“The Boys in the Band” made its debut off-Broadway back in 1968. Believe it or not, a dramatic comedy about the lives of nine gay men was a hard sell back then — finding nine actors willing to endanger their careers by playing homosexual characters was more than hard enough. Yet the play went on to be a smash hit, with an original run that closed after 1,000 performances. Even better, a film adaptation was released in March of 1970 — mere months before the play closed — complete with the entire original off-Broadway cast under the direction of master William Friedkin.
It’s tough to overstate what an impact the original play had, with regards to representation of gay men. It’s very possible that this play may have directly contributed to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Everything from the pride movement to “Angels in America” to “Rent” could be traced back directly to this play and the foundations that it laid. It was a truly bold and groundbreaking piece of work, portraying homosexual men with uncompromising honesty, validating their struggles and emotions in a way that straight people could understand and empathize with.
Cut to 2018. The play’s 50-year anniversary was marked with a Broadway revival starring Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Robin de Jesús, and Tuc Watkins. A cast entirely comprised of openly gay actors. And exceptionally talented ones, at that.
And in keeping with tradition, we now have The Boys in the Band (2020), a film adaptation starring the entire cast of the 2018 Broadway run. Even better, Joe Mantello — director of the 2018 revival — came back to direct the film.
For those who aren’t familiar, here’s a brief rundown of the characters.
- Michael (Jim Parsons) is hosting some friends at his apartment for Harold’s birthday party. He’s also a recovering alcoholic and a lapsed Catholic.
- Harold (Zachary Quinto) is a vainglorious queen with a penchant for pot.
- Donald (Matt Bomer) is Michael’s on-again-off-again boyfriend.
- Hank (Tuc Watkins) is divorcing his wife to be with Larry.
- Larry (Andrew Rannells) doesn’t share Hank’s views on monogamy. It’s a highly strained relationship, needless to say.
- Emory (Robin de Jesus) is by far the most flamboyantly gay character in our roster.
- Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) is a black librarian.
- “Cowboy” (Charlie Carver) is a rock-stupid prostitute that Emory hired as a birthday gift for Harold.
- Alan (Brian Hutchison) is an old college friend of Michael. He identifies as straight, though he may be a closeted homosexual.
The birthday party is complicated when Alan comes barging in out of the blue, looking for Michael’s counsel on a matter that’s never disclosed. Things get even more complicated when Michael proposes a party game: Everyone takes turns calling up their greatest love to confess their true feelings. Between that and the alcohol, things spiral out of control very quickly.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: This play was written and produced in 1968. Anything so bold and so progressive from so long ago runs the immediate risk of being dated as hell. Sure enough, the play indulges in some grating stereotypes and outdated slurs that are often quite painful to watch. Too many times, I could only get through this movie with the knowledge that these characters are being played by actual gay men who are clearly having a blast. God forbid that this play should ever be produced again with a straight male cast, because that could NEVER fly today.
It also helps that we’ve got such a wide variety of character types on display. We’ve got Emory the flamboyant asshole, we’ve got Hank the bisexual who passes for straight, and all points in between are represented. And hell, that’s not even getting started on the different romances, conflicts, feuds, and conflicting attitudes towards sex. Thus the point is implicitly made that not all queer men think and behave the same way. Being homosexual could mean any number of things, manifesting in any number of ways, and they’re all equally valid.
This brings us to the nature of the premise. On paper, it admittedly sounds dull as dogshit. It’s a birthday party, for God’s sake. The stakes couldn’t possibly be any lower, and we have no reason whatsoever to care about the birthday of some guy we don’t even know.
But Alan’s arrival stirs that up in some nicely compelling ways.
The very instant this (ostensibly) straight man sets foot into a party full of gays, you can feel the atmosphere change. It’s plainly visible how everyone there tones down their behavior, masking their homosexuality, all for the comfort of this straight interloper. The one exception is Emory, who refuses to tone down his behavior and honestly comes off as a bit of a dick for it. But then, this is who he is, there’s no harm in how he’s acting (certainly not in what should be a queer safe space), and it’s Alan who came to the party uninvited. So yes, while Emory may be acting abrasive and rude, he’s not necessarily in the wrong here.
As for Alan himself, he proves to be casually homophobic in some chilling ways. He’s okay with whatever anyone wants to do behind closed doors, just so long as he doesn’t have to see it. He doesn’t want anyone else’s attitudes and ways of life forced onto him, oblivious to the lives of gay people forced to live under the heteronormative paradigm. And he’s telling all of this directly to the face of Michael, an old college friend whom Alan knows for a fact is gay.
Over fifty years later, this whole angle is still a deeply incisive depiction of casual homophobia and gender performativity. Masterfully done.
Then we get to the back half of the picture, and the stupid party game in which the characters call up their great lifelong crushes. To their credit, pretty much everyone calls out Michael for this insipid, callous, and frankly manipulative idea. And sure enough, Michael does have his own ulterior motives for suggesting the game. (His history with Alan is a key reason, and that’s as much as I’ll spoil here.)
In practice, this turns out to be a neat way of exploring the characters’ backstories. We get to hear about their different experiences in growing up and falling in love as gay men, when they first realized they were gay, coming out of the closet, and so on. A stupid and childish game of dares — with no stakes whatsoever — shouldn’t be this compelling. And yet it provides the film with some of its most heartfelt and dramatically powerful material.
On a technical note, the visuals are certainly worth a tip of the hat. The transition from day to night makes for a stark contrast as the film goes on, and there’s some gorgeous use of shadows throughout. The editing and camera placements are solid, which is important in a story that takes place more or less completely within the same apartment. That said, the filmmakers do occasionally cut away to different locations, most notably during some elegant flashback scenes in the back half.
Additionally, the soundtrack is delightful. There are some wonderful needle drops in here, all with a swinging retro vibe. Fitting, for a play that hails from the late ’60s.
Oh, and did I mention that the cast is phenomenal? Jim Parsons turns in the best work of his career to date. Zachary Quinto plays his role with such impervious mystique that it’s often hard to tell how full of shit Harold really is. Matt Bomer is always a pleasure to watch, and Robin de Jesus is a riot. Charlie Carver provides some welcome comic relief, though the “pretty yet stupid prostitute” stereotype needs to go away already. For everyone else, “tortured passion” is the order of the day, and they all deliver in spades.
So are there any nitpicks? Well… it’s a play. It was so obviously written to be a play. The filmmakers add a couple of flourishes here and there, but the setting, the premise, the structure, all of it feels like an awkward fit in the medium of cinema. This was so clearly meant to be produced and experienced as a play that the transition to a different medium feels jarring.
It’s hard to explain, but the movie felt small. It felt self-contained, like the world didn’t expand beyond the four corners of the screen. I expect that sort of feeling when I’m in the dark capsule of a live theatre. But with a movie, I expect everything to be bigger, with a more vibrant setting. But then, the film adaptation of Glengarry Glenn Ross is another movie confined to a single tiny setting, and that film is a classic. Ditto for the immortal film adaptation of Twelve Angry Men. Why those plays worked better as movies than this one did… well, I haven’t really figured that out yet.
[EDIT: A day later, I just now realized what this movie had that the other two didn’t — the same cast and director as the stage show. It would make perfect sense if they fell back on their old routines and chemistry, without adjusting for the differences in media.]
In any case, The Boys in the Band (2020) is a film adaptation brought to us by the same director and cast who made the Broadway revival. It makes the show accessible to those who couldn’t attend, and we desperately need more of that from Broadway. Additionally, the cast is all aces, and there’s a lot of powerful stuff in here that remains timely, if you can get past the more dated and cringe-worthy material.
Definitely check it out for the marvelous acting, but don’t expect anything else to blow your hair back.