02/27/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Excerpt: Larry Kramer's First Big Battle

Today, Larry Kramer is known as one of the great gay activists and author of The Normal Heart. But forty-five years ago, he was a struggling producer-screenwriter ready to release his adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's classic Women in Love. Not long ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kramer in his West Village apartment about this groundbreaking film for my new book, Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos. It's clear from that talk that Kramer has always been a rebel.

Back in 1969 when the film was released in England, Women in Love instantly became famous for Alan Bates and Oliver Reed's full-frontal nudity in the film's pivotal wrestling scene. Today, the film is equally startling for its prescient awareness of same-sex themes.

As Kramer recalled, adapting Women in Love to the screen was the easy part. Getting it produced was much more difficult because it involved the arduous task of negotiating a final approved cut of the movie with the British Board of Film Censors. Even before production began, Kramer sent a copy of his script to the board's chief, a man named Lord John Trevelyan, who liked to brag, "We're paid to have dirty minds." Trevelyan didn't hold out much hope for Kramer's project and told him he doubted Women in Love could be filmed at all. "The wrestling scene," as it was soon to be dubbed, and its male frontal nudity sent immediate shock waves through the BBFC.

"Trevelyan told us in no uncertain terms that this scene would present an insurmountable roadblock to the film's release," said Kramer.

Kramer and his director, Ken Russell, gambled that Trevelyan might give his approval if all the sex scenes, when filmed, "followed the novel to the letter." Kramer had deep respect for the Lawrence novel. He especially liked that Women in Love ended with the thesis that opposite-sex and same-sex relationships were equal. His script ends with a husband (Alan Bates) telling his wife (Jennie Linden), "You are enough for me as far as a woman is concerned. But I wanted a man friend as something as eternal as you and I are eternal."

She replies, "You can't have two kinds of love. You can't have it because it is impossible."

"I don't believe that," he counters.

End of film.

Kramer lifted that dialogue directly from Lawrence. "I wasn't quite out of the closet at the time I was writing this," he recalled. "Now you could look at it as full, ripe and redolent with gay themes."

In his research, Kramer found an unpublished section of the novel, he noted, "in which [the characters] Rupert and Gerald go off and have a full-blown homosexual affair. Of course, it was not used. You get the sense, though, that Lawrence is playing around with all this, perhaps subconsciously. In a quote from the unused passage, Lawrence described the two characters' relationship: 'They scarcely knew each other, yet here was this strange, unacknowledged, inflammable intimacy between them. It made them uneasy.' "

Kramer knew he couldn't get away with reinstating what Lawrence, in a preemptive strike against the censors of his day, had cut. But as producer he could bring a faithful adaptation of Women in Love to the screen. Regarding that nude wrestling scene, he noted, "It's an incredibly passionate scene in the book. There's no question it is sexual. There's no question these two men are battling homosexuality and the closeness of their relationship. And in the book it results in some hint of climax for them. Lawrence wrote about it in peculiar ways. Lawrence was troubled by sex. There's a great deal of homosexuality in this film. Had Lawrence written and lived today he could have been [openly] gay."

Kramer's ploy to "get around" Trevelyan's objections to the male nudity hinged on providing a "faithful adaptation" of the Lawrence novel. "The scene I wrote always had them wrestling in the manor in front of the fire, just like the novel."

It was a difficult scene to shoot. In the beginning, both Bates and Reed pleaded that they were too sick to film it. One had a cold, the other a bad leg. Then there was the sensitive subject of penis size; Kramer's expert eye did note a slight discrepancy. "Neither actor was happy about displaying it all," he said. When they finally did film the scene, "Oliver would disappear for a few moments before each take, we later discovered, so that he could make his penis look bigger, which on the closest of inspections it appears to be, though in reality Alan's was."

Finally, it was the day Kramer dreaded most: showing the film to Lord John Trevelyan.

"Trevelyan was a real character, a social butterfly," Kramer recalled. "England had a lot of men like that. Men who had sick sex lives, like he's into S&M or a Peeping Tom. He gave you that feeling. He loved his work, and he had an enormous amount of power."

With Women in Love, Kramer and Russell personally met with Trevelyan, and their ploy was to include more footage of the wrestling scene than they thought necessary, to give them some room to bargain.

"In the end, it was a compromise," said Kramer. "We snipped a couple of feet... but not so you could tell in any way. That shut him up."

It helped too that Trevelyan really liked Women in Love, so much so that he didn't want to butcher it.

Upon the film's release, the debate among critics focused almost exclusively on the wrestling scene. Almost no mention was made of Bates' speech at the end regarding the dignity of same-sex relationships.

In some countries, curiously, the wrestling scene got excised almost completely. In Argentina, for example, the scene was edited so that it showed the two men shaking hands before they begin their nude fight, and then cuts directly to their panting on the rug, lying side by side. It became known as "the great buggery scene," an example of censorship working backwards to make matters even more provocative.

From the book SEXPLOSION Copyright 2014 by Robert Hofler. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.