BY GARY M. KRAMER | The “Boys” in “Making the Boys” are those from Mart Crowley’s 1968 landmark play turned 1970 film, “The Boys in the Band.” Crayton Robey’s affectionate documentary traces Crowley’s life and work before, during, and since his controversial and astonishing success.
Crowley, the documentary makes clear, was floundering in Hollywood before he “wrote what he knew” and became a voice for many gay men. “Making the Boys” deftly incorporates footage from the play and the film, giving viewers a sense of the excitement that surrounded those productions.
Young filmmaker salutes man who gave America “The Boys in the Band”
In a recent phone interview, Robey explained his unlikely attachment to “The Boys in the Band,” given that he was born in 1972 — after both the play and the film had been produced.
“I felt it was a missing link in the evolution of gay and lesbian history and culture,” he said. “It is an important and monumental legacy to be documented. My intention was to get the backstory of ‘Boys’ and put it in historical context.”
Robey met Crowley while making his 2003 documentary about Fire Island, “When Ocean Meets Sky,” and was given tremendous access to the playwright and his archives.
“He gave me a crash course in the evolution of ‘Boys,’” Robey said, noting that Crowley wrote portions of “Boys” in the Pines.
Robey was first introduced to “Boys” while a teenager at a performing arts school in Texas. Caught kissing a boy by a teacher, he was sent to the principal’s office, where he and his friend were given copies of the play to read and discuss.
“I understood some of the wit, and could relate to some of the characters,” Robey, a drama major in high school, recalled, saying he interpreted the play in his imagination. However, when he saw the film version, Robey realized, “I missed some moments. The guys were a lot more in the throes of some really serious emotional angst. My interpretation was much more joyful.”
“Making the Boys” commemorates the play and film with an upbeat approach. Robey incorporates perspectives of Crowley’s contemporaries, such as Edward Albee, who regrets not investing in “Boys,” as well as contemporary playwrights such as Terrence McNally, who suggests he would never have written “Love! Valour! Compassion!” were it not for “The Boys in the Band.”
The nostalgic and entertaining documentary is also a reminder, though, that many gay men — including “Project Runway” winner Christian Siriano and Norm Korpi of MTV’s “The Real World” — have no familiarity with Crowley’s classic.
“It was surprising,” Robey said of his discovery that younger gay men are often clueless about “Boys.”
“There’s a disconnect with our history and culture,” he added. “The new generation is not exploring it.”
Robey’s love of history began with his grandfather instilling the lessons of their family’s African-American heritage in him. As he grew up, older gay friends taught him to appreciate the struggles of the LGBT community.
“It made me humble,” he said of those lessons, which prompted him to become a documentarian. “I was ready to listen and be educated by people ready to talk and share their life experiences with me.”
Robey wonders if apathy toward gay history stems from the mainstreaming of LGBT culture. Or, is it simply a lack of curiosity?
“I’d like for people to open their minds and take the time to understand the journey that has taken us to get where we’ve gotten,” he said. “You hear people talk about their rights — but they don’t know how many people risked their lives to make life so accessible and so free. I want people to be proud of the contributions GLBTQ people have made, be respectful of it, and value it. It can empower you.”
Robey posits that the opening of “Boys” on stage was a catalyst for the Stonewall Rebellion the following year. Crowley’s play, he suggested, brought queer culture into the media glare, where it could be discussed and dissected.
“The press started talking about it in a positive way,” he said. “The climate was changing. [Activists] could gain that last breath of confidence. It was one of the beginning elements of the gay liberation/ gay rights movement.”
“Making the Boys” also examines the impact the play and film had on the actors who took enormous risks appearing in a gay-themed production. Interviews with cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White are illuminating and empowering, but more fascinating — and moving — are the stories of what happened to some who are no longer alive.
“The most tragic was Robert La Tourneaux,” Robey said of the character who plays the “present” for Harold, the story’s birthday boy.
“He took a bullet,” the filmmaker said of the actor’s difficulty in dealing with the fame he acquired. “His character and persona really was an image that transferred through the gay liberation movement. It may not have been his style, but people wanted to look like him. He was a sexualized, fantasy kind of man. He went to bathhouses and paraded around in a towel.”
As the film shows, the actor who played the hustler in the film eventually had to settle for advertising his services as an escort to pay his bills. He died of AIDS.
Robey voiced sadness about the many cast members lost to AIDS. He also explained his disappointment about his inability to track down any information about Reuben Greene, who played Bernard, the story’s only African-American character.
“His experience is personal to me,” Robey said. “How did he do this role? And how did the African-American community reward him? What kind of feedback did he get from it? Everyone loved working with him it seemed. I hope that he is still with us. I have many questions for him.”
More than four decades after the premiere of “Boys,” Robey has given Crowley and his play its due — and he is proud of that.
“I felt Mart had been undervalued,” he said wistfully. “His play is a classic — a masterpiece. The evolution of ‘Boys’ has such a great history in terms of theater and in terms of visibility of homosexuals in mainstream culture, and the mainstream press introducing it to the masses and starting a conversation. His story should really come forward a bit.”
Then, in one last salute to his literary hero, Robey added, “He’s still writing things today.”
MAKING THE BOYS
Directed by Crayton Robey
First Run Releasing
Opens Mar. 11
34 W. 13th St.