Reviewer: James van Maaned
Rating (out of five): * * * * 1/2
Who'd have thought that a documentary about the origins and history of what is generally considered to be the grand-daddy, the "original" of all gay plays -- The Boys in the Band -- could and would stand-in for a (latter half of the 20th Century) history of gay America. And yet, somehow, against all odds, it does. Damn well, too. This is even odder, considering that the point is made during this fine documentary, by no less than playright Paul Rudnick, that no work of art should have to represent the Gay (or Black or Jewish, etc.) experience. Yet Mart Crowley's famously transgressive boulevard tragi-comedy has borne the burden of doing exactly that -- It's brilliant!" "It's trash!" "It's so negative!" "It's so real!" -- for the several decades since its debut.
Crayton Robey, the gifted director of the new documentary Making the Boys, while telling well the story of how this play came to be in an era when homosexuality was just beginning to emerge from its love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name status, also tells a tale of gay life -- from then till now. By the end of this treasure of a film, you'll have lived through something much bigger than the play and its creation, fascinating though this is. If you're a senior citizen in particular, you'll have lived again gay life when the closet was pretty much the only option/venue of choice, then Stonewall and the emergent 60s, through the 70s (when the love that dare not speak its name seemed unable to close its mouth), the coming of AIDS and the ensuing huge losses, and the continuing, consistently up-and-down drive toward genuine equality.
Of course Crowley and his play are central here, and that's fine. The playwright's a great raconteur, and he leads us through the Hollywood period when times were a-changin', taking us to a private club where sexual preference did not seem to matter so much (except to certain people -- and Crowley names names). As someone who saw the original production of "Boys" (in 1968) while the play was in previews prior to its opening at Theatre Four, I was fascinated to learn the inside dope from the prime insider. And what a load of pungent memories Crowley has to offer.
Over the years -- from its birth, in fact -- The Boys in the Band has proven a kind of touchstone for attitudes by and about gays. One of the important services (and certainly the most interesting aspect) the movie provides, is the interviews about these attitudes that Robey conducts with literary figures (Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally and the like), politicians and activists (Ed Koch and Larry Kramer), media figures (Michael Musto, Dan Savage), and even -- how I wish there were more of them! -- the younger set (Carson Kressley and Christian Siriano). Americans are generally dreadful so far as history is concerned (their own and that of others) and gay Americans seem no different. Still, the twatty, self-involved and uncaring attitude toward gay history exhibited by Siriano may make you want to smack the kid. Albee's attitude, on the other hand, is something else entirely.
No fan of the play since before it was produced (it was Albee's own producer Richard Barr who first championed the "Boys"), this noted playwright appears to feel that we need to silence visions and versions of the gay experience that can be seen as negative. This is tantamount to censorship so far as I am concerned. Real equality means showing all our variations. I agree with Albee when he says we must be ever vigilant (something of which Siriano might take notice, just as German Jews of the 1930s might also have done). Youth imagines that what it knows is "normal" and "constant" because this is all it has ever known. The older you grow, the more history begins to impact, and the liberties we gays now enjoy were fought for hard and long and may still be lost -- more easily and quickly than some of us seem to think.
In any case, the film will have you arguing with whomever you're watching it with (maybe even with yourself), as the speakers and their attitudes entertain and provoke. Along the way you'll lean what part the late restaurateur Elaine played in the filmed version of the play (as well as how director William Friedkin ended up directing it); why casting the roles proved so difficult (agents wouldn't submit their clients for gay roles); how the set design was created; and perhaps most moving of all, what happened to those original cast members (out of nine, two remain alive and one is missing-in-action). For those of a certain age and persuasion, the film is simply unmissable, though I would hope that younger, perhaps ever straighter film fans might give it a whirl. To call the film an "education" is to put it mildly.
Out on DVD last week, the disc comes complete with the following featuerettes: "Relationship Time with Dan Savage, " "Dominick Dunne's Hollywood," "The Missing Scene," "Malibu '65," and "A Perfect Match."
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