Crayton Robey's Making 'The Boys' recaptures a lost moment of history, one that proved a watershed in terms of how gays are depicted in popular culture.
As he notes in his film, without Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, there might be no Will & Grace, no The L Word, no Torch Song Trilogy or Angels in America. Crowley's play -- about a group of gay men gathering for what turns out to be a high-tension birthday party -- was a landmark and a ground-breaker -- and yet its moment came and went so fast that an entire generation of gay men have no idea what it is.
But Robey's documentary, which serves as a kind of biography of Crowley himself, casts a wider net. It chronicles changes in both gay culture and its acceptance by mainstream America, reminding us that, in fact, 40 years ago, gays and lesbians seemed to have fewer civil rights than black people or women. (Actually, they still do, at least until the ban on gay marriage is lifted nationwide.)
The history of The Boys in the Band -- a play initially meant for a one-week off-Broadway run that turned into a Broadway sensation and a hit film -- is intriguing. The play was the first such mainstream effort to focus on gay characters, to make them human and three-dimensional, even as it explored (and exploited) the self-loathing that society seemed to impose on gay life.
Considered shocking in its time, it was funny, acidic and very dramatic. There were lines around the block the day after it opened and it became a worldwide sensation.
But as Robey's film shows, between the time the play opened in 1968 and the time William Friedkin's film of it reached screens in 1970, there had been a tectonic shift in gay culture. After the Stonewall riots helped launch the gay-rights movement, there was a gay backlash against the play - because it focused on the kind of self-hatred that closeted life entails, at a moment when gay pride was beginning to flower.
Robey's film is at its best in looking at the play itself and its impact. It's fascinating to listen to playwrights like Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally, Paul Rudnick and Edward Albee discuss the play's impact on them. Albee is particularly tart, outspoken in his dislike of the play from the very beginning (a playwrights' program he helped cofound was the initial producer).
It's also intriguing to see the ripple effect of the play -- on its actors' inability to get other work after being in this show and on the subsequent AIDS epidemic, which claimed the lives of so many of the original cast.
Crowley himself is an intriguing character, though Robey probably spends a little too much time on his personal problems, including bouts with alcoholism and his long-running relationship with Natalie Wood (which began when he was her personal assistant during the filming of Splendor in the Grass). Still, for a pioneer whose work still holds up, he's both witty and humble.
Making 'The Boys' is a fascinating slice of contemporary history, one that too easily could be overlooked or forgotten. Entertaining and enlightening, it's a look at an important moment whose effects are still being felt.