For a generation that grew up watching “Will & Grace,” Mart Crowley’s 1968 play “The Boys in the Band” might not seem like a big deal. It was. The story of a group of gay men gathering for a birthday party came at a time before the Stonewall riots, when gays weren’t discussed, just ignored.
Filmmaker Crayton Robey explores the legacy of the play and its subsequent film adaptation in his fascinating doc, “Making the Boys.” The documentary comes out on DVD today and it’s our pick of the week.
Featuring interviews with Crowley, surviving cast members and a slew of others who were around when the film first caught fire (including Edward Albee, William Friedkin, Tony Kushner, Robert Wager and Michael Musto), “Making the Boys” is a vivid reflection of an era sure to take many by surprise. Robey caught up with Indiewire to discuss his first memory of the play and what it was like going back in time with his formidable group of subjects.
So when did you first catch the play?
I actually read the play first when I was in high school. It was by fluke at a moment at which I was questioning my own sexual identity. I was talking to my best friend who was to become my boyfriend. I was talking about my current girlfriend and that when I kissed her I didn’t feel fireworks. So he lunged in and kissed me and, of course, I felt fireworks. And then he kisses me again and our teacher stops us and call us into his office. We kind of freaked out. He asked, “Do you boys know why you’re here?” We were thinking we shouldn’t be kissing each other in public this way in Texas. He reached into his desk and pulled out two copies of “The Boys in the Band.” He told us to go home and read it and come back in a week to discuss it. So we did.
It just hit home to me. I loved the idea of a group of guys hanging out together. It felt like a community. I didn’t really understand or see the dark side of it in the first read. I thought it was captivating that I didn’t know about this particular moment in history.
How old were you at the time?
Your film makes a point to address the current gay generation and how many nowadays don’t seem aware of the struggle older generations went through. You’re part of this new generation.
Yeah, I am. I think I’m right at that point where I can appreciate it. I think history is something that a lot of times we don’t get the privilege to value because we don’t get access to the information. Especially with the gay history in America, it’s so important to understand the value of it.
It’s not fair to criticize anyone for not knowing history when it’s not accessible. So that was one of my objectives, to make this history accessible to people and honor the legacy. In the Unites States, it was really a key moment when people started the conversation about gay visibility. Homosexuaility was considered taboo and a mental disease. You didn’t talk about it. This play came out and it started a positive conversation about it for the first time. It introduced the issue to a mainstream audience. It was a big moment at its time.
Early in the film you approach people in the street and ask if they’ve ever heard of this seminal work and lots of people say the haven’t. Were you surprised that so many seemed oblivious?
I guess it’s surprising at first. But then I realized that most of my friends didn’t know about it, either. It was somewhat surprised and also concerned. We’re so living in the moment that we don’t get the opportunity to reflect even a bit. You’re only as good as what is in front of you in the moment.
You put together a great group of subjects. What was it like going back in time with them?
It’s hard when people go back. It’s their life. It was interesting to see their humility about that particular time. The work inspired them in some way. They understood the bravery of it. It just happens to be this particular piece, for whatever reason. Is it the best play? Probably not. But does it have historical value? Absolutely it does. We can’t argue with that.
This past year has seen a lot of AIDS-related works open (the Sundance documentary “We Were Here” and Broadway’s Tony Award-winning revival of “The Normal Heart” are among the biggest breakouts). Why do you think these projects are being made now?
You know what’s interesting? [When] I did my first documentary (“When Ocean Meets Sky”), I dealt with some of that content. When I spoke to people about the AIDS epidemic at that time, people were still recovering. They’re recovering because people weren’t really psychologically and emotionally ready to deal with it yet. That time has passed by. We lost a gneration of people who could have told stories. People are now ready to talk. It’s just the time. People are also concerned with the resurgance of HIV. I think the world is in a place where they can receive these stories. It shows a little bit of progress, but we still have a long way to go.