Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys in the Band” was controversial when it opened in the spring of 1968 for its frank depiction of a birthday party where all of the guests were gay.
Nothing like that had ever been seen on an American stage.
Two years later, however, when William Friedkin’s faithful movie version debuted in theaters, “The Boys in the Band” was controversial for a different reason. The gay liberation movement had been under way for a year, and the image of cloistered, self-hating gay men presented in the movie was considered retrograde and harmful to the movement.
(Things were changing so fast in those years at the end of the 1960s that a liberal like producer-director Stanley Kramer was horrified to be criticized by black critics and moviegoers who thought his 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was antiquated and patronizing in its depiction of race relations.)
The other night I watched an advance copy of a documentary, “Making the Boys,” by Crayton Robey, that details the creation of the play, its first production in 1968 and then the fall-out of subsequent decades.
The 90-minute movie debuted at the Berlin Film Festival this year and was also shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and is set for a theatrical release in New York City in late winter. It’s a fascinating, balanced look back at a play and film that have gone in and out of fashion several times (the WPA Theatre did a hit mid-1990s revival and last year there was a site-specific staging in a real apartment that received mostly good notices).
Robey talked with just about everyone who was connected to “The Boys in the Band” from Mart Crowley to film director William Friedkin to the late Dominick Dunne (who produced the movie version).
“Making the Boys” includes some tough criticism from Edward Albee who was part of the stage company that produced the play but who declined to invest in it himself (the playwright wryly regrets that decision in light of the piece’s five year run in New York and countless international productions).
Tony Kushner talks about the play’s historical importance in opening the door he was able to walk through 20 years later with his Pulitzer Prize-winner “Angels in America.”
Crowley’s personal story is compelling. He worked as a gofer on Elia Kazan’s 1960 film “Splendor in the Grass” and struck up a friendship with its star Nataltie Wood, who hired him to work as her assistant after the filming wrapped.
Crowley spent much of the 1960s in Hollywood hanging out with Wood and her celebrity friends (Robey includes great home movie footage of a 1965 Malibu beach party with Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, and Rock Hudson). It was Wood who pushed Crowley to pursue his dream of returning to New York and writing a play. Wood’s widower Robert Wagner contributes a good interview to the documentary.
“Making the Boys” shows us how the gay actors in the play and film – Friedkin used the original stage cast in his movie — had a tough time maintaining their career momentum in the 1970s. Eventually, all of them died from complications of AIDS.
Two of the three straight cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White are interviewed — the wonderful actor Cliff Gorman (above right, with Robert LaTourneaux) died prematurely from cancer — and talk about the type-casting they faced.
“Making the Boys” presents important cultural history in a very entertaining manner and should be much discussed when it is officially released in three months.