One thing leads to another and another. At least that’s the way it went for gay filmmaker Crayton Robey.
The New York resident tracked down gay playwright Mart Crowley for his first documentary “When Ocean Meets Sky” (2006), which presented the history of Fire Island Pines. Crowley had written part of his seminal 1968 play “The Boys in the Band” there and Robey wanted to include him in his film.
“I listened to him for about 10 minutes and I was like, ‘This has to be documented. This is some really important history that’s been overlooked,’” Robey says during a phone interview. “I made a quick mental note and then I told him, ‘I need to know more about “Boys in the Band.” When I’m finished with this documentary, I want to come back to this.’ It was kind of presumptuous on my part but he really allowed me access into his world and it was a kind of gift.”
“Making the Boys,” a 93-minute documentary on the story behind the story of “Boys in the Band” is being screened today at 1:15 p.m. at the Discovery HD Theater at Discovery Communications World Headquarters in Silver Spring. Other gay- and trans-themed films such as “Regretters,” “I’m Just Anneke,” “The Other City” and short subjects “Last Address” and “The Faux Real” will be screened throughout the weekend. Visit silverdocs.com for ticket prices and show times.
Robey discovered “Boys” when he was about 16 and attending a creative arts high school in Houston. Caught kissing another boy in the stairwell, a teacher pulled him aside and gave him a copy of the “Boys” script. Years later he discovered the William Friedkin-directed 1970 film adaptation, which featured the entire stage cast, when a friend showed it to him on VHS. Though some have criticized the play and film as dated and anachronistic, Robey says it’s a masterpiece and a landmark in gay and pop culture.
“It’s a brilliant piece of work,” Robey says. “The lines are witty, it’s lasted the test of time, all of the people involved were very brave and yes, it’s a part of history but it’s also great story telling. And some really great performances.”
Robey’s enthusiasm for the project was infectious. He presented it as a work in progress at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and producer Doug Tirola of 4th Row Films loved what he saw.
“What he presented there was really the story behind the story,” Tirola, who’s straight, says. “I saw how these men really sacrificed their careers to portray these gay characters in the ’60s. You really get a sense of Hollywood in the ’50s and ’60s and Broadway in the ’60s from this film. I knew it was a great idea for a movie and there’s so much here that people just don’t know. … As soon as I met him at Tribeca, I thought, ‘What can I do to help him get this movie made?’”
While shooting, Robey learned CBS planned to finally release the Paramount film on DVD — its only previous home format release had been a long-out of print 1982 VHS/Beta release. Robey had a connection at CBS — his lawyer worked there. There was talk of Robey participating in the DVD special features but he declined after realizing his vision was grander than what CBS execs had budgeted.
Some media outlets — including the Blade — criticized the DVD documentaries for skirting around the sexual orientations and fates of the “Boys” cast members. Robey says all that’s addressed in his film. Surviving cast members Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White, who are both straight, are in “Making the Boys.” Six cast members, all but one of whom were gay and contracted AIDS, are dead. Obscure gay actor Reuben Greene’s fate is unknown.
“It’s a big mystery what happened to him,” Robey says. “He’s nowhere to be found.”
Several of the actors showed promise but may have damaged their careers by appearing in “Boys,” Robey says. Critics and fans of the film have written of Broadway vet Kenneth Nelson, as lead character Michael, and say he gave a tour de force. Robert La Tourneaux as the cowboy suffered the most tragic post-”Boys” fate.
“I think it definitely affected them and their careers,” Robey says. “Robert La Tourneaux wasn’t able to get another acting job and he ended up on drugs with AIDS. His life was horrible at the end.”
And even though Crowley survived, Robey hopes “Making the Boys” helps cement Crowley’s place in gay history.
“He’s really the ultimate artist,” Robey says of the 74-year-old writer. “A lot of people look at him as a one trick pony. He shot his load, and it was a great load, but he shot it. … We’re basically putting it in historical context and it’s basically his journey. We really see the gay movement come alive through his work.”