'Making the Boys': Film Review

Making the Boys Cast 2011
Charlie Poekel
An impassioned evaluation of the cultural footprint of a landmark play considered both revolutionary and retrograde.

In his absorbing documentary, director Crayton Robey digs into the divisiveness of a work held up as a pioneering breakthrough, but just as often dismissed as a pre-Stonewall anachronism.

While its detractors have long sniffed at Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band for perpetuating the stereotype of the self-loathing male homosexual, nobody can deny that the popular 1968 play opened doors with its frank depiction of gay men. In his absorbing documentary, Making the Boys, director Crayton Robey digs into the divisiveness of a work held up as a pioneering breakthrough, but just as often dismissed as a pre-Stonewall anachronism.

The film wavers somewhat schizophrenically between its personal focus on Crowley’s life and its aim to contextualize the play and subsequent William Friedkin screen version in the broader canvas of gay history. But whether you regard the caustic comedy-drama about a boozy birthday party from hell as a guilty pleasure or an un-PC embarrassment, Robey provides fascinating insights.

His interview access is impressive, even if he often seems to be checking off names on a gay-celebrity roll call. That inclusiveness perhaps makes some sense when Carson Kressley, discussing the importance of historical awareness for gay youth, is juxtaposed with the apolitical quips of Christian Siriano, who unapologetically admits he’s never heard of the play.

The most illuminating nuggets come from playwrights, authors and journalists, including Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally, Larry Kramer, Michael Cunningham, Paul Rudnick, Dan Savage and the late Dominick Dunne, who helped get the movie version made.

Their attitudes often reflect ambivalence toward Boys as a dramatic work, while acknowledging it as a bold step forward from gays appearing exclusively as victims or perpetrators of crimes. Rudnick notes that today’s broad spectrum of gay visibility in popular entertainment owes much to Crowley’s play for shouldering that burden of representation single-handedly.

A member of the Playwrights Unit that first staged Boys in New York, the ever-astringent Edward Albee remains convinced that it set back the embryonic stirrings of gay self-acceptance by confirming heterosexual perceptions of gay men as pity-partying outcasts. However, Albee does not weigh in on the obvious inspiration to Crowley of his own play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Crowley’s life among the mid-‘60s glitterati -- hanging out at Roddy McDowall’s Malibu beach house, becoming BFFs with Natalie Wood – is contrasted with the alarmist anti-gay propaganda and aversion therapies of the period. But the impetus to write Boys came from Stanley Kauffmann in The New York Times, goading American playwrights into creating gay characters instead of coded heterosexual stand-ins.

Robey gathers intriguing details about the casting process; the explosive success of the play’s commercial transfer, which ran five years off-Broadway, spawning two national touring companies and countless international productions; and the making of the 1970 movie, aided by recollections from Friedkin and surviving cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White.

The documentary is diplomatic about the film’s limited impact compared to the play, pointing to the intervening Stonewall riots and nascent gay-rights movement as the reason its acid-dipped self-hatred became obsolete overnight. While this view is supported by gay activists and historians, some objective critical assessment might have been opportune to acknowledge that the stage-bound movie exposed the more mechanical aspects of its plotting.

Structurally, Robey’s film suffers from mild ADD, getting sidetracked in Crowley’s frustrated attempts to follow up his Boys success; his escape to Europe; his return to Hollywood, coaxed by Wood to work on Hart to Hart for Robert Wagner; and his sorrow at Wood’s death. While not uninteresting, this material is off-topic.

The film is more engrossing when it explores the stigmatizing impact Boys had on its cast’s subsequent careers. Only Cliff Gorman, who played swishy decorator Emory, went on to significant film recognition, though the actor reportedly felt his opportunities were stymied and died bitter about the business.

The play’s place in gay history is further cemented by the sad fates of original company members touched by the AIDS crisis. Robert La Tourneaux, who played the pretty but dim cowboy hustler, imitated his character, turning tricks to finance his drug habit before becoming an early AIDS casualty. Four more cast members followed, as well as original director Robert Moore and producer Richard Barr.

Opening in limited release in March, Robey’s documentary is a touch too discursive, but its case for the legacy of a once-controversial play and movie makes it essential viewing for anyone interested in queer history.

Opens: Friday, March 11 (First Run Features)
Production company: 4th Row Films
Director: Crayton Robey
Producers: Doug Tirola, Susan Bedusa, Crayton Robey
Executive producer: Bill Condon
Co-producers: Jack Morrissey, Miguel Camnitzer
Directors of photography: Eric Metzgar, Charles Poekel
Editors: Robert Greene, Seth Hurlbert
No rating; 91 minutes