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Gay Icons and American Dreams in New Documentary: Making the Boys

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Off Broadway, Hollywood and American Dreams in Making the Boys: All About The Boys in the Band

Director Crayton Robey's ambitious new documentary Making the Boys, about The Boys in the Band -- both the play (1968) and the film (1970) -- chronicles the life, times and resonance of a cultural phenomenon and imparts the bittersweet story of its author, Mart Crowley.

Robey juxtaposes the play, film and playwright within the decade of the 1960s, which began with the hope of JFK's election, was radicalized during the Civil Rights movement and transformed by provocative, off-Broadway theater, and ultimately, was rocked by the Stonewall riots, which erupted on the night of Judy Garland's funeral. The documentary also makes excruciatingly palpable the personal tragedies later brought about by the AIDS crisis, which took the lives of five of the nine members of The Boys' cast as well as the play's producer and director. Making the Boys is laced with fascinating recollections about its immediate and long-term impact, by figures as diverse as former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, author Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and author/activist Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart, Women in Love).

Robey's film captures the exuberance of 1960s Hollywood, when Crowley was a frequent guest at the Malibu beach house of actor Roddy McDowall, famous for his star-studded parties. His home movies reveal a shy, diminutive Judy Garland and an impossibly handsome, robust Rock Hudson in the same frame, a lighthearted Lauren Bacall posing on deck and a mischievous Natalie Wood mugging for the camera. And then there is the adorable, budding playwright frolicking in the sand as he builds sandcastles on the beach. The playwright-to-be is also exposed as a marvelous dancer by his friends, author/producer Dominick Dunn and actor Robert Wagner, as confirmed by footage from The Daisy -- an exclusive, members-only, Hollywood discotheque -- where one finds McDowall's guests out of their swimsuits and dressed, instead, to the nines.

When he realized his long-held aspiration of becoming a writer by masterfully crafting eight gay characters in his play, which was initially produced off-Broadway by the cutting-edge Playwrights Unit, no one was more surprised than Mart Crowley himself -- who heeded and simultaneously took on the powerful, straight New York theater critic, Stanley Kauffmann of the New York Times. On opening night, Crowley wondered if people would find his play funny, to which director Robert Moore replied, "Listen, they've been laughing at fags since Aristophanes, they're not gonna stop tonight."

The Boys in the Band opened to such fanfare that it quickly moved uptown to Theater Four. It ran for 1,000 performances, drew everyone from Jacqueline Onassis to Marlene Dietrich into the audience and was made into a film in which the original cast was kept intact, an extremely rare phenomenon in stage-to-screen adaptations.

Making the Boys mirrors the texture, tone and verve -- 40 years later -- of The Boys in the Band, which led the way for other plays that also became films, such as Love! Valour! Compassion! and Angels in America. The crossover phenomenon is championed by playwrights Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally and Paul Rudnick for its groundbreaking portrayal of eight gay men, who "celebrate" the birthday of Harold, a self-described, "32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy." Presumably, it was lines such as these that cemented playwright Edward Albee's (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) appraisal of the play as "a highly skillful work that I despised." Like Albee, many gay activists felt the play reinforced negative stereotypes and "did serious damage to a burgeoning gay respectability."

The major casualty in The Boys' transfer to celluloid was Robert Moore (Deathtrap, Cactus Flower), a five-time Tony Award nominee who had never directed a film. He was replaced by William Friedkin (The Birthday Party, The French Connection), who remains highly enthusiastic about the landmark movie: "It's one of the few films that I've made that I can still watch. I love it." The cast members, devoted to Moore, were at first opposed to working with the sometimes arrogant, cigar-toting filmmaker. Crowley, however, is clear about Friedkin's gifts: "Cinematically, the picture could not have been what it is, I think, in the hands of a lesser director."

With his new documentary, director Crayton Robey has created a superbly crafted artifact, rich in theater, film and gay history. This artful work also frames the cultural phenomenon of The Boys in the Band's creator who, through originality and risk-taking, survived against all odds. Having started out as a gofer on Elia Kazan's set of Splendor in the Grass, Mart Crowley developed into the screenwriter of Cassandra at the Wedding, an unproduced film vehicle for his close friend, Natalie Wood, and then turned his attention to The Bette Davis Show, a TV pilot, whose script he rescued with his campy dialogue (in which we witness the delicious diva at the top of her campy game in vintage, 1965 footage), finally becoming a celebrated playwright and producer and winning his ongoing battle against alcoholism and depression. His journey is nothing if not a riveting example of a small-town, Mississippi boy's realization of a uniquely American dream.

Making the Boys opens in NY on March 11 at the Quad Cinema and in LA on March 18.