Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Behind The Boys in the Band

The tag line for the 1970 film adaptation of Mart Crowley's pioneering play The Boys in the Band jokingly declared, "It's not a musical." Be that as it may, an original cast album was released in 1968 based on the strength of the show's memorable dialogue. This is but one of many interesting facts recounted in Making the Boys, a fine new documentary about the evolution of the controversial play and subsequent movie. It opens this Friday in Los Angeles and will unspool in other cities this summer.

Produced and directed by Crayton Robey, Making the Boys incorporates interviews with Crowley, surviving cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White, and archival footage from the play's first New York production as well as commentary by such luminaries as director William Friedkin (who helmed the film version); gay playwrights Edward Albee, Paul Rudnick, Larry Kramer, Terrence McNally and Tony Kushner; and actors Robert Wagner (whose late wife, Natalie Wood, was a close friend of Crowley) and Cheyenne Jackson. Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, Julie Andrews and Sal Mineo also appear in vintage scenes from home movies Crowley shot in the 1960's. If all this isn't enough gay "star power," out Oscar winning screenwriter-director Bill Condon serves as the doc's executive producer.

The Boys in the Band, for those younger readers who may be unaware, is set at a Manhattan birthday party celebrated by several gay men that quickly goes from happy to volatile. The birthday boy, Harold (a riveting performance by Leonard Frey), provokes his friends into revealing long-dormant secrets and jealousies. Alternately hilarious and uncomfortable (sometimes both at once), the play was embraced by many upon its 1968 premiere as an unflinchingly honest glimpse into gay lives, but it also angered many theatergoers for presenting what they felt were a number of gay stereotypes.

Crowley was concerned about this, according to the documentary, as well as whether his work was funny enough to be the comedy he primarily intended. In an attempt to console Crowley, the play's producer told him on opening night, "They've been laughing at gays since Aristophanes; they're not going to stop tonight." Crowley had hand-written the first draft of The Boys in the Band in five weeks and envisioned it as something of a gay version of Albee's Broadway and Hollywood smash Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Crowley needn't had worried: he became the toast of New York and the play ran for a then-unheard of five years in addition to spawning the more modestly successful movie.

In the two years between the play's debut and the film's opening, a significant GLBT milestone occurred: the Stonewall riots. Whereas the stage version of The Boys in the Band was heralded as an initial step toward making gay men and their concerns better known, by the time the movie came, out gay men were front-page news thanks to Stonewall, and Crowley's work already seemed dated.

The 41 years since have helped situate The Boys in the Band as a revelatory time capsule that made other, more compassionate gay-themed plays and movies like La Cage aux Folles, Making Love, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me and Brokeback Mountain possible. As original cast member Peter White says in the documentary, "The legacy of The Boys in the Band is in the eye of the beholder."

Sadly, White, Luckinbill and Crowley are the only members of the original production team still living. The play's director, producer and other actors all succumbed to AIDS in the 1980's-90's. Tony Kushner, who wrote the gay theatrical masterpiece Angels in America, notes "The play and movie were long before the epidemic but not untouched by the epidemic." Friedkin, director of the movie adaptation, is still living and went on to make such classics as The French Connection and The Exorcist. He also returned to gay territory (Friedkin is straight) in 1980 with the generally-reviled Cruising, which starred Al Pacino as a sexually conflicted serial killer.

The Boys in the Band was briefly revived on Broadway in 1996 and the movie was released on DVD for the first time last year to mark its 40th anniversary. Making the Boys covers some of the same material as the supplemental shorts on the DVD, but the feature-length documentary is able to go into much more depth. They make excellent companion pieces. As Luckinbill admiringly says in Making the Boys, "Crowley made gay people ordinary" with his work. We've come even farther since.

Reverend's Rating: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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