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Silverdocs Documentary FF

Online Dailies Coverage of SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival taking place June 21-27, 2010 at the AFI Silver Theater




Sometimes, it takes time passing for true worth to be revealed. Such is clearly the case with the controversial 1960s play THE BOYS IN THE BAND, which was the first drama to feature openly gay men in their natural habitat of downtown Manhattan. The play, by fledgling writer Mart Crowley, was a cultural watershed in 1968 when it opened in a tiny theater in New York’s West Village. It became not only a hit (running five years) but the first openly gay theatrical show (with openly gay writer, director and most of the cast) that was covered by the mainstream media.

However, its depiction of a cast of characters who sometimes delved in stereotypes (the bitchy queen, the closeted teacher, the macho swinger, the self-loathing critic) seemed to some to be very dated by the time of the Stonewall Uprising just one year later. Its author was reviled by gay political activists and soon went into a thirty year downward spiral of alcoholism and desperation.

Well, everything old is new again, as gay filmmaker Crayton Robey has discovered with his entertaining, enlightening and superbly well crafted MAKING THE BOYS, who was shown this week at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival. Robey met the playwright Mart Crowley when he produced his first documentary WHEN OCEAN MEETS SKY, a history of the Fire Island Pines, a ritzy gay resort two hours from New York. Since Crowley had written part of BOYS IN THE BAND on Fire Island, he was a logical “talking head” to include in the project.

“After I listened to him talk about the origins of the play and the difficulties in getting it produced, I realized this was an important historical event that needed more exploration”, Robey explained in a post-screening q+a. For Robey, who was not born when the play originally opened and only saw the notorious 1970 film adaptation (directed by William Freidkin of THE EXORCIST fame) years later, the play and the controversy it engendered seemed like a historical story of a by-gone era when homosexuality was much more in the shadows than it is for his generation.

“This play is a masterpiece and a landmark in gay and pop culture”, Robey said, “but many young gay men my age have never even heard of it.” That is the kind of inspiration, a desire to revisit the past and make it relevant for today’s audiences, that motivates many a documentarian. Robey submitted the project idea to Tribeca All Access, a filmmaker incentive workshop sponsored by the Tribeca Film Institute that nurtures new projects and attempts to refine them via contact with established industry professionals. The project was chosen and was eventually presented as a work in progress at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, where it caught the attention of New York-based production company 4th Row Films.

The company saw the potential in the story because it was not strictly a gay film per se, but also would have relevance for those interested in the theater and in the creative process of how shows and films get mounted. The creation of the landmark is also full of its own drama……actors who were typecast by it that could not get future work, the play’s director being pushed aside for a bigger name to helm the film adaptation, and the eventual death by AIDS of more than half of its original cast.

Also central to the story was the meteoric rise and subsequent fall of the author himself, a former assistant to Hollywood star Natalie Wood whose screenplays never clicked in Tinseltown and unwittingly took New York by storm by telling the story of the kind of gay men he knew from his personal life. The plot of the play revolved around a birthday party that brings together eight close friends who exhibit the campy sensibility, tinged with a bit of self-loathing, that was characteristic of those living in the shadows because of intense homophobia. However, in each other’s company, they let their freak flags fly and the play veers from hilarious to pathetic, as the characters play a party game of truth or dare that reveals their most secret desires and images of themselves. While not always a sympathetic portrayal, the play is quite truthful and of its time.

The gay liberation movement of the 1970s, which stressed the mantra that “gay is good”, had suddenly made these truthful characters seem anachronistic to some, negative and pathetic to others. The author suffered the slings and arrows of criticism and began a three-decade downward spiral fueled by alcohol and drug abuse, before being rescued by psychoanalysis and the passage of time. MAKING THE BOYS, which had its world premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, has just been picked up for North American theatrical distributor by New York-based specialty distributor First Run Features.

BOYS IN THE BAND is now seen as a seminal moment in the opening of the gay closet and the current acceptance of gay characters on the stage, in film and on television”, Robey concluded. “We have Mart Crowley to thank for this and now enough time has passed for us to see his achievement in a larger context and to appreciate the courage and determination he and his collaborators had in making such a bold statement.”

Sandy Mandelberger, Festival Dailies Editor


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About Silverdocs Documentary FF

Sandy Mandelberger
(International Media Resources)

Online Dailies Coverage of SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, taking place at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland from June 21 to 27, 2010.

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