Saturday, November 19, 2011

Splendid GLBT history doc MAKING THE BOYS hits DVD; interview with playwright Mart Crowley and director Clayton Robey

One of the year's best documentaries (and a certain must-see for any GLBT), MAKING THE BOYS opened earlier this year to pretty good fanfare and a nice set of reviews (TrustMovies' is posted here). At the time of the film's theatrical release, I was able to have a good long chat with both Mart Crowley, the author of the (depending on your viewpoint) famous or infamous play, The Boys in the Band, around which the documentary is based, and with Crayton Robey (shown below), the skilled producer/director who helped shepherd this fine film to fruition.

While Making the Boys concentrates on the original production of Crowley's play, how it came into being and managed to find a producer, at the same time the film gives us the status of homosexuality during this era (and previously). By film's end, you've lived through quite a journey.  Since the film makes it DVD debut this coming Tuesday, November 22 (via First Run Features) -- and because, due to a promise of a transcription that panned out so tardily that I was unable to run the interview at the time the film opened -- now seems a fine moment to  post it at last.

Speaking to these two men proved a delight and, so far as Crowley's contribution, a nice trip down memory lane. In the following Q&A, TrustMovies appears in boldface, while Crowley and Robey are in standard type, with their initials preceding their words....

It is such a treat to be able to speak to you both, particularly you, Mart, because I saw your play when it was still in previews shortly before it opened Off-Broadway. Over the years, it has surprised and amused me how it seems to have gone in and out of favor, even among its prime audiences: us gays. I remember that several of us who saw the play that first night talked afterwards about how funny it was -- and how negative it seemed about being gay at that time. Just the other day I was speaking with a friend about this, and we agreed: How could it not have been, back then?

Mart Crowley (shown at right): That’s what people don’t understand, what the climate was like. There wasn’t anything to be open about, let alone be proud of, because everybody excoriated you for any kind of admission that way. And if you weren’t in show business...

Or a hairdresser maybe.

MC: Yeah or a florist or something typical like that you couldn’t get a job, or they would fire you, or make the workplace so ghastly that you couldn’t endure it.

It was a strange time. Compared to now.

MC: Well it was a strange time, but my god, it had been that way for….

We were considered sick, at best, when I was growing up. So we didn’t mention it, period.  I was born in ’41 and you were born...

MC: In '35.

No. You’re not older than I?

MC: I am. I am. I am.

I didn’t realize. Although I think I looked that up. But some things you can’t get through your head.

MC: Well if it’s on IMDB, don’t believe it.

It’s true, I know. But moviewise, IMDB is the best we have. Anyway, I’m surprised because you seem younger than that.

MC: But we were talking about the climate of the world. Well obviously it was in the air everywhere. It was bubbling to the surface where it could no longer be tolerated, that kind of being ignored or disapproved of.

Stonewall was after the debut of your play?

MC: Yeah 14 months after.

It really was bubbling. It’s interesting to me that this movie is one of the best gay documentaries that I have seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And just last year I think we had one that opened at Film Forum, “Stonewall...” something or other.

MC: Yeah, “Stonewall Uprising.”

Yeah, right, and they made a big to do about the word uprising. It was really an uprising, not a protest, or something like that. Which was good and everything, but Making the Boys somehow gets into the heart of things in a way that most other documentaries haven’t, I guess by using your play as some sort of a touchstone. And as Paul Rudnick says, which I thought was one of the best bits....

MC: Alas, he’s not got his name on the poster. It’s sort of rotating names on the poster if you go online as to who’s in the film and not. So Paul’s name, to my horror, is not a constant on the poster, because I think he gives the most intelligent comments of anyone.

That comment that he makes about no piece of art should have to stand in for the gay experience or the black experience or the Jewish experience or anything. But your play has had to do that. But it says something that that’s true and it still is. I can’t think of another gay play that's had to bear that burden. Well “Angels in America,” to an extent

Crayton Robey: “Angels in America” did that for a time.

But not the way yours did at the time, probably because you really were the first; nothing else had touched the subject like that.

MC: But “Angles” is a good example. I think what Paul is talking about is there weren’t any worthy examples, because there were a bunch of gay plays after “Boys” which were just blatant rip-offs. It was always a bunch of guys sequestered for some reason. And there was one about Gay Pride Day, or something, called “The Last Sunday in June.” There was one called “The Party” or “Party.” It had the exact same theme. It was a party, some other kind of party I don’t know, not a birthday party, it was a New Year’s party or something that they all come to. And there’s everybody including a priest in that one, do you remember?

Yes, that’s right. One of the things that surprised me, but not really when I thought about it afterwards, was the dismissive attitude shown by the young fashion designer in the documentary…

CR: Christian Siriano.

Yeah. Younger people can be so shallow. But that’s... younger people.

CR: Young people in general that just have that attitude, which is always surprising for me, because as a young person I was always taught history, African American history, growing up, and I just thought it was something that was just interesting.

Yeah, you needed to know that.

CR: And I value that. There’s I think also a disconnect in the schools too about how we don’t really present our history overall.

You mean gay history?

CR: Gay history.

Yeah, we don’t, because it’s still not sanctioned the way black history is sanctioned.

MC: We’re always hearing about what’s going on with school texts in South Carolina.

CR: And they’re still trying to be politically correct instead of understanding. What I love about the piece, and my mother, who is an educator, helped me understand this too. She said “Well, ‘The Boys in the Band,’ for America, was that your playwright wrote the play that allowed America to come out of the closet about homosexuality.” And that was really kind of profound because it really is the truth when you really just think about that. And thank god he did that, and this is what you were talking about earlier. I totally agree that Tony Kushner, what he did with “Angels in America” was fucking phenomenal and substantial.

MC: But we’re talking about two different things. We’re talking about good plays versus bad plays and we’re talking about just gay plays.

CR: We’re talking about plays that make an impact.

MC: Yeah, but they aren’t. Tony Kushner was exceptional but it was what it was. Even about “Boys in the Band” they never talk about what Edward Albee grudgingly calls the skill.

It may not be art necessarily like “Angles” is art, and if you can say that, I’m impressed with you.

MC: Oh, of course.

But it was skillful, very skillful.

MC: The reviewers were just not “Oh the shocking material.” They talked about how well written the play was.

CR: The dialog is phenomenal.

We still quote it. My companion now of the last 22 years, he’s forever doing so many of Harold's lines.

MC: Well I bring up Kushner again because he graciously wrote the introduction -- which turned out to be an essay, because when he starts, he goes. The same thing with his plays; they talk and they talk and they talk. Well he wrote and he wrote and he wrote, so it came out to a 15 page essay instead of just this little light introduction, and it’s just great. And so he covers everything that you’ve ever talked about, including what is your favorite line from it? And saying there are so many favorite lines to so many people that you can’t settle on one.

It’s funny: the thing you bring up in the movie that Ben Brantley said. And did you see the article today?

MC: The interviewer before you brought it up and I had read half the review and had not gotten down to that paragraph. I learned it from him and then we looked at the paper and there it all is.

I don’t think “The Championship Season” holds up very well as a play at all. I didn’t think so even at the time that it came out. Yours holds up a lot better.

MC: And Jason Patrick and I went to the same drama school. He’s younger than me.

Where did you go?

MC: Catholic University of America in Washington DC where the drama school was very famous at that time. A lot of the alumni subsequent to my years there. I mean Susan Sarandon was there and she in fact was Susan, I can’t think what her name was then, because Chris Sarandon was a student too.

Brother and sister?

MC: No, they were married.

Oh? So she took his last name and kept it.

MC: Yeah!

What was her maiden name?

MC: I don’t know. Why shouldn’t I know? But I don’t know because I can’t even remember my own friend’s names.

Before I forget, I was at a screening just now with a friend of mine who said that he saw a cut of this documentary at which both of you spoke afterwards, he thinks two full years ago, before the soundtrack was present, so that the score wasn’t there. So, two years ago? It’s taken that long?

CR: It has taken that long. One of the reasons are some of the key storytellers, like I wanted Tony Kushner to be a part of this and we could not get on Tony Kushner’s calendar -- he’s very, very busy -- and we couldn’t reach William Friedkin. It was the last interview, and to me it would not have been a complete work without having him there. So even though we wanted to just put it out there, it just wasn’t the right time.

Do you think, and I probably should turn this off (referring to the tape recorder). Do you think the film might have been a better film had you kept the original theater director, Robert Moore?

M.C. I’ll never know. He did do some movies eventually when he became such a famous Broadway director, because that was Bob’s beginning big hit was “Boys,” and Neil Simon hired him six weeks into the run of “Boys” to do this huge musical called “Promises, Promises,” and he directed the original version of that. And that was a huge success for him so Bob began to make a lot of money from all the Broadway royalties. Then he did subsequent Simon comedies. Bob did “Red Hot Lovers” and “Chapter Two” and then went on to make the movie version of “Chapter Two.” Now there’s an example of his having directed the play and directed the movie version of it. I thought his touch and his talent was totally for the stage. And he was an actor and he wanted to be an actor; he didn’t want to be a director. He was working as an actor but he never would have been a star, he never would have been a leading man. And it was during the time that he was in “Cactus Flower” with Lauren Bacall that I came to New York with “Boys” under my arm and stayed in his apartment. And he took it to the theater one night and read it. Bob and I had a spiky relationship but we always got along great. He was much better equipped than I was, I can tell you. He was hilarious and funny and cutting.

You mean 'better equipped' for what?

MC: No, at quipping, with quips. He always said that he only directed “The Boys in the Band,” condescendingly, he said, in order to get me out of his apartment, which was true. I was like the man who came to dinner and I had a play under my arm and I wanted him to direct it and he said “You know I don’t want to direct” and I said “But I’ve seen the stuff you’re done in stock and believe me, you think you’ve got a career as an actor but you’re not a great actor. But you’ve got it as a director and you ought to do that.” He didn’t really want to, and he even tried to back out of the play. Then of course when he didn’t get the job. I think Crayton has in the documentary, “Making the Boys,” some contract that I drew up the terms of which I would sell the thing, and it included having the real cast and have Mr. Robert Moore as director.

At first it looks like, in the documentary, that he is going to make the movie version.

CR: In fact, I think in “Variety” or something it even had someone saying “Boys in the Band” is coming to the cinema directed by Robert Moore.

I always wondered about that because I have not seen the movie for a while, but in my mind the play is better. The play version of the play is better than the movie version of the play.

MC: Well isn’t that always true? I mean, a play is a play is a play. The better the play the more you can’t touch it. It’s harder to transfer it to another medium. And the lousier the play the more you can tear it to bits.

Actually, with “Angels in America” in my mind the HBO version was better. In fact, I only saw Part One of the Broadway version and I thought it was so overproduced it made me angry. I thought for me this could work really well in a small Off Broadway space. But it’s like all the furniture, everything having to be moved so we can have the moment of the angel coming. Come on. To me that wasn't good theater.  But when I saw Mike Nichols’ version, then I understood why the play was great.

MC: I think the film version combined the two parts.

Yes it does, and it’s three hours long or more.

MC: And Meryl Streep is phenomenal and Al Pacino is phenomenal. But taking "Boys" as a play and making a movie of it... We had a good working relationship, Friedkin and I. He’s a difficult man and everybody knows that. He was even then, and he wasn’t famous yet.

Did he make "Boys" before “The French Connection?” (The both nod, yes)

MC: He used to drive me nuts because we would go out looking for locations for “Boys in the Band” and we would wind up in Queens under the El. I’d say “What’s going to be here?” and he’s say “Oh, this is not for you, this is for ‘The French Connection,’” and I got so fed up.

"Boys' is such a drawing room comedy, in its way, that the only way to open it up I think it would have taken, what? To completely get rid of the party in some way and make all of it happen in different scenes, but that’s a whole other play, practically.

MC: It opened up, is their phrase, in as much as there’s no rain storm in the play at all. And that was added simply to get some experience and to particularly shoot it on a location where it was a real place. At least in the daytime it was; at night, no, it was a set.

You were talking about why it took two years to finish that. Oh, yes: waiting for the people you wanted to interview.

MC: I was telling him that on IMDB it does say 2009, which you ought to have changed because that was the work in progress.

CR: We developed the work through the Tribeca Film Institute, and so they gave us a spot within the festival, and because of the popularity of “The Boys in the Band” people wanted to write about it. It was supposed to be at kind of a quiet kind of little screening…

Was this last year or two years ago?

CR: This was in 2009. And we actually premiered it at the Berlin Film Festival last year this time. (He shakes his head.) It takes a great effort.

MC: This is a documentary, too. No offense, but how many documentaries get theatrical releases? Not many.

More than they used to. Double, triple maybe what they used to, but the theatrical release that they get usually lasts like one week. But this is going to have a bigger, broader one.

MC: I don’t know, we’ll see. Won’t it be fun? Let’s see how long it runs.

Who is the producer?

CR: 4th Row Films and Douglas Tirola, who’s the producer. And part of the program that I was in at Tribeca Film Institute, called Tribeca All Access is where I met Doug and Susan Bedusa.

And so they picked it up?

CR: They picked it up, yeah. I had presented this to a couple of people that had done this kind of documentary before thinking it was going to be a match, and it didn’t really turn out to be a match because they had an odd reaction to “The Boys in the Band” and I needed someone to produce this with me that was just open. Our job was to just get out of the way and let the story tell itself. Their identification with “The Boys in the Band” was a little bit too severe.

Like Edward Albee's reaction to your play? That shocked me, I have to say. It didn’t shock you because you’d known about it all along, I guess.

MC: It wasn’t all along. I’m not going to get into all that, but if it was up to him, it would never have gotten produced. Does anybody see that irony right there staring you in the face? I’m standing outside the playwrights unit and saying this was run by Edward Albee and the script was submitted to them and then I get this call from the agent who was floored and stunned so it hit me, too, when she said “I can’t believe this.”

But it’s interesting that Albee seems to feel that way.

MC: He didn’t feel that way so much in the beginning, but I can’t prove that. Why did he come to the opening night parties, including LA, for instance?

I certainly, absolutely agree with him, that last thing that he says about how "We’ve got to be vigilant." But that doesn’t have anything to do with the play and I don’t understand why he doesn’t see the difference. In my mind he is pro-censorship; that’s the only way I can see it. Fine, you don’t like “Boys in the Band,” say it’s a piece of shit and it’s a bad play if you want.

MC: He says it was a skillful play.

Yes. And that’s all right. So let it be seen.

MC: Why was it done in his workshop if it hadn’t had his approval? And I went there to have a drink with them to get that.

Well maybe it was his producer that made him give his approval: Richard Barr. You make clear in the documentary it was Richard Barr really pushing, wasn’t it? That really helped get it done?

MC: It was the acceptance of the play to be done in their workshop that got it done. The reaction to it in the workshop made it clear that it was headed for Off Broadway at the very least. Broadway was even discussed but they were terrified that it wouldn’t work and I don’t think it would have.

CR: I think there was a legal issue too or something.

MC: No, it was about the material. It was about whether there’d be an audience. And that’s a good question even today. Why didn’t “Next Fall” succeed at the Helen Hayes after it had such a success around the corner on 42nd Street Off Broadway?

That’s interesting. I don’t go to theater anymore because I really can’t afford it and I just decided fuck it. Also, I don’t fit in the seats. They make theater seats really small these days. The legroom space you have gets worse and worse.

MC: They’re even in smaller in London. They’re like a hundred years old, when people were tiny.

So I didn’t even see “Next Fall,” but it did strike me as odd that it didn’t make it, what with those reviews. And “The Temperamentals," too.

MC: Yeah, I saw them all, and I saw them all Off Broadway and they were terrific. It was a total mistake to take “Next Fall” to Broadway. And that’s what they felt about “The Boys in the Band.” You saw that theater. That theater was adorable wasn’t it, because I’ll tell you why. It was an old church and that had nothing to do with it being adorable but at least it had high ceilings and it had a balcony, so to speak, which was where the choir used to sing, and it had windows, which you never see. And Richard Rogers, you know the play that was there before we were? The revival of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse.”

Which I saw there.  It was fun.

MC: Richard Rogers produced that and so he went over there, they knew it wasn’t going to work on Broadway; it just was not going to be big enough. So they were going to do it big time Off Broadway, and they did. But also, he thought that the church was too shabby and Richard Rogers had personally paid for all the seats, these gold, new seats, draperies over all the windows, and it was great looking. And nothing had played there after “Boys from Syracuse” because it was way over there you know, 10th Avenue or something, and people didn’t want to go over there.

But they did.

MC: I walked in the place with Bob Moore and we had scouted various theaters. We would go look and then if we liked them we’d tell Richard Barr about it and have him take a look, and his partner who came in at that time called Charles Woodward, to replace Clinton Wilder who wanted to have nothing to do with him. Anyway, I walked in and I said “Bob, I can’t believe it.” The doors hadn’t been opened since “Boys from Syracuse” shut, and that had been like six years earlier. So it was dusty as hell but it was great looking. It was like a jewel box.

Didn’t the Negro Ensemble Company come in after?

MC: Right after. I don’t think there was another play done after “Boys” was there for so many years.

And how long did yours run there?

MC: Oh it ran for a thousand and one performances.

So that would be three years...?

MC: At least, yeah. ’70 or ’71 it closed. It was still running when the movie came out and still running when the movie disappeared.

Well as we were saying, it is a theater piece.

MC: So it ran longer than the movie. Thank god it wasn’t in the contract either that one had to wait for the Off Broadway run to conclude before the movie could be released. That would have been a real disaster.

CR: It shows just how important the play was for the movie to get done at that particular time so quickly, and then with the original cast from the play. It’s crazy.

MC: Well that was only because I insisted.

Is Peter White (one of the original actors from the play) still living?

MC: Yes, and working.

Oh good, because my companion and I had an argument about that.

MC: He and Luckinbill are definitely alive. And Reuben Green’s maybe alive.

Do you think he found Jesus, is that it?

MC: No, I don’t think he found Jesus. I think he’s avoided the law.

Oh it never occurred to me. Was he that way back then? Oh, wow.

MC: He wasn’t a thief or anything like that. He was a lady’s man, he was straight, and great looking, and particularly he allowed older women who had a lot of money to take him up and then he would fool around with young girls on the side. And he got one pregnant during the London run.

CR: Wasn’t one of your producers there in London?

MC: Yeah, they all tried to handle it, but mainly they got Reuben out of the country and back to America before any kind of lawsuit or any paternal claims could be slapped on him. But he was a sweet, darling guy, and he wasn’t any kind of arsonist crook. He was just a gigolo.

What else can I ask you?

MC: Well you already know how old I am. You already know my persuasion. I can’t think of any stone that hasn’t been unturned here. (We all laugh.)

But it is a wonderful documentary, it really is.

MC: It is.

And it encompasses so much more that the play without trying that hard. It just does it, which is quite wonderful.

MC: I don’t think you go in there feeling like you’re going to see a documentary that encompasses the history of the gay movement for the past 43 years.

No, you don’t. I mean I didn’t, and yet that’s what you come out with.

MC: And if you had marketed it that way people would be either turned off and bored and not go, or they would say it didn’t succeed on those grounds.

I’m going to say in my review it does that because I believe it does, and I think it does it as well as any other documentary.

MC: Oh, I do, too. I’m just talking about marketing, how to market it.

No, I guess you shouldn’t market it that way but it’s true anyway.

MC: It’s true, and it comes as a surprise I think. And it comes as more of a surprise that it’s so comprehensive. Maybe the best documentary on the gay movement ever made.

CR: I really wanted something for this generation to really embrace, something that they could understand.

MC: Yeah, I mean who would give a shit about the whole thing being about me?

CR: But that is really fascinating too.

I say that because I am the age I am. I doubt I would say that if I were 30: Saying that it’s the best documentary on the gay movement, I mean.

MC: I don’t think they’d know. I think somebody who’s 30 is going to be educated by this film. They’re not even going to have enough knowledge to have an overview of how it was. I don’t think they know how it was at all. Look at the ones that are interviewed. I mean, my god.

I know, that’s what’s appalling.

MC: What movement? Who cares? You know?

Well honey, when they line you up and shoot you, you will care.

MC: They will. They used to line you up and put you in the paddy wagon for just having a drink. Maybe you didn’t use to go to gay bars, but they wouldn’t let you stand too close to each other. They’d come around with a prod and say “You’re too close, move back.”

It’s amazing that we managed at all.

CR: It really is.

In the ‘50s it really was the love that dare not speak its name. And then in the ‘60s it was, you were sick. Okay, we won’t throw you in prison, but you’re sick. And then in the’70s okay, you’re not sick, but still, don’t ask for anything else. Like a job.

MC: That’s right, that’s what I just told somebody else this morning.

And now it’s like: Okay, get married, but then we'll change the law and you won’t be able to be married next month. It appalls me that younger people can’t understand a little bit of that.

MC: I think it’s also New York, don’t you think? I mean if we were doing this interview in – who can I pick on – Kansas City, it would be a little different.

Yeah, and even if we were doing this interview in LA it would be different.

MC: I only picked on Kansas City because Rachel Maddow is having a go at all their killing abortion doctors.

I didn’t realize that. She’s doing a show on Kansas?

MC: She did it from some place in Kansas because they killed an abortion doctor. In the last two years, Dr. Tiller was shot by this man who was all about god and about murdering. So you can’t have abortion service is the point in the state of Kansas. You can legally -- but try to go find them, because everybody’s too scared to announce it.

So that’s the new gay then: Really closeted abortion doctors in Kansas.

MC: Exactly. Providers. There’s still more to go. We were on a radio show earlier and they were congratulating themselves about how far we’d come, and I said yeah, but don’t forget we’re still fighting a lot of battles, and it includes that kind of stuff for women’s rights.

Everything is connected -- all minorities -- but nobody seems to see it that way. Not enough gays seem to.

MC: We’re gay and we see it.

Well anyway, congratulations on this. I really hope that you do get a wider theatrical release and the kind of notice that will make this more than just a week’s run in one theater. They’re going to pay attention to the audiences and how big they are?

MC: I don’t know anything about this marketing.

CR: I think they’ll probably pay attention to that and hopefully they’ll pay attention to see how people talk about it, because I think that’s important. One of the things that happened before we did the anniversary release of the DVD “The Boys in the Band,” as significant as it is I didn’t feel as if anybody knew about it. I thought that it just went pretty much unnoticed, and that kind of pissed me off.

When was that?

CR: See? 2008.

I know I heard about it. It was a release of the movie, right? Yeah, and so I wasn’t a big fan of the movie so I didn’t jump up and down.

CR: Which is interesting, because that’s what I thought.

But that’s all we have of the play in a sense is the movie on DVD, so we’re stuck. (To Mart:) You saw the production they did recently? Were you pleased with that?

MC: Its success outweighed my dismay.

So you were dismayed?

MC: Well in a way, yeah. It was much up too close and too personal. We were sitting in the room with them.

You needed the fourth wall.

MC: Oh, yes.

CR: A guy like me, I swear, the play it just stood up. It felt so fresh, like it was happening just now.

Oh that’s interesting. So it worked for you.

CR: It totally did.

MC: Ben Brantley didn’t particularly care for it, and that’s too bad because it’s the only game in town too.

Well, that does seem to be changing.

MC: Thank god. If it hadn’t changed last year when that Living Room version was going on…

But that was successful, wasn’t it?

MC: It was very successful. My point is that Brantley was the only negative review. Do you think there’s anything else you want to ask us?

Is there something that you always think why doesn’t a journalist ask this, and they never do? This is your chance to soapbox.

MC: No, I can’t think of a thing really.

CR: I’m just really grateful that you guys are paying attention to this. That is so exciting.

MC: Oh, me too. Thank you for coming and talking to us about it.

Of course! When would I otherwise get the chance to do this?  This is very exciting for me, as well. And one on one, to boot! Thank you both for your time.

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