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Making the Boys (First Run Features, NR)

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making wideCrowley’s play appeared at exactly the right time in American history, anticipating a sea change in social values which came about so quickly that his achievement almost got washed away in the wake.

 

It’s hard to exaggerate the prescience of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which opened off Broadway on April 15, 1968—more than a year before the Stonewall Riots, which marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement. When it closed 1,000 performances later, the first Gay Pride parades had already taken place and gay rights organizations were forming across the country. I’m not arguing that The Boys in the Band caused all that to making the boyshappen, of course, but only that Crowley’s play appeared at exactly the right time in American history, anticipating a sea change in social values which came about so quickly that his achievement almost got washed away in the wake.

The rapid change in the climate for gay people had a paradoxical effect on reactions to The Boys in the Band. Originally celebrated as groundbreaking (it was the first American play which acknowledged the presence of a gay community, as opposed to plays which included a gay character or two in isolation), many came to see it as embarrassing. The characters were felt to be stereotypical, the conflicts exaggerated, and the whole experience akin to the gay equivalent of a shonda fur de goyim: basically, displaying the worst aspects of gay life to straight people. This feeling was multiplied by the appearance of William Friedkin’s film of the play, released in March 1970, which preserved the character of the play (and used all the original cast members) and was, of course, seen by far more people.

In case you somehow missed it, The Boys in the Band is about seven gay friends who gather to hold a birthday party which is crashed by an ostensibly straight man (the old college roommate of the man hosting the party). Each has clearly distinguishing characteristics (or each is a stereotype, depending on how sensitive you are to such issues): Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is a conflicted Catholic who seeks refuge in psychoanalysis while living far beyond his means; Bernard (Reuben Greene) is a soft-spoken African-American who still pines for the son of the white family his mother worked for; Emory (Cliff Gorman) belongs in the dictionary under “screamer”; and so on. The quips fly fast and furious, but the metaphorical knives come out before the evening is over, leading Carson Kressley (of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) to declare that Crowley’s play “makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like an Olsen twins movie.”

Both sides get their say in Making the Boys, Crayton Robey’s documentary which features an excellent selection of archival materials and interviews (including contemporary playwrights like Edward Albee and Tony Kushner, film producer Dominick Dunne, as well as younger guys like Dan Savage) which communicate just how revolutionary Crowley’s play was, as well as the mixed feelings many in the gay community had toward it. It tries to cover so many subjects—from Crowley’s somewhat scattered career to the fate of the actors who appeared in this play—that the result is a bit jumbled and uneven. Still, it’s packed with information and lots of fun to watch, and it will make you want to run out and rent the DVD of Friedkin’s movie. Bottom line: This is not a perfect documentary, but if you have any interest in the history of gay life in this country, you need to see it. | Sarah Boslaugh

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