In my Amazon review of the film, "The Boys in the Band" I noted that the work has always been highly controversial among gay men and that there are just as many people who praise it for its honesty, humor and status as a ground-breaking film, as there are people who condemn it for its stereotypes and self-hating negative images. In that review, I attempted to explain the many reasons why I believe the play and the film were important developments in the history of gay culture. As most people know by now, The Boys in the Band is about eight gay men at a birthday party who are joined by an unexpected straight guest.
Now there is a documentary, produced and directed by Crayton Robey, called "Making The Boys - The Story Behind The Boys in the Band" which chronicles the complete history of the play and film and their impact on modern gay literature and the gay movement.
Mart Crowley, the playwright, began his career with no money, but many important connections. Frequently a guest at Roddy McDowell's star-studded Malibu beach-house parties, Mr. Crowley rubbed elbows with everyone who was anyone in mid-1960's Hollywood circles. Old color home-movies of these parties reveal the presence of such luminaries as Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo, Julie Andrews, Jane Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Tuesday Weld, Judy Garland and Natalie Wood. As it happened, Crowley became very close friends with Natalie Wood and then wrote a play for her about identical twin sisters, one of which is a lesbian. Natalie was game but no one would produce it. Later, also through Natalie Wood, he managed to get a job as screenwriter for the pilot episode of a TV series starring Bette Davis, which was not picked up. Crowley soon found himself washed up, broke and trying to break into the New York theatre. Coming from a dysfunctional family, Crowley wanted to write about his life experiences, but felt that Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neil had already covered much of the dramatic possibilities concerning families with an alcoholic father and a drug-addicted mother.
At the time, many critics were complaining that reputed gay playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee were writing plays about homosexuals and disguising them as heterosexuals. Mart Crowley read one comment, "Why don't those people just write about themselves?" and he thought, "That's a good idea".
Not too long later, he found himself with the finished manuscript of the play, The Boys in the Band. Again, through Natalie Wood, he managed to get the play to the Playwright's Unit, a theatre workshop funded by writers and directors and headed by Edward Albee. Although Albee hated the play and felt it "did damage" to the burgeoning gay movement, several other members of the Playwright's Unit, including Robert Moore who eventually directed the play, saw its commercial potential.
Opening on January 23, 1968, The Boys in the Band was a smash success, attracting not only gay audiences. Many famous actors and other celebrities were soon clamoring for tickets. Due to its unanticipated success, the play moved uptown to a larger theatre, and dared to charge the unheard-of top ticket price of $8. Edward Albee says that The Boys in the Band transformed Mart Crowley into "The Toast of Broadway" and we learn that the play ran for five years. The documentary includes many stories about the celebrities who came to see it. At one point, Mart Crowley relates how Marlene Dietrich not only loved the show, she took the whole cast out to Sardi's Restaurant for dinner.
Making The Boys carefully paints a vivid picture of what straight people thought of gay men at that time. Clips from a vintage CBS Reports episode with Mike Wallace make it clear that gay people in 1968 were on a social par with "practitioners of necrophilia and bestiality" and more than one contributor states that gays were "virtually invisible" when the play was written. These opinions are contrasted by views of younger gay people, many who have never heard of the play or the movie, and take for granted the relatively open times and comparative freedom we enjoy today. With commentaries by gay historians and authors Eric Marcus and Charles Kaiser, gay columnists Dan Savage and Michael Musto, actors Robert Wagner (Natalie Wood's widower) and original cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White, Making The Boys captures a very thorough and extremely accurate reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the late 1960's. One interviewee opines that the play was "shocking" and the film includes interviews with a dazzling array of gay playwrights, including Edward Albee, Paul Rudnick, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, and Larry Kramer. These experts make it plain that Boys in the Band, for better or worse, was a groundbreaking piece that opened the door for other gay plays that followed. In fact, playwright Terrance McNally muses at one point, "Who knows if I ever would have ever written The Lisbon Traviata and Love! Valor! Compassion!..." without The Boys in the Band?
The documentary includes extensive interviews with the director of the filmed version of Boys in the Band, William Friedkin, and before it concludes, it also provides details on the death by AIDS of the original director, Robert Moore, and four of the original cast members (Robert LaTorneaux, Leonard Frey, Kenneth Nelson and Frederick Combs).
In its day, The Boys in the Band was dismissed by many as outdated and criticized for reflecting negative stereotypes. The play's overall message was that we must learn to love ourselves before we can ever be accepted by society in general. This message was overlooked by many in the gay audience, until the careful scrutiny of hindsight and the perspective of time (the whole point of this documentary) allows us to see it for what it was - a reminder of who we were and how far we have come.