The irresistible story behind “The Boys in the Band”

Making The Boys

on March 21, 2011 by Pam Grady

A year before the Stonewall riots, a play opened off-Broadway in which all but one of the characters was openly and matter-of-factly gay. It was a first. Expected to play to mostly gay audiences in a limited run, Mort Crowley's "The Boys and the Band" instead widened beyond its base, played 1000 performances and became a 1970 movie directed by William Friedkin and starring the original cast. Crayton Robey explores that cultural moment, along with Crowley's life and career in this engaging documentary that will speak to anyone interested in gay history, theater, or old Hollywood. Released in theaters in a limited run, the doc will no doubt enjoy a long afterlife on TV and home video.

When "The Boys in the Band" opened in April 1968, it was a breakthrough, the first play to make everyday gay life its subject. But the play's acidly funny story of a birthday party gone sour was also full of unhappy characters that didn't like themselves very much. After Stonewall, long before the movie came out and the play reached that thousandth performance, it was widely derided for its internalized homophobia. The play had other repercussions for the cast, who felt that their association with it limited future job opportunities. Only a handful went on to later success and one of them, Cliff Gorman, was embittered, convinced that the play kept him from achieving stardom.

It is hard to make a lively documentary out of talking heads, but Robey has done that as he puts the play into historical perspective, taking the long view that ties in "Boys" with Stonewall, the gay rights movement of the past 40 years, AIDS (which took the life of the play's original director Robert Moore, as well as five cast members), to where the movement stands today. Crowley, Friedkin, the play's production designer Peter Harvey and cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White offer the testimony of those intimately involved in the production. Various playwrights, including Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally and Larry Kramer, offer their views on the production, pro and con. (Albee, who read the play long before it was produced, loathes it.) People, like Village Voice columnist Michael Musto and actress Candis Cayne, lend personal perspective. And Robey talks to a handful of young people who've never heard of the play and aren't sure why they should have.

The doc also tells the story of Crowley's failed Hollywood screenwriting career. A close friend to Natalie Wood, Crowley turned to writing plays and eventually landed back in Hollywood in the late 1970s to produce his friend (and Wood's husband) Robert Wagner's TV series Hart to Hart. In his mid-'70s now, Crowley is loquacious and charming as he recalls the highs and lows of his life. Wagner's affectionate reminiscences fill in some of the blanks.

What Robey interweaves with all the talking heads is priceless. In addition to clips from Friedkin's movie, there is footage of the play. There are excerpts of TV news shows about homosexuality from back in the day that are shocking in their viewpoint nearly half a century later. Best of all is the footage that Robey uncovered from Crowley's early days in Hollywood: there he is at '60s era hotspot The Daisy frugging up a storm; and there he is (along with seemingly every hip and happening star) at one of Roddy McDowall's Malibu beach parties. At these moments, Making the Boys becomes a time capsule of a long-gone era.

Making the Boys is at once political and personal. It is a history lesson, a sociological study and a memoir. It is a tale told with warmth and humor. And it is irresistible.

Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Crayton Robey
Producer: Susan Bedusa, Crayton Robey and Douglas Tirola
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: March 11 NY, April 29 LA

Tags: Crayton Robey, Susan Bedusa, Douglas Tirola

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