Doc of the Day: Making the Boys Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Making the Boys

Posted in Days of Docs by - May 15, 2012

How a landmark in gay cinema came about. Day Three of LGBT Week.

Dir. Crayton Robey, 2011, 90 min

I’m going to make a statement here that might be a little bold: movies make better primary historical sources than anything else that human beings create. True, you can’t rely on them to offer flawless fact (which yes, sounds like that automatically exempts them from being reliable sources but stop being boring and bear with me here). But a film can give you a more accurate picture of the emotional makeup of a specific time and place than anything else you can obtain from that time and place. The immediacy of film, in ways both intended and unconsciously introduced by filmmakers, allows us to empathize with people across the years.

I’m not even talking about documentaries, which are a whole other ball game (see more of my thoughts about how they can act as historical sources in my Word is Out review, coincidentally about another LGBT-related doc). Even the most unremarkable film can tell you reams of information about how people living during the time it was made thought. Decades from now, a historian could look at something as bland as, say, Think Like a Man and deduce many things about our society. And you can look at the 1970 film The Boys in the Band and learn a whole host of things about gay life in New York in the 1960’s. I don’t have to do the heavy brain work there, since Making the Boys does it all.

Going hand in hand with my idea that any movie is a great historical document, any movie really could have a whole documentary made about its production. Even the most boring, rote Hollywood drivel has years’ worth of effort poured into it from hundreds of different people. Of course, some subjects are more interesting than others, and gay life in the 1960’s is particularly colorful (both literally and figuratively).

In order to understand a movie, you have to understand the culture that produced it (this idea of mine works both ways; film mirrors people because people mirror themselves into a film). Making the Boys understands this, and spends only about half its running time talking about things that directly involve the making of The Boys in the Band. The rest is a nutshell explanation of the evolving state of homosexuality, and the public’s perception of it, through the fifties, sixties, and beyond. This was the environment that created the people who made this film. Context is king in understanding meaning, and this doc amply provides all the context one needs to “get” Boys in the Band.

I have seen The Boys in the Band. In fact, I was moved to watch it by my viewing of The Celluloid Closet. It’s an extremely interesting film, both in its up-front content, which deals with difficult interpersonal relationships and complex emotional turmoil, and in its subtext and influence. This was the first mainstream American film to depict gays as something other than victims or villains. That’s an important, landmark accomplishment. On the other hand, the gay characters in the film are all so abjectly miserable that it could be interpreted as a backhanded rebuke of the lifestyle. Despite that odd identity crisis, the movie is funny and well-acted, and I’d encourage anyone to look it up.

This doc follows the complete history of the movie, from its origin as an off-Broadway play in 1968, to its filming, release, and initial reception (many critics at the time had the same problem that I did, but took much less kindly to it), to its lasting impact. The movie was a great influence on many gay writers, including Tony Kushner and Dan Savage. While the way the film handled homosexuality dismayed some, for many viewers it was a revelatory viewing. Of course, this was a reaction confined to the small subculture that saw it, since the film flopped horribly on its original release. Today, many in the gay community are unfamiliar with it. Savage speaks of how gays can now “afford to be dumb” thanks to the “smart ones” who paved the way for them.

The documentary is probably far less interesting to people who aren’t as obsessed with movies as myself. I’m also unsure of how much sense it will make to people who haven’t seen The Boys in the Band, but I can’t imagine that they will get as much out of it as viewers “in the know” will. But there’s also some stuff that will bore you no matter how invested or familiar you are with the subject. There’s a whole running subplot about the relationship between Mart Crowley, the author of the play and film, and Natalie Wood. It’s dreadfully tedious, not really that important to his character, and not at all relevant to the story. I appreciated the doc’s commitment to thoroughness, but it goes too far in places.

One could use Making the Boys as a template for using film to study culture. Let’s call it “cinematic extrapolation.” Watch a film, read up on it, think about the time in which it was made, reflect on what the characters go through and how it makes you feel, and you will understand. Something like this film is perfect for that second step when it comes to The Boys in the Band. I liked the movie more for its academic value, so I’ve undersold its emotional element, but it’s not an unfeeling piece in the least (one sequence, about how half the actors in the film would die of AIDS, is particularly affecting). And going back to the film as a mirror, this doc also shows a bit of the state of gay relations in contemporary times. It shows us how far we’ve come, and how very far we’ve yet to go. And that’s important; after all, the value of learning history is how it illuminates the present.

 Related Film

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
%d bloggers like this: