Film Review: Making the Boys

Scrupulously researched, highly absorbing and worthwhile documentary about, like it or not, <i>the </i>seminal gay play.

Mart Crowley's 1968 play The Boys in the Band was a seminal work in which a group of homosexual men were, for one of the first times, presented front and center on stage in all their witty, sometimes combative, sometimes heartbreaking—and oftimes bitchy—glory. Considered a daring, even commercially and artistically suicidal venture, it went on to become a huge off-Broadway success playing for years, as well as an international hit, and hugely influential—in both positive and, it appears, negative ways—for generations of gay men afterwards.

The film made a definite impression on this writer, growing up in Hawaii, who stole his father's driver's license to get into the theatre. (His birth date of 1924 didn't seem to faze the cashier.) I was hypnotized by its depiction of an only dreamt-of sophisticated Manhattan gay lifestyle, and responded much more to the fun aspects of it than the weepy sturm und drang. Later, when I moved to New York, on my first visit to Central Park I saw actor Keith Prentice, who played the promiscuous Larry, emerging from the notorious cruising ground, the Ramble, as if he were still in a scene from the movie.

Clayton Robey, who made the terrific documentary about Fire Island, When the Ocean Meets the Sky, charts the colorful history of this work in this deftly assembled film. Crowley himself is the major character and, happily, he is a dream subject, blisteringly honest and funny, recounting how he went from being Natalie Wood's Hollywood assistant and close pal to his early struggles with the genesis of his play. Rare film footage of everything from one of Roddy McDowall's famous star-studded Malibu beach parties to an aborted Bette Davis sitcom Crowley wrote, to onstage performances of Boys are mesmerizing, as are the many interviews Robey was able to record. If anything, there is almost a surfeit of them, everyone from original cast and crew members of the show, which are essential, to various modern gay pundits (writers Tony Kushner, Michael Cunningham and Larry Kramer, and "celebs" like “Queer Eye”’s Carson Kressley) weighing in with their thoughts about the play, some of which feel unnecessary. Robey contextualizes everything, which is helpful in setting the 1960s, pre-Stonewall uprising scene of gay repression from which the play sprang, but later on the film becomes somewhat diffuse in its coeval attempt to chart queer history, as well as that of Crowley and his work.

But more is better than less in this case, and Robey's research and commitment are to be fully lauded. Of the original cast, who also made the 1970 film of the play, directed by William Friedkin (a choice, salty interviewee), a rare occurrence indeed in Hollywood, where stage actors are traditionally replaced by movie stars, only two—Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White—survive. Their fond, reminiscing words are as invaluable as is heartbreaking the early demises—mostly from AIDS—of the other actors (although the one black performer, Reuben Greene, is evidently alive but could not be located), as well as the original director Robert Moore and producer Richard Barr. Fascinating and sad are the stories of such as Robert LaTourneaux, who played the hustling Cowboy, and ended up much the same way, destitute and drug-addled, or talented Cliff Gorman, unforgettable as the flamboyant Emory, whose career suffered from a certain identification with the role after that, and who died an embittered man. That these actors, who were not all gay but were universally thought to be, is, as many people here state, a testament to their acting skills, and something heterosexual Luckinbill, who took a supposed huge risk, chuckles over.

Crowley describes the alcoholic tailspin his career took in the wake of Boys
success and his subsequent inability to write a successful play thereafter. But his "one hit wonder" has had an amazing afterlife, constantly revived, especially in Japan, where the black character is always made Korean (Koreans traditionally having been considered rather the Other, to put it mildly, in that country). The play has also suffered a p.c. backlash, which began from its original opening, when certain gays objected to its so-called negative portrayal of homosexuals as self-hating messes. These included Edward Albee, who was originally involved in the production, and calls it "a highly skillful work that I despised," while definitely regretting not investing in it. Things turned around somewhat with its off-Broadway revival in 1997, when New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley said that "apparently, it's all right to like The Boys in the Band again."

Robey also interviews current, young gay celebutantes like “Project Runway” designer Christian Siriano, who confesses total ignorance regarding the play. Michael Cunningham's riposte, that for today's much more entitled, less embattled gay people, being dumb is a luxury which the play made possible, is as trenchant as it is true.