One of the problems with creating a groundbreaking work of art is that it doesn't always take long for it to seem dated compared to what follows in its wake. Art and culture don't exist in a vacuum, and the rapid changes in the world that surrounds an artist's work can be difficult to predict. Playwright Mart Crowley knows more than a little about all this; in 1968, Crowley's play The Boys in the Band opened in a small workshop theater off-Broadway, and within days it was the talk of New York City, moving to a larger theater where it ran for over a thousand performances. It was the first successful American stage drama to deal with life in the gay community and treated its characters as people rather than the target of mean-spirited jokes. But the play had been running for close to a year and a half when a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, launched the gay liberation movement in America, and suddenly Crowley's play no longer seemed like a triumph in the eyes of the newly politicized gay community, but an unflattering relic of an earlier era.
Filmmaker Crayton Robey was a teenager freshly aware of his homosexuality when The Boys in the Band first became a cause célèbre, and in his documentary Making the Boys he explores what made the play so important while also chronicling how the culture began outpacing the play during the course of its run, and offers an even-handed look at why some celebrated Crowley's drama and some reviled it. Robey also paints a telling portrait of Mart Crowley as he evolved from a struggling writer to a wealthy and influential playwright to a lost soul touched by alcoholism and exile, and finally, his latter-day status as an elder statesman of gay culture.
Crowley had literary aspirations as a child, but he got his foot in the door of show business as a personal assistant to his close friend Natalie Wood. Crowley's work with Wood led to his first assignments writing for film and television (including an unsold sitcom pilot starring Bette Davis that was originally intended to co-star Paul Lynde as Davis' sharp-tongued gay friend, far ahead of the curve for TV in 1965), yet little of his work was actually produced. After a New York Times piece on contemporary theater cited several playwrights who were clearly writing from a gay perspective but using straight characters to tell their stories (without naming any of the playwrights in question), Crowley decided it was time for a gay playwright to write a genuine bit of gay theater, and The Boys in the Band was the result. The story takes place during a birthday party in a Greenwich Village apartment, where a handful of gay men have picked out what they think will be a fine present for their vain and age-conscious pal -- an evening with a handsome twentysomething hustler. While the constant flow of bitchy dialogue and the presence of a few characters who were clearly struggling with their identity as gay men led some to criticize the play, the biting wit and emotional force of The Boys in the Band made it an immediate success, as did its look into a world that was still unknown to most of mainstream America.
Making the Boys is most engaging when it focuses on Crowley's early years in show business, and how The Boys in the Band was brought to the off-Broadway stage (and later to the screen in a film version that featured the full original stage cast). Crowley comes off as a man of genuine charm and mannered wit, and most of the story is an engaging showbiz success story with a twist. The film is just as compelling but considerably darker as it explores the fallout of success -- the post-Stonewall perspective on the play, which saw it viewed as a stain on the gay community (ironically for portraying a pre-Stonewall perspective on gay life in New York), and the poor fortune that would haunt many involved in the play and the movie. Most of the men in the play's original cast would struggle unsuccessfully to find steady work in film and theater, in part because of their close association with The Boys in the Band, and five of them would succumb to AIDS in the 1980s, as well as the director and producer of the original New York production. Perhaps the most humiliating fate was saved for Robert La Tourneaux; after playing the half-bright hustler in the play, he ended up turning hustler in real life to pay the bills, and later slipped into drug abuse.
Nonetheless, if Making the Boys tells a bittersweet story about Mart Crowley and the play that made his name, it also gives many of the surviving participants (along with a number of contemporary and latter-day observers) a chance to tell their side of the story about The Boys in the Band, and if not everyone here agrees about the lasting importance of the play, everyone concedes that it broke a barrier that need to be brought down. Crayton Robey's documentary makes clear that as the gay community still struggles to move forward, they need to understand and celebrate their history, and with this documentary Robey shares a story worth remembering; the result is a film that's arguably more interesting and of greater lasting worth than the screen version of the play it celebrates.