The Boys in the Band is available now on Netflix
In 1968 an off-Broadway play by Mart Crowley challenged and changed the portrayal of gay men on stage. Its bravery, intimacy and honest reflection of gay male lives in late 60s America earning it a deserved place in the landscape of gay liberation. While it’s cutting dissection of internalised homophobia and the painful journey to self-acceptance spoke to a whole generation of gay men. Many of whom had kept their lives and loves hidden from friends and family.
By 1970 The Boys in the Band had leapt from stage to screen, with William Friedkin in the director’s chair. However, despite its success on stage, the film suffered from a lack of visibility and a mixed critical consensus. With comments in US national media ranging from it being a ‘perverse interest‘ to ‘a humane, moving picture‘. Even within the gay community, the film divided opinion. With many gay men believing it to be a huge step forward, while others questioned the internal anguish it portrayed. The result of which was a film that slipped from public consciousness over time, never receiving the credit it was due.
However, the play remained a celebrated classic, finally achieving a broadway debut in celebration of its 50th anniversary in 2019. Its cast including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins. The new production holding on tight to the time and place of the original play, in turn, avoiding any subversion of its themes with an updated or modern interpretation. And it is this 50th-anniversary Broadway production that now makes its way to our screens. With the film directed by the Tony Award® winner Joe Mantello (who also directed the theatrical revival).
If you are unaware of the premise of Crowley’s play, the set up is pretty simple. As a group of gay male friends come together on a stormy Saturday night, in the small New York apartment of the paranoid Michael (Jim Parsons). The reason for the gathering, the birthday of Harold (Zachary Quinto), a wealthy, egotistical and ambivalent friend. However, what starts as a joyous celebration of friendship, slowly descends into a tense exploration of hidden emotion. As Michaels old college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison), arrives at the door. But Alan’s arrival only marks the start of a night nobody will forget, as long-held secrets bubble to the surface.
Joe Mantello brings together an ensemble cast of enviable talent, in bringing the broadway revival to the screen. Each one involved in the theatrical rebirth of The Boys in the Band, ensuring the aesthetic of the stage play remains central to the film. Meanwhile, the 60s New York location and dressing are exquisitely rendered, never falling into nostalgia. The screenplay not only reflecting the complexity of Crowley’s original work but also the themes of acceptance, homophobia and belonging that made his play so powerful.
However, does this create a mere period piece? A delightful snapshot of late 60s New York that has little relevance to the gay male experience today? In a word, the answer is no. With Crowley’s play continuing to speak to the experiences of gay male life, but in a different way to 1968. Let me explain this further, alongside the reason for the success of the play both then and now.
It is easy to believe that gay male life has moved far beyond the world reflected in The Boys in the Band. With many people basing this assumption on the hard-won legal protections and acceptance we have achieved. But the truth is far more complex, and while we have indeed come along way since 1968, poor mental health in gay men continues to haunt our progress. Just as alcohol consumption, drug use and smoking remain higher in gay men from teenage through to adult life.
Much of this is due to the internalised fear that we bottle up during childhood and adolescence. These strong and powerful emotions still leading many men to seek cures for their homosexual desires through dangerous religious interventions. Meanwhile, age and fear of invisibility stalk many gay male friendships and relationships, in a community too often obsessed with youthful looks and false concepts of male vigour.
The Boys in the Band reflects these continuing challenges in belonging and identity that permeate the gay male experience. And while an enhanced and open social life, acceptance and legal protection may have made gay male lives better. Sitting beneath is a need to explore the emotional connections, fears and anxieties many gay men still keep locked away.
Therefore, The Boys in the Band continues to speak to the internal transformation needed within our community. Its message and power just as potent today as it was in 1968. And with this new film brought to life by a stunning cast and equally dazzling performances. The Boys in the Band is once again a film every gay man should watch, consider and discuss with friends. Its core messages far more urgent and relevant than many of us would like to admit.
Director: Joe Mantello