The Boys in the Band

 

starstarstarhalf

 


Over fifty years on comes this fresh look at a gay classic.

 
Boys in the Band

Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer

 

When the playwright Mart Crowley created The Boys in the Band in 1968 he gave us a work which to an unusually high degree prompted a subjective response from its audience. That situation applied no less when it appeared on film in 1970 in a version directed by William Friedkin and now this new treatment of it by Joe Mantello may still have that effect albeit in somewhat different ways. As a stage play, The Boys in the Band, originally presented off-Broadway, was a landmark piece because it focused on the lives of gay New Yorkers in a way never seen before. It was thus inevitable that there would be a split in the audience between those seeing something of themselves portrayed for the first time and straight viewers who, living in a widely homophobic society, would either be sympathetic even if shocked or emerge with their prejudices confirmed.

 

But in fact the division went wider than that since gay audiences would include both those who relished the piece and those who were angered by the fact that at least some of its gay characters conformed to stereotypes and furthermore did so in a work that seemed to support the view that no homosexuals could be happy. Today with the general public better informed about the existence of so many gay men who do not reflect any stereotype that issue appears much less problematic. As for their other complaint, Crowley was indeed portraying the gay world as a sad one, but the point that The Boys in the Band was making was that if gay men often suffered from self-hatred it was due to the image imposed on them by society at large, one that kept so many of them in the closet. That fact certainly gives extra validity to this piece as an historic portrait of gay life in the era just before Stonewall and the emergence of gay rights activism as a major force.

 

Crowley, who died as recently as March 2020, wrote other plays but it was this first one that outshone the rest and remained central to his life right up to his last days. He was involved in this new film version just as he had been in the earlier adaptation for the screen and this latest treatment is in fact derived directly from the 2018 stage revival on Broadway, a 50th anniversary gesture that was hugely successful. So close is the connection that Mantello's film features the exact same cast made up exclusively of gay actors and it is to his (and their) credit that all of the performances feel geared to what the camera requires even if the material itself is inescapably theatrical. Furthermore, while the film follows the play in being set in a New York apartment, Mantello directs adeptly for the medium: a few flashbacks in the second half are not overdone, both an opening and closing segment usefully show scenes outside the apartment and when we hear music on a record player it is both well-chosen and nicely linked to the images.

 

Quite properly the essence of the piece remains unchanged: over two hours the film follows the events of one evening when Michael (Jim Parsons) hosts a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto). Michael's former lover, Donald (Matt Bomer), who remains close to him is also there and four other gay friends have been invited: there's Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a black librarian, Emory (Robin de Jesús) who is the epitome of effeminacy and a contrasted couple, the loyal Hank (Tuc Watkins), a school teacher soberly dressed and formerly married, and Larry (Andrew Rannells) who wants the freedom to roam. When Emory arrives he brings with him a present for Harold in the form of a gay youth hired for the occasion (Charlie Carver). As it happens, there is one other visitor that evening: Alan (Brian Hutchison), a roommate from Michael’s university days, looks in unexpectedly and seems taken aback by the gay company although some of them suspect that this married lawyer is gay himself (it's a point never entirely resolved although this film's coda arguably carries an extra hint).

 

As ever, The Boys in the Band is very much a work in two distinct parts. The first is a comedy that can be relished for the dialogue. In its own way and regardless of whatever truth lies beneath, it feels as artificial as Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest but the talk relies for its appeal less on sophisticated wit than on the bitchy camp badinage which some gays adopt. The second half is in contrast far more dramatic and seeks to go under the surface to touch on sadness and pathos. However, the device used by Crowley to lead into this is a game suggested by Michael in which the guests are competitively challenged to score points based on how far they will go when telephoning the person they have always loved, revealing their identity and ultimately admitting their continuing love for that person.

 

It adds to the complexity of assessing The Boys in the Band that this set-up is compelling and yet also unbelievable. In practice somebody in such a situation would refuse or walk out, but here for plot purposes nobody can. Because it is so obviously a contrivance it undermines the attempt to draw the audience in emotionally even though Robin de Jesús as Emory is careful to play down the overt campness at this stage and thus to change the tone. Nevertheless, the dramatic flair is strong enough to hold us despite doubts over credibility regarding the characters and their behaviour. Those doubts crop up several times over and even the revelation that Michael and Harold are akin in being spurred on by underlying self-hatred ultimately adds to the feeling that the characters are all dancing to Crowley's tune. For me at least The Boys in the Band comes over as triumphantly entertaining, but at the same time it fails to reach the catharsis that the theme requires because it never breaks through its surface appeal to express believably and movingly the emotional truth that lies beneath.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Tuc Watkins, Michael Benjamin Washington, Charlie Carver.

 

Dir Joe Mantello, Pro Ryan Murphy, Ned Martel and David Stone, Screenplay Mart Crowley and Ned Martel, from Mart Crowley's play, Ph Bill Pope, Pro Des Judy Becker, Ed Adriaan van Zyl.

 

Ryan Murphy Productions-Netflix.
121 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 30 September 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.