10/2/2020 THE BOYS IN THE BAND Netflix
CALLING THE KETTLE “BEIGE”
In 1968, a scrappy little play opened off-Broadway that seemed doomed from the start. No agent wanted their client to be in it, no producer wanted to touch it, no theatre wanted to house it. And yet, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band came to life, lasted for over 1,000 performances, and became a movie in 1970, directed by William Friedkin and featuring the entire original cast.
In 2018, a 50th-Anniversary production opened on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for best revival, and featuring a cast composed entirely of “out” gay actors. That production has now been made into a movie, featuring the entire revival cast. Both the revival and the new movie were directed by Joe Mantello (director of Wicked and cast member of Angels in America).
Both these productions are bellwethers of the changing attitudes towards homosexuality, especially towards gay men and how they interact.
It’s 1968 and Michael is throwing a birthday party for his friend Harold. Guests include Donald (Michael’s houseguest), Larry and Hank (an ill-matched couple constantly squabbling), Bernard (an African-American librarian), and Emory (a flamboyant and effeminate interior designer) who brings “Cowboy” (a street hustler) as a “gift” for Harold. Unannounced, Michael’s college friend Alan, who is having a personal crisis of his own, stops by. Since Alan is straight, Michael fears his friends may pave the way for awkwardness, for conversations he’s not ready to have.
The opening moments of the play are a veritable bitch-fest of snarky humor and affectionate insults, but it doesn’t take long for the insults to grow teeth, for the cruelty to deepen, and for the scars to open. As Michael finds his way “back to the bottle” (he’s been sober for some time) with increasing frequency, his insecurities sharpen his meanness, and lead to a cruel game (“Call the one person in your life you truly loved”) that becomes the springboard for confessions and concessions.
The original production was ground-breaking because it was the first time gay men had taken “Center Stage,” as it were. These were nine very complex, very individual characters, with none of them falling into the trite clichés most gay characters became it the time. Even the effeminate Emory has many moments of depth and introspection. But this was before Stonewall, which explains the reticence of agents and producers to be involved. Although nothing changes the zeitgeist like success, still, the original cast members who were gay remained “in the closet,” and most of them (and the original director) eventually died during the AIDS epidemic.
As time passed, the play itself lost favor within the gay community because of its depiction of self-hating characters, only to eventually regain favor because of the characters’ depth and self-directed agency. It should be noted that in a short “making of” documentary following the Netflix stream, Mart Crowley (who sadly passed away this past March) talks of older men responding to the 2018 revival with “We’re not like that anymore” while younger men responded with “That’s me on that stage.” Perspective!
So, is the movie any good? (And make no mistake, it IS a movie and not a film of the play). I will confess to loving every minute of it (to be honest, I thought Friedkin’s 1970 film dragged and lacked heart – but we know Friedkin’s record with gay-themed movies. Just see Cruising (or better yet DON’T) as evidence). Jim Parsons is astounding as Michael. Self-doubt written on his face throughout, he makes the difficult transition to “party host from hell” without losing that spark of sympathy, even charm, with which he starts. Zachary Quinto is almost unrecognizable as Harold and creates such a unique and charismatic character that he makes the second half of the movie truly compelling. The rest of the cast (Matt Bomer as Donald, Andrew Rannells as Larry, Charlie Carver as Cowboy, Robin de Jesús as Emory, Brian Hutchison as Alan, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, and Tuc Watkins as Hank) all create indelible characters, and they all gel into a perfect ensemble. Mantello directs with a sure hand, realistically navigating Michael’s cramped apartment, and making almost perfect music choices (late ‘60’s pop hits and cornet-infused jazz) The entire movie builds inexorably to its gut-wrenching climax and lyrical coda. I also appreciated how the sexuality of Alan remains ambiguous – why he is having a breakdown remains stubbornly unanswered, and, if it were because he was about to “come out,” Michael’s caustic attacks definitely drove him back into the arms of his wife.
So, Thank You, Netflix for bringing us The Boys in the Band. This was one of the best and most memorable stage-to-screen adaptations I’ve seen, and definitely deserves your attention. Just be sure your wine and sarcasm are close at hand!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #BoysInTheBand #Netflix #AndSpill)
BTW, something I didn’t know, Crowley wrote a 2002 sequel, The Men from the Boys set thirty years later.