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February 2010 Email this to a friend
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Men from the boys

On the 40th anniversary of boys in the band, playwright Mart Crowley looks back on the controversy surrounding the film.

By Jay Blotcher

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Long before TV's Will & Grace exposed the secrets of the urban gay man, there was The Boys in the Band by playwright Mart Crowley, first staged in New York City in 1968. Will Truman and Jack McFarland were assimilated homosexuals, bordering on the cuddly. But the men of Boys were outsiders, their demimonde a shelter from an aggressively homophobic society.
 The plot of Boys is spare: A group of gay men holds a birthday party for a friend. As the evening proceeds, masks fall away and angry and raw confessions are made. Boys was gay theater made primarily for gays, offering a brisk (and lacerating) tour through gay culture. This voyage had no roadmap for the uninitiated; insider references to films, personal divas (Judy, Bette), drugs and sex are spouted often without translation.
 More than four decades later, this pioneering work remains a mixed blessing for many. Some praise its brutal honesty, while others excoriate what they see as an unflattering portrait of self-loathing men. (Despite writing numerous screenplays and other plays, Crowley has been unable to match the success of Boys; a 2002 sequel titled The Men from the Boys failed to attract audiences.)
 The debate over Boys will be fueled this year by three separate cultural events: a New York City revival of The Boys in the Band in February, a new edition of Crowley's collected plays by Alyson Publications, and the release of Making the Boys, Crayton Robey's documentary about how an unlikely piece of theater surmounted a repressive era and became a celebrated (and maligned) classic of the American stage and screen.
 To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the film, Guide magazine's Jay Blotcher spoke to Mart Crowley. A native son of Mississippi, the 74-year-old Crowley now lives in Manhattan. By his own admission the model for Michael, the venom-tongued lead of Boys, Crowley can be alternately endearing, sweetly profane and breezily bitchy. Like Michael, he has a startling command of Broadway and Hollywood arcana. His clear-eyed recollections of 1960s and 1970s Hollywood -- he was assistant to director Elia Kazan and confidant to actress Natalie Wood before becoming a producer of TV's Hart to Hart -- merit their own memoir.
 In a wide-reaching phone interview, Crowley discussed his masterwork and a new generation of champions. He opened the conversation with a lengthy (and cringe-making) account of a Thanksgiving dinner with Broadway legend Elaine Stritch before circling back to the topic at hand.
GUIDE: Unfortunately, I was not able to see Making the Boys, so forgive me if some of my questions are redundant.
MART CROWLEY: Well, no, there's no reason for you to have seen it. I mean, it's a work in progress; it's been changing. It's only been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and the two festivals on the West Coast: the Outfest in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Gay Film Festival. But every cut has been different, because -- I don't know.
GUIDE: Did director Crayton Robey come to you first?
CROWLEY: He called me and he told me that he was making a documentary on Fire Island. Well, I had a house out there and that was around the time of Boys, and there was so much stuff that was interrelated: I wrote the last scene of the play out there. I saw [actor] Bob La Tourneaux on the dance floor of the tea dance one afternoon.
GUIDE: And that's when you knew you had your Cowboy?
CROWLEY: Well, I knew it. [laugh] But my friend, the director Bob Moore, was just very skeptical about it, because Bob was a soap opera actor at that time -- and a pretty boy, of course -- gorgeous. And I had just come back from California, and Bob Moore said to me, Oh, Mart, you're just such a Hollywood casting man. That guy's on a soap opera; he's got no talent whatsoever. You've got to get an actor. I said, For Christ's sake, Bob, he's only got 11 lines. He looks right to me. And indeed he was.
GUIDE: So how did it morph from a Fire Island doc to a doc about Boys?
CROWLEY: After he finished the other documentary, he called me up and said, Making the Boys is going to be a history of the genesis of the play and the movie, but it's also going to be the history of gay theater and gay activism from that point forward. So he's covered 42 years. It's fascinating. And my God, the people he has managed to interview are extraordinary. Edward Albee and Terrence McNally -- all the playwrights.
GUIDE: Detractors of your play and film consider the birthday party in Boys an orgy of self-loathing, when the host, Michael, seems to be the only person to give off that vibration. You seem to be pillorying a homophobic society more than you are these men.
CROWLEY: It's very easy for kids today to not be aware of how brutal society was prior to quote-unquote liberation. And believe me, liberation did not happen overnight. No, no, no. It took awhile. In fact, a friend of mine who died this year, a very smart woman, said to me: They're getting the impression that the play opened in '68 and by '70 the worm had turned and society was enlightened through Stonewall. But that really wasn't the case.
GUIDE: For the film version of Boys, you insisted on the original cast. Certainly industry people warned you the film would flop without a well-known cast.
CROWLEY: I thought, Oh no, they don't get it; this is not the way I want to go. I don't want another Hollywood all-star movie with a bunch of straight actors going gay. It's just not going to work. The package that I wanted was impossible: I wanted the original cast, original director [Robert Moore], and I wanted to write the screenplay and produce the movie myself and do it all in New York City. So Ray Stark and Bob Evans told me I was out of my fucking mind -- that nobody was going to give me that. And along came CBS that was trying to make feature films. They had decided they were going to finance half a dozen films. I [signed a deal with them and] took half the money I could have made with a major studio.
GUIDE: I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that you had major studios coming to you about the play. Why was this material suddenly acceptable for a mainstream studio? Because of Stonewall?
CROWLEY: No, Stonewall hadn't happened yet. Stonewall happened while we were shooting the movie. This was all much earlier in '69.
GUIDE: Were you and Billy Friedkin simpatico at the beginning or was it a process? What was his understanding of the gay community? A decade later, he would film Cruising, about a killer in the gay SM community, which drew protests.
CROWLEY: I had this house on Fire Island. I went out there every weekend and knew everybody and da-da-da-dum. It was a natural progression that Billy wanted to go and see the action. So he and [girlfriend] Kitty came as my guests. It was very funny one evening, this Saturday night, the usual ritual: barbecue at my house and then it's time to go to the Boatel because the dancing began. Finally I got tired and Kitty did too, and we said, Let's go. He said, No, I'm going to hang around here and watch a little longer. I don't know when Billy cut in, but it was not until the wee hours of the morning. And whatever happened, took place, or whatever he saw or did, I do not know. But we'll just chalk it up to research.
GUIDE: What was the policy of the studio producers? Did they come to the set and make suggestions or was it hands-off?
CROWLEY: They came, but it was pretty cooperative. It was one of the most idyllic and fruitful collaborations and experiences I've ever had in show business. It was because we were on schedule; they didn't give a shit about what we were doing.
GUIDE: The Boys in the Band will be mounted again in February in New York City. With each revival of the play, is there any temptation to rewrite little bits?
CROWLEY: No, none. Absolutely not. It is what it is and it always has been and it always will be, as long as I draw breath. It's going to be cut of course, because attention spans are not as long. We're going to do it in one piece; it's not going to have an intermission. I think that's going to solve a lot of the problems of Act I being the laughs and Act II being the dark side.
GUIDE: Alyson Publications has published all of your plays for the first time. Which pieces would you like to see restaged?
CROWLEY: I think the play about my family is a very, very good play: Breeze from the Gulf. It got very good notices when it was done off-Broadway, but it was not the play that was expected of me. So I'd love to see that redone. As far as a play that's about gay matters, there's one called For Reasons That Remain Unclear, which is about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I don't write about anything that I haven't experienced myself. So yeah, I was an abused kid in a Catholic school so I wrote about it. It was staged in 1993. I think that if I do anything [new], I would take one particular play that I've never been able to quite be happy with, which is in the trunk, and work on it again. It's called Two Found Dead on Detour Here, and it's based on an incident that happened in my hometown when I was a kid. So it would take us back to the 1940s in rural Mississippi.

Boys in the Band took 'real balls'

As a new version of Boys in the Band was set to open in New York City, gay men in the American theater offered their thoughts to Guide magazine on Mart Crowley's most famous play.
  "There are gay leaders who don't like the play because it's partly about self-loathing and self-destruction. I don't think the play glorifies those aspects of gay life, but it does pointĘthem out. Gay people are often still self-loathing and self-destructive, and it's difficult to not be, since so much of society is telling you that you don't belong and you're not worthy. But you don't have to be gay to be self-loathing and self-destructive. That's everywhere. Even straight men can hate themselves. But this play happens to be about gay men. And the play is also about finding one's sophisticated surrogate family and the dysfunction that can exist in that, just as it can exist in one's own family."
John Epperson
Playwright and performer
"To write the play was an act of extreme courage, when it was written
in the mid-60s. It was extraordinary to deal with the subject so honestly. It took balls, real balls. To write so honestly was extraordinary. For years the play was looked down upon by so-called gay visionaries who thought the play was homophobic. Now the play is being seen for what it was, which is simply a portrait of gay society during that period. A very honest portrait."
William Hoffman
"I can remember the original production vividly at the Van Dam Theatre, then Theatre Four. It was a wonderful production. It had an enormous impact and it had a slightly scandalous quality to it. It became the event to see. Lots of uptown people came down to see this who had not been below 14th Street previously. Mart Crowley was the man who had the courage, the insight, the inspiration to do it. No one before had written a play about the gay world."
Terrence McNally

The New York City revival of The Boys in the Band is directed by Jack Cummings III, artistic director of the award-winning theatre company Transport Group. It runs Feb. 19 through Mar. 14 at 37 West 26th Street, 12th Floor, New York City. Previews start Feb. 12, 2009. Tickets online at http://www.transportgroup.org or by calling (866) 811-4111.

Author Profile:  Jay Blotcher

Jay Blotcher lives in the Hudson Valley of New York state.

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