Time Magazine, 1970:
”If the situation of the homosexual is ever to be understood by the public, it will be because of the breakthrough made by this humane, moving movie.”
The movie was The Boys In The Band, released in March 1970. It is one of the first American films to focus on gay characters.
Adapted from the 1968 Off-Broadway play by Mart Crowley, the film is an unflinching look at urban gay life in the 1960s, an era when being queer meant being an outsider and feeling deeply despondent. Though the characters are unabashedly campy, their humor is a survival strategy used to disguise the pain of being different and despised. In 1968, The NY Times refused to use the word ”gay”, sodomy was a crime, dancing with someone of the same sex could get you arrested, and the Stonewall Riots were still a year away.
A 50th-anniversary revival of the play is opening on Broadway in April with Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, and Matt Bomer, directed by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello and produced by Ryan Murphy, all happily openly gay men.
In case you don’t know, The Boys In The Band is about a birthday party for Harold, an acerbic gay guy who seems to have it all. The party brings together a group of gay clichés: the flamboyant interior designer, the self-loathing alcoholic, the bitchy queen, the tense longtime couple, the flamboyant sissy, the straight man who might not be so straight, the obligatory black guy, and the paid-for stud, all gathered for an evening of truth-telling. Throw in an emotionally devastating phone game, a lot of drinking, mixed it all together to create plenty of drama and tension with characters that you will either love or hate, though you will probably hate them.
The film version of The Boys In The Band (1970), starring the play’s original cast, is also a landmark in the history of gays in film. It now serves as an important historical artifact. The film’s significance cannot be denied, and its wicked wit still sticks with you.
The film is directed by William Friedkin, who did The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). He was the choice of Crowley, who had admired Friedkin’s film version of Harold Pinter‘s play The Birthday Party (1968). Crowley wrote:
“I thought, well, anybody who has this gift of imagery within such enormous confines of a play with so much verbiage and can still make some film imagery and get some movement and action out of it, then this is it.”
Friedkin smartly avoided “opening up” the play, only using the opening credits sequence to establish the details of the characters’ outside lives but confining the rest of action to the events at the party. Crowley insisted on using the play’s original cast for the film.
The Boys In The Band was revolutionary at the time it was released, when it was given an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Earlier, The Killing Of Sister George (1968) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) both received X ratings simply because there were gay characters in the films.
Friedkin went out of his way to describe the film as “…not about the gay world, but about human problems”. That qualification probably seemed necessary at the time. Just days before the film started shooting, the Stonewall Riots occurred, and overnight, The Boys In The Band and its miserable gay men became a period piece. Later, Friedkin became the focus of protests by the gay community because of his lurid film Cruising (1980) set in the gay S&M club scene.
The Boys In The Band was made before the plague, making it even more of a relic. From the film’s cast: Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Keith Prentice, Frederick Combs and Robert La Tourneaux, would all die from HIV/AIDS.
In The Celluloid Closet (1980), Vito Russo‘s important book about gay images in film, he writes:
“The internalized guilt of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”
In the play and film, Michael says: ”Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse”, proving The Boys In The Band is no longer relevant. Yet, it is entertaining, and its durability is a testament to the well-constructed script, crisp, hilarious dialogue, and the performances of the actors, frozen in time.
The film has a 100% positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Friedkin says that it is one of his favorites of all his films. On the occasion of the release of the 2008 DVD for the movie, Friedkin said:
“It’s one of the few films I’ve made that I can still watch.”