May 03, 2011

MOVIES: Making the Boys (Crayton Robey, 2009)

Making the Boys, which is finally getting a theatrical release after a couple of years on the film festival circuit, explores the impact and legacy of Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band. When the play opened off-Broadway in 1968, it was the first major play to attempt an honest depiction of gay men as neither sick nor villainous. Since then, it's faded somewhat in memory; the movie's man-on-the-street interviews find that many younger gay people have a vague sense that they should know what it is, but aren't quite sure. Even among those who remember it, the play is viewed by many as a mildly embarrassing relic; its assortment of bitchy men at a drunken birthday party are not seen as encouraging role models.

And there were those who felt that way from the beginning; Edward Albee thought the play "skillfully written," but refused to invest in it, believing that its portrayal of gay men would be harmful to the burgeoning gay rights movement.

But despite those views, the play was enormously successful. It ran in New York for over five years; there were two American road companies; and the play was translated into multiple languages. The success of the play gave Crowley enough clout to keep the entire original cast for the 1970 film version, and there was even a cast album, a rarity for a non-musical.

One of the strengths of director Crayton Robey's film is how well it shows how quickly things were changing for gay Americans (at least in the larger cities) in this era. When the play opened, a year before Stonewall, the fact that the play even existed was seen as an incredible breakthrough; by the time the film opened two years later, its characters were already seen as pre-Stonewall relics, to the extent that the film was picketed by gay activists in some cities. The play had gone from groundbreaking to dated with remarkable speed.

Robey has assembled a large assortment of playwrights, scholars, historians, and cultural figures to talk about the play. Crowley is a charming and engaging figure, and two of the three surviving cast members are on hand to talk about their experience. (There is one terribly sad sequence where we learn that more than half of the 9 original actors died of AIDS.) Friedkin talks about making the movie; in addition to Albee, playwrights Tony Kushner and Paul Rudnick talk about the play's significance.

The movie isn't terribly exciting stylistically (you won't miss anything if you wait for cable or DVD), but it's a smart and entertaining look at a significant cultural landmark.

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