After a successful run for the Broadway revival in 2018, the acclaimed play The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley premiered off-Broadway in 1968, has finally got a remake for Netflix in the hands of Ryan Murphy as a producer. This movie is part of the multi-millionaire deal between Murphy and the streaming giant to produce original content for the platform with absolute creative freedom. Murphy only signed as a producer for this particular project, while Joe Mantello- who directed the revival also produced by Murphy- is taking care of the film adaptation as well.
A portrayal of the gay community from the New York of the 70s, starred by openly gay actors (the original cast of the revival) who have each worked in previous Murphy’s projects, makes anybody think that the producer’s labor is less than invisible for this approach. We can think in a collaborative effort instead that follows the play faithfully, thanks in part to a solid screenplay by Crowley himself (he passed away months ago) and Ned Martel (habitual writer for Murphy’s shows).
Many will remember that this is not the first time that the play received a film adaptation. The original THE BOYS IN THE BAND, directed by William Friedkin in 1970. This version didn’t exactly survive as an undeniable classic– besides some good critical reception and more than a few opposite reactions among the contemporary gay community. THE BOYS IN THE BAND didn’t have to speak on behalf of the entire gay community to represent them in cinema, although that’s how many perceived in the absence of past or present cinematic referents as honest and straightforward in the presentation of gay men telling their stories on-screen and interacting to each other. Gay or straight critics and audience alike applauded its existence as something positive, a less than flattering depiction for others because of their understanding of gay experience through self-pity, guilt, and the desperation to fit in a heteronormative world that would never fully accept them.
A remake for the play is not a bad idea today because now the play wouldn’t bear the stigma of being considered (erroneously as it was) a monolith of male gay experience. The new adaptation works as a period piece about particular experiences carrying something universal about being a gay man (open or closeted), released in a context where you can find many other queer depictions in cinema and television over the years (many provided by Murphy himself). It helped tremendously that a bunch of gay talent behind and upfront cameras underline the legitimacy of the material. THE BOYS IN THE BAND in 2020 is presented as a time-capsule of a gay world in a pre-equal marriage, pre-AIDS crisis, pre-Stonewall America, serving a contrast of how far we are from the past and reminding how much remained to be done. With more historic lessons and better artistic references since then, the new film is not less relevant now than it was in 1968 or 1970.
The premise is simple, retaining its theatrical origins: during what Bette Davis would have called a bumpy night, a group of seven gay friends reunited to celebrate the birthday of one of them. The party will become soon enough in an unforgettable and unforgivable occasion for tensions, fights, confessions, corrosive jokes, dangerous games, a few moments of real joy and leisure. Unanticipated escorts and party-crashers also intervene to bring more drama and confusion to the celebration. Leading the band is Michael (Jim Parsons), a ruthless host whose charm crumbles progressively, after a few drinks, until becoming a cruel master of ceremony to punish everybody and himself first of all. He assumed the mission to organize a party in his New York’s apartment to celebrate Harold’s birthday, a friend, a rival, and maybe a lover from the past. A confirmed ex-lover, Donald (Matt Boomer), is the first to arrive. He and Michael share some fraternal and sweet talk with no offensive jokes or funny name-calling to protect themselves, including a monologue by Michael about feeling the waste of his life (an early standout moment). Other guests arrive in succession: Emory (Robin de Jesus), the most flamboyant of the group; Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a black man dealing with the incidental racism from others in a circle of white friends; the couple Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins), suffering the bitter consequences of having an uneven open relationship. Before Harold (Zachary Quinto) finally arrives late, Michael and his other guests warm themselves telling jokes and anecdotes, dancing together as an ensemble (a classic moment from the play and the original movie), and drinking alcohol with no moderation. The first sign that this would not be a predictable night happens when Cowboy (Charlie Carver) knock on the door, a prostitute hired by Bernard as a present for Harold. A shy and ignorant young handsome guy, he soon becomes an easy target for mockery and objectification at his expense in a room full of cynic and smart people. Another unexpected visitor is Alan (Brian Hutchison), a straight friend of Michael who has tried to communicate with him the entire evening to speak about something unnamed. First by phone, proposing a visit later postponed, to finally appear in Mike’s home with no warning. Alan’s presence implies for Michael and his friend to assume a necessity of behavior moderation, closeting themselves in their own domain because he is the carrier of straight order and judgment against a life he will never understand or accept. A performance that is not so easy to maintain for some, as in the case of Emory, so it wouldn’t be so long until a physical confrontation brings the violence of the outside world inside a place of alleged comfort and security. And that’s when Harold finally is introduced, the last to arrive.
THE BOYS IN THE BAND is a film mainly supported by profuse dialogue and stellar performances (every actor finds a moment to shine), self-contained in almost one scenery. It is the kind of mature film-as theater experience taking part in a long tradition of similar notable films based on respected plays from WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Mike Nichols, 1966) to AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (John Wells, 2014), all of them distinguished by verbal duels and other forms of confrontation during a particular event that rejoins different characters in one place. Mantello and Murphy’s good contribution to the canon brings back the shocks and thrills of watching strong personalities clashing against each other as a dark form of entertainment (internally for the characters, externally for the audience). Michael is the monster that takes hostage their guests (metaphorically to a certain degree), while Harold is the only person able to defeat it if he wants. Both characters couldn’t be more different. Jim Parsons is excellent in the explosive and hysteric role of Michael, hard to sympathize if it weren’t for Parsons’ natural charisma. However, Quinto steals the show without effort in a performance of calm and coldness, a perfect counterweight for Parsons. Harold warns Michael that he cannot surpass limits with him as he does with others. The menace is not only credible, but it is also terrifying. Both actors provide some of the best performances of their career.
Despite the theatrical treatment that in this kind of movie usually inspires unfair comments to undermine its virtues as a film, the new incarnation of the play takes advantage of cinematic resources. A perfect example is the way Harold is introduced, after a long wait. His parsimonious arrival to Michael’s apartment is presented in a playful editing interpolated with a simultaneous beating happening in the living room. When Harold cross the doorstep, at last, you can almost sense that the party has finished without properly begins. At least any possibility of escape and diversion as it should have been in purpose. The central piece is a game proposed by Michael in which every person (including Alan) should call the person they loved most to said to them how they feel. The consequences will be calamitous for the ones who try. According to the era, they used a rotary dial to make the calls, a perfect instrument to increase anxiety and despair for dramatic purposes (inevitably not to think that wouldn’t be the same nowadays using cellphones).
The main subject in THE BOYS IN THE BAND is a reflection on why gay experience can be besieged and influenced by self-deprecatory feelings. In a blatantly homophobic society, the guilty of being different was presented as an unavoidable consequence for anybody trying to claim their place, well aware that they cannot change who they are even when some of them want it desperately. By the time it was written, it seemed logical to understand gay life as Crowley’s play exposed it. Today it looks like a postcard from another time with different values. Look again, nevertheless. Don’t lose sight that the world is not as perfect today as it wasn’t entirely imperfect yesterday. Whether Netflix give it deserved consideration as a film or not (would be promoted for the Emmys or the Oscars?), THE BOYS IN THE BAND is equally amusing and essential as it once was, and one of the standout films of the year that no one should ignore.