Review: With a Strong, Contemporary Cast, The Boys in the Band Revisits a Turning Point in Queer History
Looking back, I probably first saw the 1970 screen adaptation of playwright Mart Crowley’s 1968 off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band sometime in the late 1980s. And knowing me, I probably watched it because I was on something of a tear through the works of director William Friedkin and had very little idea at how groundbreaking a work of queer cinema the original film was. By the time I put my eyes on it, I’d seen other films centering around gay characters, but nothing quite like this collection of friends descending on an Upper East Side apartment in New York City in 1968.
The cast of the original film (all of whom were in the play as well) were largely unknown to mainstream audiences and that only added to its realism in my eyes. The original film was received with mixed emotions by the gay community, but as directed by Friedkin, I’m entirely sure he thought the film was for that portion of the population. The 1970 film still feels overly campy, but not in an insulting way, and I think Friedkin wanted to simply put this group of friends on display, hoping to bring them into the mainstream and show a lifestyle that was often closeted. Each character has his own unique life and set of character flaws, and like most of the world, the more they drink, the more real, open and self analytical they become.
The 2018 Tony-winning revival was an entirely different animal, with its cast made up of some of the best-known gay actors in film, TV and theater working under the direction of Joe Mantello. So it was only a matter of time (and of producer Ryan Murphy) that The Boys in the Band was again put before cameras (adapted by Crowley and Ned Martel, using the revival’s cast, directed again by Mantello), and the results—at least as a film experience—are less groundbreaking but also perhaps less problematic, with a free-flowing series of conversations filled with humor, biting criticism, broken dreams, and an honest look at gay lives at a turning point in queer history (set about a year before the Stonewall uprising).
This time around, the apartment in question belongs to Michael (Jim Parsons, in the best performance of his career), who is throwing a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto) and has invited a small group of their best friends—a group that grows a bit as the evening goes on. Other party guests include Michael’s former crush Donald (Matt Bomer); Larry (Andrew Rannells), a commercial artist and raging sexual explorer now living with Hank (Tuc Watkins), a teacher who recently left his wife for Larry, even though Larry refuses to be traditionally faithful; and librarian Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), who forms a wonderful comedy team with decorator Emory (Robin de Jesus), whose brain has a direct line to his mouth. Unexpected additions to the party include a hustler (Charlie Carver), hired for the night as a boy-toy gift to Harold, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s straight college roommate who just happens to be in town for work and wants to visit before taking off the next day. That forces Michael to ask his friends to play it straight while Alan is in the house. You can imagine that request doesn’t go over well or last long.
The Boys in the Band isn’t about plot as much as it is about conversation, with each new exchange revealing a bit more about each character. Through the casting and writing, these men each feel like unique individuals rather than variances on the same person, the way they did in the first film. Some are still portrayed as flamboyant but others take pride in their ability to pass for straight when required to—something that was likely very necessary even in late-1960s New York City.
Living in something of a Golden Age of LGBTQ+ artistic expression, The Boys in the Band might feel quaintly dated and perhaps even unnecessary since stories like these are being told on an almost daily basis in all mediums. But there is a value to remembering history and the places where strides in expression began. The writing here is not naturalistic; there’s nothing resembling small talk at a party anywhere in sight. What’s being said is meant to be taken in and assessed, whether it be on the written page, on stage, or on screen. It still crackles with vitality and passion and humor and honesty—the way any solid piece of writing does when it captures a moment in time. That energy is still there in this film version, but I can imagine it lighting up the room on stage.* There are also moments of severe judgment, melancholy, emotional fragility, and genuine sadness, and the result of all of these forces merging in one space is quite powerful and moving.
The show’s second half centers on a game Michael initiates involving each attendee calling someone they love and telling them as much, with points awarded the deeper into the confession they get. The game feels like an exercise in extended cruelty, and I’m not sure much is revealed—with one or two exceptions. Mostly, everyone seems to feel worse at the end of their call; deep introspection doesn’t always result in feeling better about oneself. For all its crackle, parts of the new film are also a bit of a slog, especially when Michael practically bullies his old Georgetown roommate about a rumored gay encounter Alan had in college that Alan refuses to admit to. The Boys in the Band is a mixed bag that gets edged up because of its historical significance and getting the film version right when compared to the 1970 original. It doesn’t feel as groundbreaking but it does put a handful of great performances front and center, and that always has value.
- Chicago’s Windy City Playhouse staged a sparkling production of The Boys in the Band, in February, just before the pandemic shut down the theater world.
The film is currently streaming on Netflix.
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