When we think of outstanding works of film that deal with prominent gay themes, the list is pretty short and pretty recent. It probably reads something like Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and Angels in America.
Now a filmmaker is working to extend that list by making us remember The Boys in the Band. Originally an off-Broadway play that spawned a movie several years later, it’s now being resurrected by a buzzy new documentary called Making the Boys.
The play was the first to prominently feature a large cast of gay characters, with gay personalities taking center stage in leading roles. It performed incredibly well for an off-Broadway production, running for over 1,000 performances in five years, to critical acclaim and box-office success.
The Boys in the Band debuted in 1968, more than a year before the infamous Stonewall riots that prompted the widespread gay rights movement, defining playwright Mart Crowley’s status as a trailblazer. His production, about a group of gay men who gather for a friend’s birthday party, was divisive in the queer community. It was the first real display of homosexuality in not-quite-mainstream entertainment, and some gay people disagreed with what the film represented. The characters were variously flamboyant, sex-obsessed, closeted, overwhelmingly bitchy, or self-hating, and many gay critics would have preferred to assert a more wholesome, less controversial window into the community.
Regardless of the opposition, straight and gay audiences alike loved the play, and in 1970, it was converted into a film, with all of the original cast members from the stage show intact. In 1996, the show was revived to its off-Broadway roots, and again achieved success.
Crayton Robey is at the helm of Making the Boys, the documentary that just opened in New York City this weekend and will open in Los Angeles soon. He’s aiming to make sure people don’t forget about Crowley’s work. In a “making-of” special about the documentary, he says:
My inspiration for Making the Boys is just that I look around today, and I see that [the LGBT community has] all these freedoms, and I feel that people don’t really connect the dots. I think that the older generation and the younger generation really don’t relate to each other. … I feel like our legacy should be preserved.
I consider myself a pretty informed, well-connected LGBT activist, but this week, my ignorance was demonstrated twice—first with my failure to recognize ACT UP, a hugely important AIDS advocacy organization, and second with my total naivete about The Boys in the Band. For the first example, I take full responsibility, but for the second one, I’m going to have to argue my case: This movie hasn’t been talked about enough, and somewhere along the way, it got lost. Like much of gay history, it was buried and became hidden.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so—in the movie’s trailer, a few men reveal their own lack of awareness about the play, including Project Runway star Christian Siriano, who says: “Boys in the Band, you know what that kind of reminds me of? I don’t know … cute boys in a band? I don’t know, maybe the Jonas Brothers?”
Films like Making the Boys are essential to the further education of the country about the LGBT rights movement. They need to fill in where our schools and our mainstream media have failed—and continue to fail—in providing a context and a cohesive, true narrative about the progression of LGBT rights in America. There have been so many developments in such a short span of time, but without historians like Robey, those developments may be lost—and if they’re lost, how can we learn from them? How can we continue to move forward?
—Image via Making the Boys website