Judge Brett Cullum warns you this is NOT a musical. Mary, please!
Michael: [sings] "Forget your troubles, c'mon get happy! You better
chase all your cares away!" What's more boring than a queen doing a Judy
William Friedkin directed the film adaptation of Mart Crowley's stage hit The Boys in the Band, and it has been missing from the DVD format until now, almost 40 years later. It is odd to think a self-proclaimed straight man accused of extreme homophobia for his thriller Cruising would have such a landmark production of queer culture on his resumé. This project was made in 1970, two years after the play debuted in a workshop put on in New York City. The theatrical production ran for one thousand and one performances when it was transferred to Theater Four, and became one of the most talked about plays of theatre history. It was an early portrait of the modern gay community, and a center of controversy and celebration.
The Boys in the Band is a brilliantly conceived "slice of life" drama about what gay men thought of themselves in 1968. Forty years later, it's hard to watch this and think simultaneously "how much" and "how little" the gay community has changed. It is a landmark and cultural touchstone noted for the spectacular look at a group of queer guys frozen during the end of the '60s. The source material was written just one year before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a time when being gay was fraught with tension. The story has a sense of outlaws coming together to revel in what got each of them to this point. This is an impressive presentation. Never has The Boys in the Band looked so good, or been analyzed this completely.
Facts of the Case
The Boys in the Band shows a birthday party attended by seven gay men, one uninvited college buddy, and a male hustler bought as a gift for the guest of honor. Remarkably, this simple setup is the basis for an explosive psychological drama where a group of men have to face their deepest, darkest selves over the course of a couple of hours in a New York City apartment. It was one of the first gay plays that achieved notoriety, and the film adapts the entire thing without changing one word and preserving the original cast from the stage production.
On the guest list for the party we have:
Alan (Peter White, Mr. Wrong)—Michael's college roommate who has come to talk to Michael for a mysterious reason. He crashes the party, and everyone wonders why he is there. He's married and straight, but seems to be holding a secret that is eating him up.
Harold (Leonard Frey, Fiddler on the Roof)—The mincing birthday boy who is a retired figure skater. Harold is the most comfortable with himself even though he describes himself as a Jewish man with an afro and pock marks. He gets one of film history's most memorable entrances, and the character is a remarkable performance from Frey that should have been honored more than it was.
Emory (Cliff Gorman, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai)—The swishy interior decorator with a fast tongue and a flamboyant limp wrist.
Donald (Frederick Combs,Roots: The Next Generations)—The "weekend" friend of Michael who is a self-admitted underachiever, but basically sweet and nice.
Hank (Laurence Luckinbill,Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) & Larry (Keith Prentice, Cruising)—The gay couple struggling because one is rather closeted and wants a monogamous relationship, while the other is out and promiscuous.
Bernard (Reuben Greene, Mikey and Nicky)—The African American member of the group who has issues leftover from his childhood.
The Hustler (Robert La Tourneaux, Pilgrimage)—A young man dressed as a "Midnight Cowboy" who comes as a present for Harold. He's not terribly bright, but he is super pretty.
The play styles itself after Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and contains the same level of biting dialogue mixed with subtext amongst the party guests. The exchanges fired out hammer home and pierce each person, and the viewer is left to ascertain what it all means in the end. Certain mysteries are never fully revealed, and we leave wondering what else is going on beneath the surface long after the movie wraps up. Nothing is given a neat little bow, and dramatically the script holds up beautifully. The joy of watching The Boys in the Band comes from the chance for each viewer to react to it on their own without ever being instructed how to feel. It's a remarkable work, never preachy or judgmental. The characters are shown "warts and all" without any hesitation to make them lovable and loathsome in a short span of time. The men in the film were created from a collage of the author's friends and acquaintances, and they all are fully realized in a way that is challenging and daring even after decades.
William Friedkin's film version does justice to the original production, and at the same time opens it up just enough to make it cinematic. He styled the apartment shown after famous actress and singer Tammy Grimes' real New York residence. They even filmed some of the sequences at her place, and then recreated it on interior sets for when they needed more flexibility. It's interesting how the filmmaker divided the action in to three distinct segments, and then gave each part its own visual flair. We start open and sunny, and eventually end up in a claustrophobic darkly lit interior that underscores the emotional journey of the script. Friedkin provides unforgettable imagery such as the notable entrance of Harold. He gets one of film history's greatest introductions using a masterful blend of camera placement and editing. Even though Friedkin is a married man (four times over actually), he seems to understand The Boys in the Band inside and out. His pacing, editing, and camera moves are exactly what the play called for.
The decision to retain the stage cast was a requirement by author Mart Crowley, and it was also the right thing to do. It kept the audience away from coming to see the stunt casting Hollywood would have inevitably attempted. The film is pitch perfect, and the cast puts these characters on without any signs anyone is acting. Half the cast was straight, and in turn half was gay. Many of the actors have passed away, sadly, and they didn't make it to the fortieth anniversary of their achievement. You couldn't ask for a more powerful group of men to bring this production to life, and the film presents an impossibly high benchmark for any theatre group contemplating a production of the original script.
This is an excellent DVD, truly breathtaking, and a "must own" for fans and the curious. This movie has never looked better, even when it was brand new in the initial theatrical run. Director William Friedkin personally supervised color timing, and the results are nothing short of amazing. The film moves through three distinct acts, and the transfer shows off the visual style Friedkin executed for each segment beautifully. There are no digital artifacts, and nary a nick or scratch to take you out of the experience. The sound transfer is a simple stereo which fits the production since the dialogue is about the only thing needing to be showcased. Extras include a three part documentary that deals with the play, making the film, and the legacy that both have had for the gay community. The interviews include the playwright, the director, two of the three surviving cast members, executive producer Dominick Dunn, and noted playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America). The segments are talking heads mixed with clips and still photos, and you get the entire story about The Boys in the Band from inception to today. Also included is a director commentary with William Friedkin which includes a short interview with Mart Crowley near the conclusion. Friedkin talks through the experience at a rapid pace, and his input is engaging as well as enlightening. Crowley's portion recaps most of what he says in the documentary about the genesis of the play, but provides further insight in to what the filming process was like for him. Easily this is one of the best commentaries out there with proud participants who are eager to share their views.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I imagine there are some who will see this film as a throwback and a downer, a sorry gay minstrel show even. There was a time when it wasn't cool to like The Boys in the Band, because it was perceived as promoting stereotypes and bad feelings. The truth is it captured the sentiment of the time period when it was produced, and it's an accurate portrait of the gay community from 1968. Even more disturbing is it still asks the hard questions the GLBT community needs to face, and it's not an always flattering image in the mirror looking back. There's a truthful edge of bitterness to the dialogue and the characters lash out at one another almost continually. For some it will play out like a gay horror film with bitchy queens giving out everything they can dish up, but there are enough tender moments to convince you that under the vitriol there are tender and genuine emotions.
What the play does well is capture an internal homophobia that is unique to the gay community, and an idea that maybe there are flaws and downsides to adopting a queer lifestyle. I can't see where anybody can criticize the stereotypes here when we still have the likes of Mario Cantone swishing through Sex and the City or Roger Bart making an ass of gay marriage in The Stepford Wives. The truth is these stereotypes hold today as much as they did when this film brought them to light. Just ask any conservative senator caught in a Minnesota airport bathroom or any evangelist Christian pastor who had an affair with a male prostitute exposed if there are any misgivings today or self-loathing associated with the lifestyle.
The Boys in the Band is definitely the most important gay DVD release this year. It's a film that speaks to a broader audience, but those who understand the emotional power plays are going to get the most out of it. It's a classic film that deserves to be studied by the viewer, and this is the kind of exercise DVD is unique in offering. Certainly in today's world after so much Will and Grace and Queer as Folk, it's nice to see the start of the revolution of gay guys on the big screen without the usual filters and safe topics. It's a decidedly dark ride, but one that is long overdue on DVD. Like life, this film is tough but fair.
Guilty of being a long lost classic finally on DVD, The Boys in the Band are free to come twirling out of the closet in all their tattered glory. Who needs a cocktail, Mary?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by William Friedkin and Mart Crowley
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