stand up and speak out -- is still as urgent and relevant today. “I think it's evident in the streets why it still matters today,” says Bomer, who played Felix Turner, a reporter and eventual partner of writer Ned Weeks (Ruffalo).
The actor is referring to the ongoing protests taking place around the country in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of color as they call for the end of systemic racism and police brutality. The protests also come amid Pride, which has forced many within the LGBTQ community to reflect on its own protest, the Stonewall riots that took place 51 years prior, and how they need to come together in support of this fight. “I think a young Larry would have been out front and center leading that charge,” Bomer adds.
After the film’s debut, Kramer reflected on what adapting the play for the screen meant for the reach and impact of The Normal Heart, which is currently streaming on HBO and HBO Max. “You can’t reach an audience that size on Broadway. Unless you're on forever, which is hard to do.” The playwright also praised the network and the cast for bringing to life “a really very painful story to tell,” adding, “everyone joined in this cause of getting this message across.”
And for the cast, being a part of The Normal Heart was a meaningful experience, that they all said would stay with them for a long time. “It’s made me a better actor, a better person. It’s educated me on so many different levels,” Kitsch told ET.
At the time, Parsons compared filming it with actually being part of a movement. “We were portraying a group of men who would come together and fight to create something and to save something, and that really bleeds over into your psyche and into your heart,” he said.
Parsons also saw the film as an important reminder about what the LGBTQ community went through before progress was made. “You don’t ever want to think that anything would back up too far, but if we don’t stay cognizant of what came before, things, you could get lax,” he said, adding that it’s important for people “to see the horror that was there.”
Ruffalo, meanwhile, understood the impact of Kramer’s work on and off stage and how it influenced how people spoke out today. “As far as activism goes, they could pretty much bow down to Larry Kramer and the ACT UP kids because those guys really redefined what activism was,” the actor said.
Following Kramer’s death, Ruffalo took to Instagram to pay tribute to him. “Dear Larry, It was the greatest honor getting to work with you and spend time learning about organizing and activism. We lost a wonderful man and artist today. I will miss you. The world will miss you.”
That sentiment was shared by Bomer, who also opened up about spending time with Kramer. “I don’t have the words to properly express my gratitude, admiration, and love for you. Your writing was bold, courageous, and urgent. It educated, stirred people to action, and saved lives. A towering intellect and an amazing wit. My time with you is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. Rest In Peace my friend,” he wrote.
While speaking with ET, Bomer also said that “Larry is somebody who’s writing educated me and informed me and moved me and ultimately probably saved my life.”
Back in 2015, during what would become his final interview with ET, Kramer was asked how he would like to be remembered. “I would like to be remembered as a good writer and as a passionate activist. They are two different things and yet they are the same,” he said.
Now he is remembered as both -- and for giving generations that have followed a voice and a sense of urgency.