As Making the Boys demonstrates early on, while Mart Crowley’s gay melodrama The Boys in the Band may have been a groundbreaking for a number of reasons when it hit stages and screens over 40 years ago, its impact is lost to many in today’s “post-gay” culture. Thankfully, filmmaker Crayton Robey (who also made the When Ocean Meets Sky documentary about Fire Island’s gay communities) has given us a compelling reason to either reconsider the polarizing work or to experience it for the first time in its original context – that of a pre-Stonewall cultural landscape where gay characters were either monstrous, or helpless, or not there at all.
Comprised of interviews with artists involved in the development of the play and film, commentary from gay historians, playwrights and activists, and reels of fabulous old newsreel footage and photographs of the birth of the gay rights movement, Making the Boys makes the likely very wise supposition that many of its viewers have probably never actually seen The Boys in the Band. Sound bites from young gays (gay Real World roommates and fashion designer Christian Siriano, to name a few) and older gays-on-the-street make clear that while Boys may have made a splash back in the seventies, its direct impact wasn’t necessarily widespread. From this starting point, the documentary exhaustively details how the play and subsequent film came to be and why, love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny its importance.
The cast of Boys
Most of the narrative is provided by playwright Mart Crowley, a Southern gay man who moved to NYC to make it as a writer after graduating from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (Only five minutes in and already I was surprised and delighted – because although I attended the same university, they for some reason didn’t make a big selling point of being the alma mater of the writer of a gay theatrical powder keg.)
After working for Natalie Wood on the set of Splendor in the Grass and becoming very close friends with the actress, Crowley was lured to Los Angeles to be Miss Wood’s assistant. There he fell in with the beautiful Hollywood crowd of the sixties, rubbing elbows with the likes of Roddy MacDowell and Rock Hudson and getting hired to polish up the pilot for a sitcom for Bette Davis (which tragically wasn’t picked up – can you IMAGINE?).
After the success of gay playwright Edward Albee’s scathing hetero marriage drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Crowley saw that the world might be ready for a similarly warts-and-all look at the lives of “normal” gay men, and set about writing a story of a group of regular guys gathering for a birthday party where the revelries spin a bit out of control. The show was a huge hit, the film followed, and amidst it all the gay rights movement burst to rainbow-hued life. Soon a work that was once heralded as being revolutionary and groundbreaking was considered stereotype-reinforcing and embarrassing, and the backlash began.
Boys’ precarious position as both the first out-loud, out-proud gay play and a scathing, uncompromising look at internalized homophobia and repressed rage among gay men is the centerpiece of Making the Boys, and the documentary allows voices from both sides of the discussion have their say. Albee, for example, loathed the play and declined the opportunity to be involved in its production, while other writers like Terrence McNally, Tony Kushner, Larry Kramer and Paul Rudnick generally acknowledge the piece’s shortcomings but argue that its positive impact outweighs them.
Contemporary gay figures like Michael Musto, Andy Cohen, Marc Shaiman, Carson Kressley, Cheyenne Jackson and Dan Savage also weigh in, most with unqualified praise for a piece of art that celebrated the very existence of gayness in a time where nearly all gay lives were lived in secret.
The Boys, back in the day
Love or hate The Boys, it’s impossible not to appreciate the daring of the men who took to the stage and screen to tell their story – and Making pays an appropriately respectful amount of time on the show’s original cast. Some had their careers ruined by their association with the controversial show, and others proudly refused to apologize for it. One has vanished entirely, having cut all ties to the his former colleagues.
Original play and film cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White share stories from during and after the whirlwind years spent performing Boys all over the world and for Hollywood, and they speak of the experience lucidly and with great nostalgia. It’s heartbreaking to see how many of the men were lost to AIDS (the film doesn’t turn away from the many tragedies of the crisis) and frustrating that they were lost before their contributions to gay visibility were truly acknowledged.
Boys in the Band director William Friedkin – who directed the film before going on to helm hits like The Exorcist and The French Connection (not to mention the notorious gay serial killer thriller Cruising, although that detail isn’t mentioned here) – is also on hand to discuss translating the play for camera and working with the already very tight cast, who had at that point been performing their roles for years together. Having admittedly been a bit leery of Friedkin’s intentions since Cruising, I was surprised to find that the most touching moment of the film for me came when he tried to put into words the experience of losing so many of his former colleagues to AIDS.
The memorable dance scene from the film
Also present to discuss Crowley’s development of the script and apparent numerous breakdowns before and after are Hollywood legend Robert Wagner (who brought Crowley on to produce Hart to Hart for a number of years after Boys) and writer/producer Dominick Dunne, who was instrumental in getting the film off the ground. The obvious affection with which they speak of Crowley and his work is wonderfully endearing, and of course they drop a few fantastic anecdotes about Hollywood in the ’60s along the way.
I wasn’t expecting much going into Making the Boys, but even with higher expectations I would have been impressed by this thorough, comprehensive, well-paced and intelligent look at a work that has been considered at various times to be a trailblazer, an embarrassment, an essential text, a misstep, a camp classic, a misunderstood gem, and ultimately an essential piece of gay cultural history. A must-see for gay men of all ages, whether they’re fans of the Band or not.
Making the Boys is available on DVD starting November 22nd.