Where the boys are, culturally
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, April 22, 2011
In 1968, “The Boys in the Band” was a theatrical sensation. By 1969, the groundbreaking look at gay life was considered hopelessly dated.
Therein hangs a tale, and as told by a new documentary, “Making the Boys,” it’s a fascinating one. Mart Crowley’s play about a birthday party whose banter turns increasingly catty may now seem antiquated, but director Crayton Robey shows how timely it once was.
The event that overtook “Boys in the Band” was the Stonewall uprising, which occurred 14 months after the play premiered. That spontaneous challenge to a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar was followed by New York’s first gay pride parade. Suddenly, gays were “out’’ — well, some of them — and Crowley’s closeted characters were dismissed as self-hating and stereotypical.
As the documentary reveals, some people disliked the play even before that. One of its private detractors was Edward Albee, whose caterwauling “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is widely considered the template for “Boys in the Band.” (Crowley doesn’t deny it.)
Interviewed recently, Albee calls the drama “skillful” but says he “despised” it. He then laughingly laments not having invested in the play, which made money both here and overseas, and was revived in the United States in 1996.
Crowley, who attended Catholic University in the District, always intended a career in theater. But writing about his own family was difficult, he jokingly recalls, because “Eugene O’Neill stole my life.”
After working as a gofer on “Splendor in the Grass,” Crowley was hired as Natalie Wood’s personal assistant. Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, became longtime patrons — although Wood couldn’t get approval for a script Crowley wrote for her, in which she’d play twin sisters, one straight and one lesbian.
After the playwright’s “Boys” followup bombed, and he turned to drink, it was Wagner (who’s interviewed in the film) and Wood who rescued him. Crowley never penned another hit play, but he did return to show business as a writer and producer on “Hart to Hart,” Wagner’s 1979-1984 TV series.
The documentary includes clips from the 1970 film of “Boys in the Band,” and recollections from some veterans of the original production. Seven members of that cast and crew died of AIDS, a poignant reminder of another way that gay life changed significantly after 1968.
“Making the Boys” offers remarks by just about every prominent American gay writer or talker, from playwright Tony Kushner to sex columnist Dan Savage. Sometimes, it errs on the side of inclusiveness, with banal commentary from gay reality-TV shows. Taking the broad view mostly works, however. It helps the film demonstrate that “Boys in the Band,” far from being a fringe phenomenon, is woven deeply into recent American culture.
Contains discussion of sexuality, alcoholism and AIDS.