Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Making the Boys (in the Band)": another good "meta-film" documentary, with a lot of LGBT history

I saw “The Boys in the Band” in 1970, at an outdoor drive-in in Morrisville, PA, after "crossing the Delaware River" from Trenton, NJ (“Trenton Makes…”), when I was living near Princeton NJ on my “first job” with RCA.    (I sometimes wonder if the only outdoor movie theater left in the Milky Way is the one on “another planet” in AMC Theaters’s wonderful trademark  feeder.) But I had not yet experienced my own “second coming” (not until 1973).  I remember the reference to “Atlas Shrugged”, the "birthday party" (for Harold {Leonard Frey}) and the "birthday present" of a "midnight cowboy" (Robert La Tourneaux),  the curious telephone game, and the line about the immutability of sexual orientation.  I remember being pleasantly surprised by a couple of super hairy chests (Cliff Gorman {straight} and Keith Prentice),  The film, directed by William Friedkin, was originally distributed by National General. I seem to recall it was in Scope, despite what imdb says now.  (I believe the DVD is from Fox, but imdb doesn’t say.)

Tonight, I saw “Making the Boys”, directed by Crayton Robey (from Texas), who gave a Q&A at the end of a regular run Saturday evening showing (distributed by First Run Features) at the West End Cinema in Washington DC. I didn’t have my camera to snap a photo of the Q&A.  The project had started by in 2006. It has been shown at Tribeca and Berlin.

Recently, on March 8, I reviewed here a feature on the making of “Social Network” which was almost as interesting as the target film itself, as it told the story of the actors and of the issues surrounding the film. Such is the case with this 93-minute documentary.  It covers a lot of the history of the change in society’s attitude toward homosexuality, going back to the mid 60s when police had to be paid off not to raid gay bars (the so-called "Mafia bars" that I remember from my own second coming of age).

Mart Crowley, now in his 70s but quite youthful still when his risky play got first produced in early 1968, tells a lot of the story, not only of himself and of his process as a playwright, but of how that processes mapped into a longer view of gay history.  He was one of the first writers to take up the challenge to write about his own world as he saw it – even if it wasn’t all that positive in some ways at the time. (In a way, you could say that about Paul Rosenfels of the Ninth Street Center, not mentioned in the film, but it might well have been.)  Crowley did the screenplay adaptation, after some initial controversy about Hollywood’s “attitude.”

The film certainly suggests the case that the play influenced the “culture” quickly enough that it helped stimulate the Stonewall Rebellion in June 1969 and helped the modern gay movement take hold very quickly in the early 1970s. (Stonewall happened after the play appeared and was still running; the film appeared in 1970.  The play was not as well received on the West Coast at first as in New York, but eventually became an international hit, being translated into many languages) .  The documentary reports some interesting stagecraft: initially, photos of apartments were used in the background, and one of these apartments happened to be that of Barbara Walters.  She found out. 

The question of how it could affect careers to be in this movie comes up, and at least one straight actor was told to leave it off his resume.  But then would come AIDS; many actors in the film would indeed ide of the disease, but AIDS would also tell us that Hollywood was not as straight as it had pretended to be at one time (as a result of McCarthyism).  Remember Rock Hudson.

In fact, Robey says he is working on another project about the way the gay world (in New York) was just before AIDS was identified.  There is a film “We Were There” with a similar theme for San Francisco which I expect to see in May.

The documentary mentions other political fights, such as one about the employment of gays as firemen in the 1970s, which would anticipate the later big issue of gays in the military and the story of “don’t ask don’t tell”, which has been the topic of several small independent films (“Ask Not”, for example) and a few cable or TV films, but which needs a “real movie”.  That is surely coming.  This also reminds me that I actually saw “Midnight Cowboy” on an Army post (at Fort Eustin, VA) when I was “in”; nobody thought anything of the idea of the film showing on a military post in 1969.

Carson Kressley, of the Fab Five, makes a number of narrative appearances. So does Ed Koch, who was inaugurated as Mayor of New York on New Years Day 1978 and implored people to "come East."  Everyone noted that Koch had always been single (although he used to say that adult children should have to provide for aging parents).  The film notes that New York City fell on hard times in the 1970s (with the "drop dead" financial crisis of 1975), while gay citizens were becoming freer. 

The film also shows fuzzy clips from the notorious 1967 black-and-white documentary on CBS with Mike Wallace.  I recall a line in that CBS film where Secretary of State Dean Rusk (in the Johnson Administration -- Democratic and "liberal" for the time, but with the draft) said "if we find homosexuals in the State Department, we discharge them." 

The official site for the film is here

Pictures: "out and about" (me, not from film)  -- they would fit into "my" film. I recall another unrelated but disturbing film "The Boys from Brazil" with Gregory Peck from Fox in 1978. 

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