When Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys in the Band” opened off-Broadway in 1968, humanity hiccupped. Never before had gay men been depicted as humans and beings, carousing onstage together in all their humor and foibles and sadness—like real people. Two years later William Friedkin’s film adaption hit theaters and closeted men secretly lined up to get inside, while those coming out said it gave them the courage to claim their identity.
Absent from the ticket-buyers was Crayton Robey, the director of the new documentary “Making the Boys,” which chronicles the history of the play and film. Robey wasn’t closeted or apathetic or of the mindset (as some were) that “TBITB” denigrated gay men. Robey had a much better excuse for not attending—he wasn’t born.
So why does a 38-year-old gay filmmaker choose this project when all the world is starting to seem like a gay stage? “The play was a major resource for me when I was coming out,” says Robey. “I attended a performing arts high school in Texas, and one day my best friend [a male] kissed me; there were fireworks. A teacher saw us, made us go into his office, and…” (I waited for the inevitable verbal-bashing story)…”told us to discuss it. I loved the play!”
Jump to 2003, and Robey, by now an award-winning filmmaker for “When Ocean Meets Sky,” befriends Crowley, and, after hearing stories from back-when, decides the time for reflection is now. “This is such an important moment in America,” says Robey. “I thought, ‘Why haven’t I heard about it?’” Robey spent the next several years working on the project, which is also very much an expose on Mart Crowley, and those fireworks have resurfaced in the completed film.
“’The Boys in the Band’ is so controversial among gay and straight people,” says Robey. “It made homosexuality visible. Gay people left their wives and children to be a part of this new world. People had seen nothing like this before; it was like a rock concert.” Like every hit show, not everyone who saw “The Boys in the Band” gave it a standing ovation. “The initial reaction to the film was split down the line,” says Robey. “Gay men got pissed off.”
Most of the anger was directed at the characters in the story, grown gay men at a birthday party who make a Chelsea Bitch Brunch look like your mother’s quilting bee. “Let it all happen,” says Robey. “It’s inspiring even if you don’t agree with it.”
Robey sees the film and play as “rich because of opinions,” and emphases the relevance to gay life, good or bad, in 2011. “Forty years later these personalities still exist. People are still leaving their children, there’s always the queen at the party; there’s always the young, cute guy; there’s always the guy who can’t get a relationship. None of us are that original.”
More important, as the film shows and Robey stresses, is how “The Boys in the Band” influenced gay culture forever. In addition to Crowley and a roster of gay pioneers like Edward Albee and Terrence McNally, out celebrities like Andy Cohen and Cheyenne Jackson talk about the movie’s influence on their own lives and careers. If there’s a message to “Making the Boys,” it’s the importance of understanding where we came from and to never forget the fragility of freedom.
“Harvey Milk took a bullet for your asses,” says Robey. “People need to know that. We don’t value our American history, period. We don’t value education. We are lazy, and we are not curious.” ’Boys’ became a political and social movement just by its acknowledgement. We are doing much better in the world, and we are much more alive.”
I had to ask Robey what he thought a gay high school student could learn from “The Boys in the Band,” post-“Brokeback Mountain,” post-“Will & Grace,” post-DOMA and -DADT, post-AIDS, and one-year post-Stonewall.
He answered: “Forty years ago, homosexuality meant you were a pervert, a child molester. It was taboo and against the law. Then, in 1968, someone wrote a play and it introduced audiences to homosexuality; the culture, the tribe, the life that people were not aware of. Young kids saw it, heard about it; it gave them hope that they could find that, that they could do and be anything they wanted. They were not alone. It was a great signal and message. We are part of something larger.”
To truly appreciate the party, one must always get to know the hosts.
For more information on “Making the Boys,” visit www.makingtheboys.com.