Premiering Off-Broadway in April 1968, Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band was a hit with queer and straight theatregoers alike. Two years later it was adapted for the screen by Crowley, and upon the playwright’s insistence the William Friedkin directed movie featured the entire cast from the original stage production. Initially hailed by the queer community for its rare representation of gay men in mainstream culture, over the years as gay liberation gained momentum, The Boys in the Band became viewed by many as a potential hindrance to acceptance. It was feared that the characters portrayed a negative image of gay life that reinforced stereotypes; a shadow that loomed over the work for some decades. An unfair burden on any piece of entertainment or artwork featuring underrepresented groups that’s seen resistance or immediate backlash to the likes of Friedkin’s Cruising in 1980 and Russel T. Davies’ television series Queer as Folk in 1999. Although a mainstream film featuring more or less an entire cast of LGBTQ characters, such as The Boys in the Band, is still a relative rarity, thankfully representation and societal acceptance has shifted to a degree that allows further richness and complexity, and perceived negative traits in gay characters, without concerns that the entire community will be judged.
As an admirer of both the play and Friedkin’s film I nevertheless questioned whether the 2018 Ryan Murphy produced fiftieth anniversary Broadway revival would be anything more than a starry salute to a worthy, but perhaps slightly dusty museum piece. But I was entirely wrong, in fact Joe Mantello, who directed both the Tony-winning Broadway revival and this new screen adaptation, along with his talented cast reprising their stage roles, have created a film that honours the original text, in all its potency and razor-sharp wit, as well as its late 60s setting and societal context, yet still feels bitingly relevant. I don’t think I’ll be alone in finding a deep connection to this piece over half a century after it was written.
As the film opens in 1968 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the well-dressed and carefully coiffed (to hide his receding hairline) Micheal (Jim Parsons) who lives artfully beyond his means is preparing to throw a birthday party for his dearest friend and sparring partner, Harold (Zachary Quinto). Michael’s guest list for the evening, as he quips to his former lover turned close friend Donald (Matt Bomer), consists of “Six tired screaming fairy queens, and one anxious queer.” The “anxious queer” in question is Donald who has retreated from New York City and is currently relying heavily on visits to his analyst. As the guests begin to gather we’re introduced to forty-something maths teacher Hank (Tuc Watkins) who has left his wife and children to live with his slightly younger partner, commercial artist Larry (Andrew Rannells) who wants to continue to play the field. The couple has shared a taxi to Michael’s apartment with the fabulously flamboyant decorator with an infectious joie de vivre, Emory (Robin de Jesús). Then there’s the comparatively more reserved librarian, Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), who helps satisfy Donald’s book habit, and the hours early arrival of the gift Emory arranged for the birthday boy, a young hustler intended to be a “Midnight Cowboy” (Charlie Carver). The evening’s fun and sense of freedom is interrupted by the arrival of Michael’s straight-laced and ambiguously straight, college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchinson). The last to make a suitably dramatic entrance is the guest of honour, Harold, self-described on arrival as a “32 year-old ugly pock-marked Jew fairy”.
One major difference between Mantello’s Boys and Friedkin’s is the warmth and affection that’s established between the men at the beginning of the party. We can see the genuine friendship and connection between them, which the archness of the earlier film’s characters made it harder to decipher. There’s a nice moment, for instance, when Bernard is teasing Emory about being arrested in a police raid on a bathhouse, where he hugs him while he’s telling the story, so it feels more like an amusing anecdote and less at his friend’s expense. Not only does this bring more light and shade to the dynamics between the men, but it also makes things all the more devastating as things begin to fall apart as the evening wears on. There’s more initial cordiality between Harold and Michael than in the 1970 movie too, even as they begin to spar with one another with barbarous words, and read each other to devastating filth, something they are clearly well-practised at. The love being more evident within this chosen family is largely a result of the direction and the performances, as aside from a few minor modifications and updates, the dialogue has been altered very little in Ned Martel’s screenplay, based on both the play and the original film. Things only become awkward between the men once Alan’s arrival puts Michael on edge. Not out to his old friend, he doesn’t want any of his guests to act too gay so as not to give him away; thus none of them can comfortably be themselves as they had been earlier (aside from the momentary intrusion of the disapproving glances of Michael’s straight neighbour couple). Michael’s enforced party game later in the evening—to telephone someone you have truly loved, right then and there out of the blue, to tell them how you feel—might be uncomfortable for his guests, but it allows us to see behind the veneer that each of the men has created as protection from the outside world.
Very much a movie in its own right, rather than a filmed record of the 2018 monochromatic stage production, a dynamic opening montage places us in the gay milieu of late 60s Manhattan, and succinctly introduces us to the characters. In a nice nod to the original film (and early LGBTQ activism), we see Larry have a drink with a handsome guy he’s just cruised on the street at New York City’s oldest continuing queer bar, Julius, the site of the historic 1966 Sip-In staged by members of the Mattachine Society. Once the guests arrive, wisely Martel and Mantello don’t veer away from the intensity that the sense of the action unfolding more or less in real time in a single location helps fuel. Things are expanded though with an epilogue montage of the characters leaving the party, and the film is enriched significantly both visually and emotionally with several individual character flashbacks; memory vignettes during the telephone game. For instance, Bernard recalls skinny dipping in a swimming pool with a man he was once in love with and it is realised with beautifully lit underwater photography of the free spirited young men, conveying a visceral experience engrained in Bernard’s mind. This series of memories take us out of the confines of Michael’s apartment and briefly, but powerfully, into the interior lives of these characters. As we see Larry’s recollections there’s a brief but steamy sex scene.
BAFTA-nominated director of photography Bill Pope, cinematographer on movies as varied as The Matrix trilogy and Clueless, keeps things visually interesting throughout without ever distracting from the performances at the heart of the film, often allowing us to see the reactions of the ensemble, aided by some fine editing by Adriaan van Zyl. Although shot digitally, the use of anamorphic camera lenses from around period the movie is set in, as well as a subtle film grain simulation, help to give it a late 60s essence. Great music choices (some of which featured in the 1970 movie), along with Judy Becker’s richly detailed production design, set decoration by Gene Serdena, and Lou Eyrich’s costumes, help to immerse us in a representation of the era that feels authentic, rather than a bad taste costume party, or a remote, fetishised “period piece”.
Taking on a gay role in the late 60s was seen as an extremely risky career move, let alone performers openly talking about their sexuality, so the fact that every member of the Boys 2020 cast publicly identifies as gay is an exciting sign of progress in the entertainment industry in this country, led in large part in recent years by Ryan Murphy, and it serves as an important piece of representation in itself. The opportunity for the actors to live with and fully explore these characters for months on stage, before being left with them to marinate for a year between the final curtain on Broadway and the first take on the film set, shows in the nuance each member of the cast brings to every moment they’re on screen. Jim Parson’s Michael is as soulful as he venomous, a powerful, gripping portrayal, with beautifully calibrated changes as he’s “turning” with each drink that kicks in. Quinto’s Harold is equally layered and compelling, and there’s something of a stoned, prickly gay male Moira Rose about his delivery that’s as delicious as that sounds. Robin de Jesús, Tony-nominated for playing the role on Broadway, delights with an adorably vulnerable, dignified side of Emory which is especially moving as he recalls the love he had for an older straight high school friend. There’s also some beautifully expressive fan use, and vitally he doesn’t miss a beat of the humour.
Just as Crowley has said that there are aspects of himself in all nine characters, so too as audience members can we likely see aspects of ourselves in each of these men. Our clothes might look a little different, and the ‘Mary, don’t ask!’ turns of phrase might have long fallen out of use, but many of the same issues that the characters are concerned with, though not necessarily unique to gay life, are still part of the tapestry of many gay men’s experiences in the USA today. There’s negotiations within relationships around monogamy; homophobia turning violent; holding youth and beauty in high regard as gay currency (the characters are attracted to the Cowboy despite harshly criticising his intellect), and the subsequent desire to retain a youthful appearance – today’s popularity of Botox, or at least the heavy use of Instagram filters, makes clear this is alive and well; the intersection of queerness and race (originally explored with the play’s only Black character Bernard, and now also with Emory who is Latinx in the 2020 version); guilt imposed by religion that sees being gay as a sin; internalised homophobia as a result of growing up in a society that views you at best as a minority or ‘other’; and navigating alcoholism and self-medication. Along with much of this comes the bonding experience and camaraderie between LGBTQ folks which growing up feeling different and living through a period of self-discovery can create. The art of reading is still with us too (partly in thanks to Paris is Burning, perhaps via RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose for the Gen Zers). Something that’s also within the fabric of the play that unfortunately still resonates is the need, likely linked to internalised homophobia, for some to feel superior towards their fellow gay men.
Through the Tony-winning Broadway revival, and this film, also likely to be in the running come next year’s movie awards season, The Boys in the Band‘s continued significance not just in the queer canon but as part of American literature more widely has been rightfully secured. Outrageously funny, but subtly heartbreaking too, Boys hasn’t lost any of it’s potency or relevance partly because, although specific to gay male culture of that era, Crowley also wrote insightfully about the universal human condition. Essentially, at one time or another we are all flailing about trying to make sense of life and our place in the world. One of the play’s most poignant lines, taken directly from the playwright’s own experience, is when Michael quotes his dying father, “I don’t understand any of it, I never did.” This new film is dedicated to Mart Crowley, who passed away on March 7th, and it’s an exquisite work that serves as a fitting tribute to his memory.
By James Kleinmann
The Boys in the Band premieres globally on Netflix on Wednesday September 30th.