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A chronicle of Larry Kramer’s rage-filled fight

Larry Kramer speaking at a Boston gay town meeting at Faneuil Hall in 1987.
Larry Kramer speaking at a Boston gay town meeting at Faneuil Hall in 1987.Ellen Shub

In the celebration of last week's Supreme Court decision in support of same-sex marriage across the country, it's easy to forget a previous and calamitous chapter in LGBT history: the early years of the AIDS epidemic. That period in the Reagan-led 1980s, defined by government indifference and contempt and by the resulting deaths of thousands, is a shameful time that must not be forgotten. Silence still equals death.

On Monday night at 9, HBO's new documentary "Larry Kramer in Love & Anger" arrives as a vivid reminder of that turbulent and tragic era. Directed by Jean Carlomusto, it chronicles the life of author and activist Larry Kramer, now 80, but it zeroes in on his years leading a controversial rage-filled charge to form the Gay Men's Health Crisis and then ACT UP, to help mobilize and save the gay community. As with other recent films about those years, including "How to Survive a Plague," "Vito," and the HBO adaptation of Kramer's "The Normal Heart," the many images of angry demonstrations and bone-thin victims with Kaposi's sarcoma lesions bring those days back to life with devastating intensity. The film is filled with archival clips, many of them of men with jutting cheekbones, lost and irate, helpless at death's door.

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Kramer is famous for his longstanding refusal to play nice and engage in political games while people were dying. His impatience and fury led him out of the more cautious Gay Men's Health Crisis and into the creation of ACT UP, a direct action group that, as we see in clips, demonstrated on Wall Street and, most controversially, at St. Patrick's Cathedral. "We were united in anger and in the death of so many people," Kramer says about his ACT UP work. Kramer didn't care if he was disliked — or, in a way, he liked being disliked, because that meant he was a thorn in the side of passivity and fear. In the compelling opening moments of "Larry Kramer in Love & Anger," we see him at a 1991 AIDS forum screaming, "Plague, we are in the middle of a [expletive] plague" at the audience, beside himself with disgust at apathy.

At one point, Kramer talks about how the aggressive approach by ACT UP altered the national view of gay men. "We're no longer limp-wristed, effeminate drag queens or whatever they always put on television," he says.

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The film spends some time on Kramer's early years, as the son of an unhappy father who called him a "sissy," as a Yale student who tried to kill himself, and as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of the 1969 Ken Russell film "Women in Love." In 1978, he published the novel "Faggots," which was critical of gay culture for promiscuous sex and drug use; he came under attack by many gays, who resented his judgment. Some of the best old footage in the film shows Kramer talking about the book and monogamy with film historian and AIDS activist Vito Russo on cable-access TV in 1978.

If you're already familiar with Kramer, or if you've seen "The Normal Heart," which is autobiographical, then very little about "Larry Kramer in Love & Anger" will be new or surprising to you. He's a major noodge, a cry in the night, a polarizing figure within the LGBT community and outside it, a survivor, and a hero. The film follows the familiar narrative, which is neatly compressed in the title; he's a man who is angry because he loves. That's not to say that "Larry Kramer" is bad; it just doesn't deepen the conversation about him, or examine his work from a contemporary perspective. It's a well-done, if familiar, portrait of a man and his times.

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LARRY KRAMER IN LOVE & ANGER

Directed by: Jean Carlomusto

On: HBO

Time: Monday, 9 p.m.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.