With a Gay Classic
The Boys in the Band
In his infamous 1966 article “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” New York Times theater critic Stanley Kauffmann dared gay writers to tell their own stories. His challenge that the “homosexual dramatist must be free to write truthfully of what he knows” inspired Mart Crowley to write a brutally honest and unapologetic play about modern gay life: The Boys in the Band. This map connects Crowley and his play to some iconic Hollywood figures.
On a freezing New York morning in January 1968, hundreds of people, mostly men, formed a three-block-long line to buy tickets for a workshop production by an unknown playwright. After its first performance off-off-Broadway, the word was out: Finally there was a show written, produced, directed by and largely starring openly gay men, in which the characters’ homosexuality was front and center. Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, a drama about “seven screaming queens” (as one character calls them) throwing a birthday party, was an instant hit and quickly moved uptown to a larger theater. The campy, razor-sharp dialogue is chock-full of references to icons of gay culture, including such performers as Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Maria Montez, Vera Hrubá Ralston and Victor Mature.
“The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained,” Susan Sontag announces in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” dedicated to another gay icon, Oscar Wilde. Sontag writes, “To talk about Camp is to betray it,” and then offers a 58-point thesis on her interpretation. Novelist Christopher Bram later defined camp as an “approach to art best summed up in the phrase ‘so bad it’s good.’”
Camp aesthetic gets its name in Christopher Isherwood’s 1956 novel The World in Evening, when a character admits it’s “terribly hard to define.” And its applications vary. Examples Susan Sontag gives in her seminal essay “Notes on Camp” include Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, Hollywood stars Steve Reeves (pictured on this CultureMap) and Jayne Mansfield, art nouveau and King Kong. Pointing out camp’s irony, Sontag notes, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks.” J. Bryan Lowder continues the explanation in his essay “Camp Is Not Dead!”: “One of the most common and convincing understandings of camp is of a secret language.” Daniel Harris’s Rise and Fall of Gay Culture even associates camp with famous movie lines gay people quote as a “way of declaring our membership in the forbidden ranks of a secret society.” Topping his list is “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” similar to a line spoken by the mother of gay camp icons, Judy Garland, in The Wizard of Oz. Well aware of her gay fans’ overweening devotion, Garland laughingly predicted, “When I die, I have visions of fags singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half-mast.”
The adulation Judy Garland received from her gay fans is legendary. In a 1967 review of Garland’s triumphant performances at New York’s Palace Theatre, Time magazine mentioned the “ecstatic young men in tight trousers,” while Esquire was more direct (and bitchy), dismissing her fans as “fags” who “flit by.” In the 1980s, Naval Investigative Service agents wanted desperately to find the mysterious “Dorothy” who seemed to be friends with so many gay military personnel. Later the NIS was embarrassed to admit it didn’t have a clue that being a “friend of Dorothy” referred to Garland and her signature role as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
The effect of Garland’s June 27, 1969, funeral in uptown Manhattan on the June 28 Stonewall gay-rights riots downtown will be debated forever, but there’s no denying the symbol of the gay pride movement remains the rainbow flag, recalling Garland’s hit song from Wizard, “Over the Rainbow.” In Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, one character asks, “What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?” The answer is a “queen doing a Bette Davis imitation,” but that’s a whole different story.
In 1948 Hollywood’s biggest open secret was suddenly in print for all to read, when the scandal sheet Hollywood Nite Life printed a series of articles about a major movie star “pill-head” (the star was not too subtly called Miss G). Judy Garland was started on the road to addiction by her mother, Ethel Gumm, who gave pep pills to then nine-year-old Baby, as Judy was called, to keep up her energy for the family’s act, the Gumm Sisters. “I’ve got to keep those girls going!” was Ethel’s constant refrain. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Garland’s studio, was so determined that the pudgy teenage Judy lose weight, it added diet pills—a combination of Benzedrine and phenobarbital—to her mother’s cocktail of uppers and downers. Garland experienced hallucinations on the set of Summer Stock in 1950. “What am I doing here?” she pleaded in the middle of a scene. When she missed a day of shooting during her next picture, Royal Wedding, the studio pounced: Garland was fired, washed-up at 28. In 1952 Judy and her new husband, Sid Luft (number three), announced her movie comeback vehicle: a musical remake of the 1937 melodrama A Star Is Born.
When Judy Garland signed with Warner Bros., in 1952, studio head Jack Warner wrote gushingly to his new star, “I sincerely believe you are one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.” Garland’s first film for the company, the Cinemascope production of A Star Is Born, costarring James Mason, opened to rave reviews and big box office, but theater owners complained about its three-hour running time. Studio-dictated cuts whittled the film down to a conventional two hours, and so began its slow death. Sensing a flop, the public stayed away. In 1983 A Star Is Born was rereleased theatrically with many cuts restored, and it reclaimed its status as a cinematic masterpiece. But before that, the film did have a second act in the theater: Legend has it the title of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band came from dialogue in A Star Is Born. To encourage his young, stage-fright-stricken protégée, fading star Norman Maine (Mason) tells rising singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) to imagine “it’s the Downbeat Club at three o’clock in the morning, and you’re singing for yourself and for the boys in the band”—the people who know you best.
The Boys in the Band had 1,000 off-Broadway performances. During this run, Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote that Boys was “by far the frankest treatment of homosexuality I have ever seen on the stage.” But the 1969 Stonewall riots shifted the gay cultural landscape, and the play’s reputation suffered. Such lines as “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much” didn’t do well in the new era of gay empowerment. By 1996, however, when Times critic Ben Brantley reviewed a revival, he admitted, “Apparently it’s okay to like The Boys in the Band again.”
In 2009, Matthew Kennedy traced the work’s previously declining fortunes in relation to its 1970 film adaptation. If it was initially regarded as Birth of a Queer Nation, he wrote, the film soon became “crazy Aunt Betty locked in the attic when guests came over.” Perhaps foreshadowing the Boys debate, playwright Mart Crowley gave the protagonist, Michael, his own father’s dying words at the close of the play: “As my father said to me when he died in my arms, ‘I don’t understand any of it. I never did.’”
Mart Crowley was a starstruck kid from Vicksburg, Mississippi, when he met director Elia Kazan on the set of Baby Doll in 1955. Crowley begged for a job, but Kazan told him to “look me up when you finish school.” Six years later Kazan hired Crowley as his personal assistant while filming Splendor in the Grass. Crowley’s main responsibility was to drive star Natalie Wood to the set. Wood had grown up on-screen, transitioning from child star (Miracle on 34th Street) and teenager (Rebel Without a Cause) to leading lady (This Property Is Condemned). According to Crowley, “Natalie loved to act and made it her life. Years after her mother helped make her a child actress, it was Natalie’s decision and determination that made her an adult star.” Wood later hired Crowley as her own assistant while filming West Side Story in New York City. Crowley followed her to Hollywood, but by 1967 he was drinking heavily and felt washed-up. Wood pleaded with him, “You’ve got to get your life in order,” and paid for Crowley’s first six months with a psychologist. Crowley remembers, “Thanks to Natalie, my analyst and sobering up, I started writing The Boys in the Band.”