To regular readers; I’m breaking a bit from my usual sci-fi inspired musings to offer a recommendation for what I consider one of the most profound ensemble dramas I’ve ever seen. I first saw the 1970 film of “Boys in the Band” back in my teens (during the early 1980s), and it’s stayed with me ever since.
From Stage to Screen.
In 1968, writer Mart Crowley decided to write from his own life as a gay man to create his groundbreaking play, “The Boys in the Band”, which told the story of eight gay men at a birthday birthday in the pre-Stonewall days, when gay men were often arrested for the ‘crime’ of merely congregating in public spaces. The party is crashed by an old straight college chum of the party’s host, Michael, and the interloper’s presence sparks an intense evening of increasing anxiety, bitchiness, pathos and revelations. While the play premiered off-Broadway, it quickly became a cult hit, as it spoke directly to its target audience, without need for filters or metaphors (unlike the plays of Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams, which often used straight characters as gay avatars). Gay characters at that time were, in the most charitable of circumstances, the eccentric ‘bachelor uncle’ or the wacky neighbor/friend. “Boys in the Band” featured a brave cast of mainly gay actors (with a few straight actors seamlessly mixed in), who risked their careers at the time to bring this play and its colorful cast of characters to life. Through Crowley’s connections in Hollywood, including friends Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, the stage play was remade in 1970 as a modestly-budgeted film directed with gritty, sometimes painful realism by William Friedkin (“The French Connection” “The Exorcist”). One of the few caveats made by writer Crowley, which was backed by director Friedkin, was that the feature film retain the entire cast from the original play. The 1970 movie is very faithful to the Crowley’s play, and features only a few new exterior shots and minor modifications to broaden the play’s deliberately claustrophobic scope.
The play and 1970 film stars Kenneth Nelson (“The Fantasticks”) as “Michael,” the Southern-bred host of the party, whose latent hostility (masking a deep self-loathing) rapidly goes nuclear with his escalating drinking. Frederick Combs is “Donald,” the sometime-lover and confidante of Michael. Cliff Gorman is “Emory”, the boutique owner whose natural flamboyance makes him the life of the party. Reuben Greene is “Bernard,” the meek black bookstore clerk who is Emory’s best friend. Laurence Luckinbill (“Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”) is schoolteacher “Hank”, who has left his wife and kids for a relationship with chronically unfaithful fashion photographer “Larry” (Keith Prentice).
Leonard Frey (1971’s “Fiddler on the Roof”) is “Harold”, the former professional ice-skater and ‘birthday boy’ of the party (“a 32 year old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy”), whose relationship with Michael hangs in a dangerous balance between friendship and deep-seated resentment. Emory’s ‘party gift’ to Harold is a street hustler known as “Cowboy” (Robert La Tourneaux). The party’s crasher is Michael’s straight friend from college, “Alan McCarthy” (Peter White), a WASP-ish DC lawyer who flies into New York for an unannounced visit after separating from his wife, for reasons left unclear.
The movie opens with Michael and Donald nervously anticipating the arrival of their party guests, “the same old tired fairies you’ve seen around since the day one,” laments Michael. Donald notices that Catholic Michael has stopped drinking and smoking over the past few weekends. Their party prep and wicked banter with each other is interrupted by a manic phone call from Michael’s straight college friend Alan, who very uncharacteristically cries during the call (as Michael notes later, “he’s so goddamned held together he wouldn’t show any emotion if he was in a plane crash”). After the call, Michael warns Donald that Alan might stop by for a quick drink. Soon, the guests arrive, and Michael’s anxiety (“icks”) slowly grows…
Emory enters with bickering couple Hank and Larry. Emory is openly and unapologetically gay, and his irrepressible humor and spirit make him the immediate life of the party. Hank and Larry are another story; Hank’s a middle-aged math teacher who’s left his family for Larry, and he’s intensely jealous of Larry’s incessant cheating and flirting. Michael has ‘the talk’ with everyone about butching up when Alan arrives, which Emory wickedly threatens to unravel with nary an effort. The doorbell rings, and it’s Bernard, a black bookstore clerk and close friend of Emory. The doorbell rings once again, and it’s Emory’s ‘present’ for Harold; a “midnight cowboy.” Cowboy/Tex is a hopelessly uncouth male prostitute with a birthday card attached to his hand like a stuffed animal.
After settling in, Bernard livens up the place with a little music, as the sounds of Marvin Gaye fill the stereo speakers. The phone rings, Michael answers. Alan cancels at the last minute and is ashamed for his earlier breakdown. He and Michael make plans for lunch the next day. Feeling much relieved, Michael relaxes a bit and goes back to the party on his patio, where he and his friends let loose with some dancing. As the dancing reaches a crescendo, the doorbell rings. Michael is oblivious to it, as is Donald. Hank is closest, so he answers, assuming it’s the late birthday boy, Harold. Unfortunately… it’s Alan, who’s unexpectedly (and uninvitedly) changed his mind at the last minute. Alan is dressed in a tuxedo, on his way to some mysterious dinner somewhere.
Note: Alan’s mysterious dinner date is never revealed. We infer it might be some black-tie lawyers’ dinner or perhaps a rendezvous with another woman, or, if Michael’s guess was right (and it’s never definitively disproven), perhaps he was clumsily attempting to explore his own sexuality in ways he simply wasn’t yet prepared to deal with…?.
Introduced to everyone, Alan shows an affinity for Hank, the recent divorcé who is the most ‘straight’ of Michael’s friends. Alan and Michael do get a chance to talk over drinks in Michael’s upstairs bedroom, where Michael (understandably) presses the party-crashing Alan on exactly why he is in New York. Evasive, Alan doesn’t answer, but Michael, being nobody’s fool, infers that something happened between Alan and his wife, Fran. Pressing even further, Michael asks of Alan’s mysterious dinner date, “Who’s dinner? Where are you going?” Alan returns downstairs to leave, and begins to feel increasingly antagonized by Emory, who delights in provoking the uninvited party crasher. Suddenly Alan loses the last shreds of his cool and hits Emory across the mouth, venomously screaming, “F@&&#t! F@&&#t!”
As Bernard and others do their best to break up the fight, the doorbell once again rings. And, of course, when all attention is elsewhere, the person at the door is the birthday boy himself… Harold. The imposing Harold, wearing rose-tinted glasses and a green suit that wouldn’t look at all out of place on the Joker, is thoroughly stoned, but very much in control. His speech is deliberate, his wit is scathing. Harold’s ‘gift’ from Emory walks over and sings happy birthday to him, before planting a huge kiss on Harold’s lips. Harold reads Emory’s card and cackles incessantly. Michael, his nerves frayed at this point, asks, “What’s so f–king funny?” Harold replies, “Life…life’s a goddamn laugh riot. You remember life?” Pressed on why he’s so late, Harold has no f–ks to give, chalking up his lateness as “no one’s goddamn business but my own.”
With Alan upstairs not feeling well, the party resumes, despite a now-drunken Michael’s increasing antagonism towards Harold; it’s implicit they were lovers, and now bitter frenemies, who tolerate each other mainly because they know better than to cross each other. It’s a mutual-assured-destruction of personalities. Emory returns after cleaning his bloodied lip and serves the lasagna and salad he brought earlier. After dinner, Michael continues to drink…and drink…and drink. His earlier pretense at graciousness rapidly eroding, as he deals with the pressures of both Alan and Harold. After the birthday cake, gifts, and a bit of dancing, the patio party is rained out, and everyone is forced to head inside and dry off.
Soon, a calmer Alan comes downstairs, intent on leaving… with Hank (!). Alan is under the misunderstanding that Hank is some poor little corrupted heterosexual who just needs ‘rescuing’ from this scene in order to ‘straighten out.’ Hank sets Alan straight by telling him that he doesn’t want to leave; he and Larry are lovers, not just roommates. Michael prevents his old “friend” from rushing out into the “inclement weather,” insisting that he really doesn’t want to leave anyway, or he would’ve left long before (a good point). Alan seems ‘disgusted’ by the revelation that he’s crashed a gay birthday party, but Michael wonders if he’s more curious than anything else? As he mockingly allegorizes, “It’s like watching an accident on the highway; you can’t look at it, you can’t look away.”
Note: The notion of seeing characters slowly slide deeper into drunken rages and stupors over the course of a particularly energized party reminds me very much of the works of playwright Edward Albee, specifically his 1962 classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, which was also turned into a film in 1966.
Things go from bad to worse very quickly as Michael engages the group in a sadistic party game where each participant has to use the phone to call the one person they’ve ever truly loved. Bernard goes first, calling a straight friend “Peter” with whom he once had a drunken pool party fling with as a teenager. He’s rendered nearly catatonic when he learns the man is out on a date with a woman, following his third divorce. Emory goes next. He calls his former dentist, for whom he can only work up the courage to anonymously identify himself as “just a friend… a fallen down drunken friend.” The game goes onto Hank and Larry, who call their own answering service, and leave messages of love to each other… their earlier arguing giving way as they re-commit themselves to each other. They head up to Michael’s bedroom to reconcile. Michael then, finally, almost triumphantly, taunts Alan into calling. Believing Alan to be closeted himself, Michael reminds his old college chum of the very ‘close friendship’ he once had with a man named Justin Stewart. The faceless Justin had slept with both Larry and Michael on previous occasions, but was particularly stung when Alan unexpectedly ended their close friendship. Alan calls… his wife, to whom he apologizes profusely. Michael is devastated. His earlier bravado crumbles, and that’s when Harold finally moves in for the kill, dishing out some of what “charming” host Michael has been serving up to everyone else in the room over the course of the evening.
The party finally ends with Emory taking a nearly catatonic Bernard home to sober up, Larry and Hank are in Michael’s bedroom, Alan is on his way back to Washington, and Harold has left with his gifts…promising to call Michael the next day. It’s made clear that, despite the venom exchanged between these two massive personalities, they still very much care for each other. Left alone in the living room, Donald helps a despondent Michael to his feet. Pulling himself together, Michael tells Donald he’s going to catch a midnight mass downtown. Quoting his dying father, Michael says to Donald, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did. Turn out the lights when you leave.”
Note: Sadly, the 1970 film of “Boys in the Band” was made released about a decade before the onset of the global AIDS pandemic, which took the lives of many members of the original cast, including Kenneth Nelson, Frederick Combs, Leonard Frey, and Keith Prentice. Their amazing work stands the test of time, and as a fan, I always feel privileged to watch the original New York cast recreating their roles for the silver screen.
New Band, Same Tune.
It must be a hell of a feeling for writer Mart Crowley to see his semi-autobiographical play (the characters reflect both himself and people in his own life) go from being contemporary, bleeding edge off-Broadway theater to a period piece, showcasing gay life in New York City as it was over 50 years ago.
Producer Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story” “Ratched”), is more known for his over-stylized horror these days, but for this recent adaptation, the prolific producer let Crowley’s original play once again speak for itself; presenting “Boys in the Band” as a late 1960s period piece, instead of trying to revamp it into something more 21st century. This is a wise choice for many reasons; primary of which is that Mart Crowley’s play is still wickedly witty and deeply relevant today.
While the 2020 version updates in subtle ways, I was very surprised at just how faithful the dialogue remained to Crowley’s original play (I’ve read both the playbook and Crowley’s 2002 sequel, “The Men From the Boys”). Occasionally, there are new bits added, or other references inserted in place of others (Michael’s telephone greeting of “Backstage, New Moon” is replaced with “Backstage, Funny Girl” for example), but none of these minor differences significantly alters the bulk of the dialogue, which is almost lockstep with the original play/movie.
What I was more surprised to see was how faithful the 2020 film was to William Friedkin’s original 1970 film. The early exterior scene of Donald cutting off a rude truck driver in traffic, for example, is taken directly from Friedkin’s film, as is the scene of Michael rushing up the stairs to answer his apartment telephone (a scene that feels almost as antiquated to modern cellphone users today as a silent movie). The cinematography, while adding a bit more warmth to the overall color palette than Friedkin’s starker film (shot by “Serpico” cinematographer Arthur Ornitz), is still very similar in lighting, compositions and angles to the original. It’s a loving homage to both the play and the film, for which director Joe Mantello (1997’s “Love, Valor, Compassion!”) clearly has the deepest respect. Early on, I was almost wondering why the new version was made at all, since it was so close to the original, but as I warmed up to the 2020 version, I began to see more significant differences, and even some minor opportunities taken for improvement.
While Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) does a fine enough job as Michael, he lacks some of Kenneth Nelson’s intensity and venom; his insults feel a bit more clumsy, and less sharp. Zachary Quinto offers a subtly different Harold, with his deep voice and almost menacing features. Quinto’s interpretation arguably makes for a stronger counterbalance to Parson’s Michael. The weakest of the new cast would be the actors playing the ‘straightest’ of the boys, Hank (Tuc Watkins) and interloper Alan (Brian Hutchison); their efforts to ‘tone down’ their characters, admittedly in keeping with the script, makes them feel almost generic at times. The biggest and best surprises in the cast came from Robin de Jesus’ Emory and Michael Benjamin Washington’s Bernard, both of whom breathe new life and energy into their characters. I really enjoyed Robin de Jesus’ fiery, proud Puerto Rican joie de vivre and scathing sarcasm, mixed with his deep well of compassion. Cliff Gorman’s original is still terrific, but de Jesus’ Emory is a revelation. I felt similarly about Washington’s Bernard as well; the meek librarian who hides behind his character’s new glasses almost as if to insulate his eyes from a cruel world. Washington’s portrayal of Bernard’s humiliation following the phone game felt a bit more terrifying when contrasted to Reuben Greene’s ’sloppy drunk’ performance. I was genuinely fearful for Washington’s Bernard.
Note: Star Trek connection alert! Just as the original cast member Laurence Luckinbill played Spock’s half-brother Sybok in 1989’s “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” new “Boys…” cast member Zachary Quinto played Spock himself in the three Bad Robot-produced “Star Trek” movies (2009-2016). Jim Parsons, of course, was the star of “The Big Bang Theory,” which also featured many Star Trek-related jokes and even Star Trek cast cameos.
The new film also runs a few minutes longer than the original (122 mins vs. 120) yet it feels even more protracted somehow. The dialogue ‘breathes’ a bit more in places than the faster paced, crackling 1970 version. This is either a boon or an issue, depending on one’s tastes. One of the most interesting differences takes place during the phone game sequence, where we see flashbacks of what had previously been word pictures painted by the actors in the 1970 version. The new flashbacks show us Bernard and Peter’s drunken late night pool party, as well as Emory’s high school prom, where his young dentist’s high school age girlfriend humiliatingly outed Emory to his entire class. We also see Hank in the Grand Central Station men’s room, having his first same-sex affair, shortly before he’d meet Larry a few years later. All of these stories were told in long, unbroken monologues in the previous play/film, and their inclusion here makes for an interesting bonus feature, but they could’ve just as easily not have been included as well. I had no issues visualizing these scenes in my head when I first saw the 1970 film as a teenager. That said, I was surprised at how closely the new footage matched my mind’s eye version.
There is also a sequence after Michael leaves his apartment at the very end of the film. We now see what was also implicit in the original, as the ‘boys’ go about driving home, sobering up, making love, and attending a midnight mass. The final images of the new film see Michael, leaving St. Malachy’s church, running inexplicably into the rain-soaked streets of 1968 New York City. It’s a metaphor of Michael’s desperate wish to break his own cycle of partying-drinking-depression, and of trying to outrun his own guilt and perpetual bitterness. It’s probably the one moment I couldn’t have visualized happening in the original, but it still works. Once again, nothing added to this new version is at all at odds with anything seen before. As far as remakes goes, this is one of the least objectionable ones I’ve ever seen. Neither an improvement nor a detriment to the original play/film… it simply and effortlessly coexists.
The Play’s the Thing…
Perhaps my biggest nit with the Netflix version of “Boys in the Band” is that it is, at times, so faithful to the 1970 movie (even down to some camera angles and blocking), that one wonders what was the point of making yet another film of the 1970 film? It might’ve been more interesting (and experimental) if they’d taken a page from from the “Hamilton” playbook, and just filmed the play itself, straight from the Tony Award-winning Broadway stage revival of 2019. That is the version I’ve never seen, and would love to see.
I remember watching “Hamilton” onstage at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles a few years ago, and then viewing the original cast production on DisneyPlus this summer. There was nostalgia at seeing the play onstage again, but with the added thrill of seeing it with the original Broadway cast. We’ve all seen Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto on TV (and films) many times, but I’ve never seen either actor perform live on the Broadway stage. Stage acting and film acting are very different crafts, and I would’ve been more curious to see Netflix just film the play, live, in front of an audience. That would’ve been something genuinely new.
While some audiences might dismiss “Boys in the Band” today as being an antiquated, all-male version of Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour”, I have to say that is simply not true. No one hangs themselves at the end of the story for the “shame” of being gay. Viewed today from a vantage point of 50 years later, “Boys in the Band” shows both from where we’ve come as a culture, and how far we’ve yet to go. I’m still a bit awed to think that, despite being saddled with a hopelessly retrograde current president, we’ve recently had an openly gay mayor run for president. Having representation in government and pop culture certainly doesn’t end discrimination or hate crimes, of course. Ignorance and prejudice are darker yet permanent aspects of human identity. But, as I’ve seen in my own lifetime, such representation does lay a few more stepping stones on the pathway toward universal acceptance, as more and more young people grow up seeing themselves openly and unapologetically reflected in government and entertainment.
While many things have changed since 1970, most notably the recent legalization of gay marriage, the struggle of gay life is still very real. The very hard-won gains in LGBTQ civil liberties since Stonewall always seem to oscillate between acceptance and too-easy dismissal, especially with the unexpected hard right political turns recently taken in western countries over the last few years. This ongoing struggle with both daily prejudices and social progress is what makes “Boys in the Band” still relevant today, long after Mart Crowley’s play debuted.
COVID-19 Safe Viewing.
The 2020 version of “Boys in the Band” is available for streaming on Netflix, and the original film is available on Blu Ray and DVD via contact-free shipping from Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now nearing 209,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!