Larry Kramer careens from fluff to gravitas
Filmed performances have certain advantages: They trickle big city productions down to smaller venues, and they make what may be an ephemeral project — the live performance — into a document. But theater translated to film has its disadvantages, too. That electric, inspired sense of "liveness" is lost, along with the particular energy and charisma of its stars. And the exaggerated poses and inflections of an entertainer who plays to a crowd on the stage can come across as affected and painfully showbizy on film.
Writer and performer David Drake examines the perks and pits of gay life in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, an example of how much is lost in the translation from stage to the screen. Based on Drake's 1992 show, a kind of Christopher Street "Cats" that was the longest-running one-man stage production in N.Y. theater history, Larry Kramer is a semi-autobiographical journey in one gay man's life, from childhood to adulthood, and back again, mixed up with impressionistic fantasy vignettes that strive to capture the sensation of being a gay New Yorker in the age of AIDS.
Performed by its writer, a jovial blond with an animated face and perky manner who will either strike viewers as endearing or tortuously affected, Larry is the kind of bare-bones production that depends almost entirely on the aura of its performer. A minimal amount of cinematic influence is exerted by director Tim Kirkman, who seems happy to occasionally assert his presence with a change in camera angle or lighting.
Drake shifts from his giddy boyhood self — signaled with a voice raised to a squeaky pitch — playing with Barbies, discovering the mano a mano pleasures of the Village People, to a gimlet-eyed West Village hedonist surveying the body-obsessed meat market and unofficial support group of the urban homosexual milieu. In one scene that typifies Larry's often whiplash movement from comedy to lump-in-the-throat bummery, Drake paints a vivid picture of the testosterone-pumped sexiness of gay gym culture, until his observational shtick turns into a dark political statement about the gay obsession with body-building and strength as a way to protect oneself against gay bashers. It's a compelling point, but by shifting from a statement on narcissism and sex to one on violence, you wonder if Drake isn't ennobling a shallow jockish pastime with some kind of political urgency.
Shifting from a bubbly kid cooing about the butterfly paperweight he's bought for his dad to a husky-voiced über-butch gym bunny, Drake's lightning transitions between young and old, between light comedy and the kind of drama in which he cuts out his heart Vegas-style and serves it to the audience on a golden platter can be, simply put, irritating. Drake's brand of melodrama often borders on kitsch — transparent and calculated as it tugs at the heartstrings and adopts a quickly recognizable rise-and-fall rhythm.
Drake's gestures are Ethel Merman broad, and in going through some of the ritual strokes of gay stereotype (gay men love musical theater), even the most sincere moments become lost in a swirl of clichés. What might have seemed fresh in 1992, when Larry Kramer debuted off-Broadway, has now become a little stale as the popular culture conception of gay life has broadened, allowing for far more ambiguity and sophistication and personal insight. One wouldn't imagine nine years would make that much difference, but a film like The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me shows just how quickly the insights of one decade can become the clichés of the next.