Mart Crowley was in a desperate situation. The screenplay he had written for 20th Century Fox was never produced, a TV pilot he scripted for a major star wasn't picked up by the network, and his agent had dropped him. Crowley needed something to write about that would get him back in the game.
Then Crowley read a New York Times article in which theater critic Stanley Kauffmann complained that three of America's most famous playwrights — Edward Albee, William Inge and Tennessee Williams — were gay, but refused to write about homosexuality. Crowley, gay himself, thought this was a good idea. After a friend took him to a party where he saw an assortment of gay men from all walks of life, he decided to write a play set in an apartment where the lead is having a birthday celebration.
The result was The Boys in the Band, which opened on April 14, 1968, to critical acclaim, immediate box office success and, ultimately, major controversy. Its story is told in Making the Boys, a documentary film directed by Crayton Robey that's opening around the country.
Crowley's play was a daring leap into the void. Funny, brutal, filled with slashing dialogue and characters who ranged from flamboyant queens to self-hating closeted males, The Boys in the Band was stereotypical, but also a vanguard moment in the gay rights movement. Most gays were seriously closeted as late as 1968, and when they were portrayed at all in the mass media, they were often shown to be twisted and evil, or pathetic.
The Boys in the Band took all this oppression and turned it into an entertainment in which gays were not only shown sympathetically, but took their homosexuality for granted.
"Nobody had broken it open like that, a comedy drama that was American, and it was about a topic that was taboo," Crowley said during a recent phone interview. "Here was an openly gay play, it's all taken for granted that everyone is gay, and no one will make anything of it."
Despite the play running for five years on Broadway, spawning West Coast and West End productions and seeing a critically successful 1970 film directed by William (The French Connection) Friedkin, The Boys in the Band was not without its detractors. Complaining about the stereotyping in the gay play, Edward Albee claims in the documentary that "it did serious damage to the burgeoning gay respectability movement."
That charge seemed to resound with gay activists, especially one year after the play's opening, when New York's Stonewall riots ushered in a new era of gay pride and militancy. All of a sudden, Crowley's work became anathema in homosexual circles.
"Everybody was on the side of the play when it opened," Crowley said. "We're no longer invisible, we're out there. Then 14 months after the play opened, the Stonewall rebellion. That night became the marker of change, and from then on momentum began in the gay pride movement, there was nothing shameful about anything, and my play presented a bunch of self-hating gays, and that wasn't what they wanted to announce to the world."
Then, years later, the inevitable happened. The Boys in the Band was revived off-Broadway in 1996, and all of a sudden, it was OK to like it again. The gay community had been through so much during the previous years — from gay pride to AIDS to ACT-UP — that Crowley's work took on the patina of nostalgia. "The play became history," Crowley said. "Everybody moves on, and the play was revived and became a historical document of a time that existed prior to Stonewall."
It had also, thanks to its universality of characterization and theme, become a true phenomenon, with productions staged all over the world — Crowley says he continues to get royalty checks from the Far East.
And in one of the sadder offshoots of the story, Making the Boys documents how the play affected the careers of its stars. A few, such as Cliff Gorman, who played the outrageous queen Emory (and was straight in real life), never seemed to achieve the success they seemed to deserve (whether or not this was a direct result of their roles in The Boys in the Band is left up to the viewer to decide), and several of the cast members died of AIDS.
Yet the play lives on, and in the words of Patrick Pacheco, a New York journalist interviewed in Making the Boys, "Whatever you say about [the play], you have to acknowledge the bravery" in writing it.
Crowley, however, tends to downplay his work's social significance. "The only thing I was concerned about on opening night," he said, "was I didn't know if [the audience] would think it was funny. I didn't see it as the rest of the world saw it, I saw it as a comedy-drama. Whatever I had done, it was unconscious."
That old curse "may you live in interesting times" seems to apply to the subjects of My Perestroika, a documentary about five Russians who were among the last generation to grow up under the Soviet system. Now in their late 30s and early 40s, these Muscovites were school children when the exhausted Communist regime still enforced the trappings of Marxist-Leninism — collective farms, mass youth organizations, schools that taught the "science" of socialism — even though it was obvious almost no one believed in them anymore.
Told through the reminiscences of these former classmates, writer-director Robin Hessman's film, which opens in late March, is a particularly intimate look at what it was like to go through perestroika, glasnost, the failed 1991 coup by right-wing elements, the reigns of Yeltsin and Putin, and now, the kind of autocratic capitalist state that seems to typify today's Russia.
The subjects themselves are an interesting mix of types and personalities. Borya, a Jew, was a bit of a non-conformist under the old system, and grew up to become a history teacher who worries that a wave of Soviet nostalgia is creeping back into public life. He married Lyuba, a self-described "conformist," who also teaches history. Ruslan, one of Borya's school buddies, founded a famous punk rock band, and now makes his living giving banjo lessons and busking in the subways. Olga is a single mother whose boyfriend, a banker, was murdered by gangsters; she is utterly cynical about the current political system. And Andrei, also fed up with life under Putin and Medvedev, owns several upscale men's shirt stores.
Ultimately, My Perestroika makes its most telling points visually, contrasting the sloganeering of the ancien regime with the corporate logos — from Pizza Hut to Pepsi — that are now ubiquitous throughout the country. Think of the film as the perfect example of that other hoary adage: Be careful what you wish for.