Making the Boys feels at times like it is seven potentially great documentaries struggling to emerge from one good one.
The thread I wanted to see more of? Probably the examination of whether or not we lived in a “post-gay” period, where newer, younger, gays can sometimes be oblivious to the not so distant history when a play like The Boys in the Band could be shocking or ground breaking. Director Crayton Robey does some (gay) man on the street interviews early to get the requisite blank stares in response to “Who is Matt Crowley?” or “What was The Boys in the Band?” questions. One senses that the official position of the film is frustration at that ignorance–indeed the film’s most powerful moment is when writer Dan Savage opines that “being a dumb gay person is a luxury that was won for you” by people who lived through a time where being gay and dumb meant you didn’t survive that long. Counter that with Christian Siriano saying he’s too busy living his life to care what others think about sexual orientation and you have the outlines of a hook into a focused discussion that could–and should–push beyond the genre’s predisposition to once again try to be the definitive retelling of the history of gay people in America in the late twentieth-century.
The thread I found least engaging? Probably a retelling of the Stonewall riots and the birth of the gay liberation movement. It’s not that this material is not interesting. Stonewall Uprising was one of my favorite films of 2010. I get, too, that Robey is trying to situate The Boys in the Band into part of a larger history, but the transitions between the particular artifact–the play–and the larger sociological movements are abrupt and sometimes come across as filler rather than context. That is not to say they don’t have occasional moments of power. When we are told in rapid succession which (and how many) of the contributors to the initial production died of AIDS, it is an effective reminder of how pervasive and terrifying the initial wave of that epidemic was. Perhaps my objection is that certain elements of the broader story have been told before–and well–so that I wanted a focus on those parts which were not retellings.
Those parts, for me, included Matt Crowley’s personal story. Yes, Crowley’s experience of encountering, confronting, and overcoming resistance to writing about gays was emblematic of a larger struggle, and, yes, it is true that some similar stories have been told. Once you get to the personal level, though, there is enough variation to hold interest between recountings of similar experiences.
The documentary really sings, though, when it talks about the play itself, whether it be the production history, the reception, the influence, or its larger meaning. Paul Rudnik opines that no one work of art can or should “shoulder the burden” of standing in for the gay experience in its totality. So too, no one documentary call tell the whole story of gays in America. It is when the Making the Boys understands that and allows itself to take a narrower focus that it is most effective.
Within the context of the parts of the documentary that are examinations of the play and its impact, the most provocative and thoughtful interviewee is, not surprisingly, Edward Albee. He relates reading a draft of the play and hating it, declining to invest in the play (a decision he admits lacked financial sense but which he remains clearly proud of on principal), and his own antipathy towards the play’s success. Albee claims to have seen the play and/or film several times and noted that in each visit to the theater, the audience was comprised of a greater number of (apparently) straight viewers. He became convinced that the key to the play’s popularity, the reason it became the first cross-over hit, is that it gave the straight audience people they “didn’t have to respect.”
Did it? Albee is certainly not alone in that opinion, though he is the most direct and articulate proponent of it in the film. Even most of those who want to defend the play concede that it can appear dated and trade in stereotypes. Yet they also don’t discount the importance of seeing something, anything that represented them. Terence McNally invites the question of whether any of his works wouldn’t have been possible if something like The Boys in the Band had not created a foothold for all that followed.
This is a fascinating debate, and had it been an actual debate, it might have taken the documentary to the next level. That strain is ultimately too enmeshed with too many other strains however, and, to be honest, it feels like the film is too cautious to take a side, eschewing having its own point of view and opting instead to carefully balance each statement with a counter-statement from someone on the other side.
I saw the film version of The Boys in the Band when I was in high school (early 1980s, more than a decade after the film was made) and, to be honest, I did not much care for it. Were the people in it stereotypes or real? How could I know? I knew that I knew gay people, even if I didn’t know who any of them were, and none of these people on the screen acted like anyone I knew–at least not when they were around me. I suppose, in retrospect, that’s precisely the point the documentary is making. I understand now what I didn’t then: there is a lot of space between being in the closet and being openly gay. That simple realization and the fact that I could have been a teenager in the 80s who was oblivious to it has all sorts of implications for what I think today, now, about things like gay marriage, don’t ask/don’t tell, and the relative, often conflicting, powers of the media and personal relationships to shape our attitudes towards that which is outside of out own experience. For prompting me to remember, reflect, and re-think, Making the Boys is worthy of recommendation.