By Alan Hurst
(***) Now Streaming on Netflix
When Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway in 1968 it quickly became a very big deal. Set in Manhattan’s West Village, it was a play about a group of gay men, built around a birthday celebration in the apartment of one of the main characters. Everyone – Jackie O included – flocked to see it. There had never been a play before that depicted this particular slice (or any slice) of gay culture in any real or relatable way. For context, this was a year before the Stonewall riots and the rise of the gay liberation movement. Very quickly there was a film version released in 1970 with the off-Broadway cast intact and directed by William Friedkin, the year before he won an Oscar for directing The French Connection (1971) and three years before he reached his zenith with The Exorcist (1973).
Fast forward to 2018 and The Boys in the Band received a 50th anniversary production on Broadway with a star-studded cast. This production was also a hit and it won that year’s Tony for Best Revival of a Play. The play has been adapted again for film with the Broadway cast intact and directed Joe Mantello who also helmed the Broadway production – and it started streaming on Netflix this week.
The Boys in the Band is now recognized as a significant milestone in American drama, but it was a rollercoaster getting there. The original production was described as bitingly funny, current and an honest depiction of gay men for audiences that didn’t have any idea this world existed. But it was also filled with some angry, self-hating characters who were not comfortable with their sexuality. The caustic viciousness depicted between these characters – in both words and deeds – was shocking. It very quickly fell out of step with the liberated, almost hedonistic shift that gay men forged in the seventies and the reputation of the play and the original movie suffered in major way. That started to change in the nineties, with the benefit of time and after the decimating gut punch of AIDS that started in the eighties. The Boys in the Band truly captures a moment in time for gay culture that was just on the precipice of a tumultuous few decades of change and acceptance.
The 1970 version is the better film – grittier, edgier, funnier, more tragic – with a fine cast of mostly straight actors. It’s also a vibrant time capsule of New York at its most dysfunctional. The new film is good with some terrific performances – but it no longer has that edge, the sense of danger. Everything is just a little prettier, a lot less shocking but it does have the novelty of gay actors portraying gay characters, sadly still a big deal when being an out gay actor in films is still career limiting. The Boys in the Band is still bitchy, still funny and ultimately sobering – it’s just not as moving. What was cathartic for an entire group in 1970, now feels like a very specific story about one of the characters and his inability to accept himself.
Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory plays Michael, the host of the party – a man who spends money on things he cannot afford (food, booze, clothes, trips) to fill the void and ease his discomfort with himself, with aging and with his lack of focus. He’s also a particularly nasty drunk who has been off booze for a few weeks, but we know that’s about to change.
Still set in the late sixties, the films starts with a nice era and character establishing montage and then the party guests start arriving: Matt Bomer as Donald, an ex-boyfriend and now friend of Michael; Robin de Jesús as Emory, the most aggressively effeminate of the group; Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins as Larry and Hank, Larry being the promiscuous half and Hank the soon-to-be divorced bisexual; Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, who with Emory is the focus of some of the films more uncomfortably racist dialogue; Brian Hutchison as Alan, a straight friend of Michael’s from college who shows up at the party – clearly uncomfortable with homosexuals, although also just a clearly hiding a secret of his own; and Charlie Carver as Midnight Cowboy, a pretty but supremely stupid “gift” for the birthday boy.
The birthday boy is Harold and he’s played by Zachary Quinto. He’s presented as an intelligent, viper-like predator when he arrives – late – and you quickly see that he has a laser-like ability to hone in on everyone’s weak spots – but in a caustically funny way. He’s not the prettiest of the group by far – but he’s also the most self assured. He knows who and what he is, and he accepts it. And in his own, lacerating way he’s trying to get the others to do the same, particularly Michael.
All the actors are very good but it’s Parsons and Quinto who stand out. Parsons does better than his 1970 predecessor Kenneth Nelson in at least making Michael understandable and somewhat sympathetic. Parsons utilizes a very effective slow burn whereas Nelson went from A to Z emotionally in seconds. Parsons seems just a little more self aware at the climax – there’s a resignation that works for the character. Quinto is very effective as Harold, but he’s up against the memory of Leonard Frey from the 1970 film. Frey gave an astounding, letter-perfect performance, but Quinto is almost as good. Quinto’s biggest challenge is that underneath the odd hair and make-up required for the character you know he’s pretty good looking. With Frey, the hair and make-up were tools the character used to improve the façade, not hide it.
Thankfully playwright Mart Crowley was still alive to work on the screenplay for the Netflix production (he died earlier this year at 84). He and Mantello were able to open things up a bit with some interesting flashbacks that showed sexual turning points for each of the characters. But the action primarily stays in Michael’s (very large) apartment which helps build the tension as rain forces characters off the terrace and into the living room where the games begin (in a nice nod to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Just a reminder: drinking games and telephone calls are never a good thing.
Treat yourself to watching both versions. And then seek out the documentary Making the Boys (2011). It’s a fascinating history lesson.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.