New Documentary Explores Making ’The Boys in the Band’ & Its Outsized Influence
Young documentary filmmaker Crayton Robey burst onto the scene four years ago with When Ocean Meets Sky, a thoroughly engrossing, informative and entertaining full-length feature about the history of Fire Island Pines, N.Y.
Now, he has followed up that succes d’estime by tackling another groundbreaking subject. This time, he takes on the very first-ever, and still most controversial, play and film that honestly portrayed gay men in their own milieu. For those who don’t know, The Boys in the Band was written by Mart Crowley, who is the main subject of Making the Boys.
Crowley’s life before, during and after the 1968 off-Broadway premier of Boys is explored in detail. Robey also takes a careful look at the genesis of the play, which was mired in controversy from the first performance.
It was also a huge smash, possibly the most successful off-Broadway production since The Fantasticks. Crowley’s own agent practically handled the script with tongs, it was considered so toxic. The night after it opened, a line in the pouring rain ringed around the block.
Every celebrity in or visiting New York pulled strings to get a coveted ticket. Superstars like Jacqueline Onassis were in attendance. In one of the throwaway anecdotes that make this film so fascinating, Marlene Dietrich took the whole cast out to the Broadway hangout Sardi’s for dinner after she saw the show. (Talk about being in gay heaven!)
With some choice archival footage, Robey seamlessly interweaves the wider world and its impact on the work at hand, as well as how it was perceived. By the time the film came out in 1970, the big bang of gay rights known as Stonewall had happened, and suddenly what was looked on as shocking and forthright was seen as passe and retrograde.
The reputation that the play was full of self-loathing would follow it for the next several years, despite successful productions around the world. (In Japan, the lone black character was always played by a Korean.) It wasn’t until the 1996 New York revival directed by, and starring, David Drake that the (straight) influential chief critic of the New York could write that it was "all right to like The Boys in the Band again."
Since then, productions have been mounted from Ft. Lauderdale to San Francisco, all of them well received. But the controversy about the play -- reflected in the comments of the several "talking heads" Robey filmed -- continues. Whether Boys is on the side of the angels or not will probably keep going as long as people argue about the merits of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice or the language of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
(Myself, I’m firmly on the side of the angels. I can’t understand how people don’t see that Michael’s self-hating comments are coming from Michael, not the author. And other characters -- most notably the super-femmy Emry -- show an inner strength and nobility in the face of societal and peer disapproval that is positively heroic; not to mention some very not-outdated dialogue, such as the argument between the straight-laced newly out schoolteacher and his sleep-around lover about monogamy.)
Another, much sadder, thread also weaves through the documentary, and that’s the fate of the cast. This was one of the very few New York shows in which the entire cast recreated their roles onscreen -- something Crowley and his producer insisted on before releasing the rights.
Not only the out-gay cast members, but even the straight ones had trouble finding work because they were considered gay or just pariahs for having appeared in such a notorious production. As is inevitable in any saga involving gay men at this time, the specter of AIDS hovers over the post-production; by the 1990s, all of the gay cast members died of the plague.
Robey sat down and talked to EDGE about making Making the Boys: Why he chose this topic; its larger meaning for gay men; its relevance; and gave up some dish.
EDGE: I remember you telling me about this project as part of the big 40th anniversary release of the film by CBS (who owns distribution rights).
Crayton Robey: I first approached CBS. This was going to be part of DVD. But they went forward with their release; their DVD funding did not come through. They didn’t really have anything to do with this production [except releasing film footage]. A lot of it came from Mart Crowley. They didn’t open up their studio files. Mart Crowley kept an archive of all of this stuff. My production team and archival researcher found it all.
EDGE: I got so much insight into Crowley’s life watching this. One of the overarching themes is Natalie Wood and then her husband (and widower) Robert Wagner as his guardian angels.
C.R.: Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner really were like a family to him. He and Natalie were fast best friends -- the original Will & Grace. Soul mates, extremely close. Mart is the godfather to her daughter -- it’s like a blood relationship. Robert Wagner is stilll very close. Natalie believed in him. She was brutally honest with him; she gave him tough love when he needed it [like offering to pay for a shrink when he was at a low point].
Most people in the entertainment industry are close with their contacts. She opened up her Rolodex. Not just introductions, she made him part of her personal world. He had access to everyone, but no money.
EDGE: Let’s talk about the cast. Let’s start with Reuben Greene, the model who played Bernard. You couldn’t get in touch with him?
C.R.: Unfortunately, we could not even reach him. Every communication, there were roadblocks. We’re still looking for him. We hope he is still with us on the planet. His residual checks are waiting for him at SAG! He is not gay. The day Boys opened was the day Martin Luther King was assisinated. I’d love to talk to him about that. [Greene played the one black character.]