Published Sep 30, 2020In 1968, after endless struggles, the playwright Mart Crowley debuted his play The Boys in the Band on Broadway. Despite the loosening of social mores in the 60s, few wanted to fund this story of a group of gay men gathering for an evening of celebration and self-examination. It was the year before the Stonewall Riots, and vibrant queer communities still congregated out of sight in certain bars or private homes. The show went on to success and mixed acclaim, inspiring a 1970s film, a 2018 Broadway revival, and now, a Netflix movie helmed by celebrated theatre director Joe Mantello (The Normal Heart).
The film centers on Michael (Jim Parsons), a single gay man in his forties who is as neurotic about his receding hairline as he is about his debt. He is hosting a party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) in his chic apartment, populated by "the same old tired fairies" he invites to every party. He's weary yet excited, and once the guests arrive one can see why; the couple Larry and Hank (Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins) are warring about their disparate views on monogamy; his sometimes-lover Donald (Matt Bomer) is fresh with the confessional mood of the newly-therapized; sweet Bernard—who as the one Black man of the group is sometimes the target of gross racial jibes—and fluttering Emory who brings a 'gift' for Harold in the form of a sexy cowboy (Charlie Carver). With so much history and intimacy in the pot, it's destined to be a night to remember—and this is before Michael's old college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchinson) drops by and inspires a devastating parlour game where they each must telephone someone who they have truly loved.
"He's straight," Michael warns the partygoers of Alan, meaning: no innuendo, no cuddling, no camp behaviour. The way his friends respond to this warning sets the tone for the evening, and is a microcosm of how they perform heteronormativity in the outside world — complicated, of course, by alcohol and the way they egg each other on.
In a year where most major sporting events have been canceled or banned spectators, thank goodness we have something like The Boys in the Band on offer. From the first scene, the nasty yet inventive barbs are flying like tennis balls dispatched by the Williams sisters, with no referee to enforce civility. Amongst the birthday candles and Motown dance-offs, the friends dissect each other's neuroses and life choices, zeroing in on who is the most ugly, poor, or, worst of all, the most deluded. As each man spills his guts, madly code-switches around Alan, and makes the potentially life-changing phone call to win the perverse "game," the stakes grow. Forget Wimbledon, this is the sporting event of the season.
The Boys in the Band has style, certainly. Great tunes, big lapels; the set dressing is gorgeous, and there's some beautiful imagery in flashbacks to past encounters. The overt staginess adds to the campy flavour (producer Ryan Murphy's trademark) and is forgivable since most stage-to-film adaptations suffer under the higher standard of naturalism that film demands.
But does it have substance? It's still ground-breaking for a gay movie to feature an all-gay cast (who are all reprising their roles from the 2018 stage revival), but it's a lot of talent to throw at such a circular narrative. Sopping in slurs, corny monologues, and self-hatred, the film doesn't offer much in the way of empowerment, or characterization beyond what one might read in a playbill summary. It's not perfect, but The Boys in the Band is eminently watchable, especially upon a second viewing to catch more subtext. Come to see what was, 52 years ago, such a landmark of representation, and stay for a truly memorable party. (Netflix)