Somewhat misleadingly titled, Making the Boys functions in part as a clips-and-interviews biography of Mart Crowley, author of America’s “first gay play” The Boys in the Band and producer of the succeeding film version, and otherwise as an attempt to situate Crowley’s landmark piece in the history of queer persecution and liberation, rather than a nuts-and-bolts documentary of either incarnation’s development. A few key crew members of the original 1968 Off Broadway production weigh in with details like the use of photo blowups to represent the upper half of the show’s duplex-apartment set, but aside from “What’s The Boys in the Band?” shrugs from Pride marchers and who-asked-him comments from Carson Kressley and Ed Koch, director Crayton Robey sticks mostly with Crowley, recalling his long if starlit journey to success (years as Natalie Wood’s assistant and BFF, writing “camp” into an unsold Bette Davis sitcom pilot) as he revisits the theater where The Boys in the Band premiered, and a few top collaborators and contemporaries as talking heads, along with a chorus of fans and descendants like Tony Kushner, Paul Rudnick, Michael Cunningham, and Dan Savage.
Robey laces archival blips of homophobic “education” films and TV docs from the ‘60s into the interviewees’ reminiscences of the showbiz closet that stretched from Broadway to Hollywood; once Crowley’s play was cast, mounted, and became the controversial must-see of the theater world, the playwright and director William Friedkin carried over the stage company to the movie after Crowley had rejected a big-studio deal which would’ve necessitated a big-name cast that doubtless would’ve included some stars on the down-low. The chief dissenting voice amid the encomiums to the play and film is Edward Albee, whom Crowley grants had inspired much of his work’s vibe with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; the senior playwright describes The Boys in the Band as “a highly skillful work that I despised” for its bitchy, destructive warfare between New York nellies, one that made straight audiences “happy to see [characters] they didn’t have to respect.”
With the Stonewall riots occurring between the play’s sensation and the film’s release, crusading gays found the tone of The Boys in the Band fatally retrograde; suddenly, Crowley was being vilified by queer liberationists instead of uptight straights. The last third of Making the Boys is all about aftermath and legacy, from Crowley’s alcoholism and failure to ever again reach such artistic heights (working as producer-writer of Hart to Hart, the featherweight spy show of Wood’s husband Robert Wagner) to the play’s international profile and political rehabilitation, and finally the AIDS epidemic that took the lives of five of the cast members along with the original staging’s director and producer. This making-and-unmaking-of chronicle is slicker and rather less succinct than the supplements available on the 2008 DVD release of Friedkin’s film, but has its cogent moments of revelation, such as actor Laurence Luckinbill recalling his lesbian agent (with a gay husband) telling him that The Boys in the Band would ruin his career, and accounts of Robert La Tourneaux, who played the “birthday present” hustler, supporting his drug habit years later as a $100-a-night prostitute who took out magazine ads that cited the role.