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.