The Boys in the Band (Kino Lorber, NR)

Boys-in-the-Band 75The most heartbreaking moments of the film are also the occasion for some of the best acting.

 

 

 

 

Boys-in-the-Band 500

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Mart Crowley’s play, The Boys in the Band, and its all-gay cast of characters (with one possible exception, as noted below). When The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway in April 1968, the Stonewall Riots were more than a year in the future, and it would be five years before the American Psychological Association decided that being gay did not in and of itself constitute a mental illness. The Boys in the Band ran for more than 1,000 performances, and by the time it closed, the gay liberation movement was in full swing.

In 1970, William Friedkin made a film of the play, featuring the stage cast, and it is in this format that most people experience The Boys in the Band. It was his fourth film (previous films included a version of Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party) and might be considered his breakout film, followed by the mega-hits The French Connection in 1971 and The Exorcist in 1973. Friedkin does a good job of preserving the stage performances (particularly meaningful since many of the actors died far too young, of AIDS-related diseases) while also using the possibilities of film to open the story up a bit.

Friedkin’s primary addition is an opening sequence which introduces each of the characters in a different context—Michael (Kenneth Nelson) shopping for upscale goods, Emory (Cliff Gorman) closing up his antiques store, Larry (Keith Prentice) at work as a fashion photographer and then as the center of attention at Julius, a pub in Greenwich Village, Bernard (Reuben Greene) working at a bookstore, where he smuggles a package of books to Donald (Frederick Combs), and so on. Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” on the soundtrack during this sequence suggests to the Puritans in the audience that they are about to have Plymouth Rock dropped on them, metaphorically speaking, and so they do. The screenplay is also an improvement over the stage play because it cuts a lot of tedious psychobabble between Michael and Donald that may have been intensely meaningful to Crowley, but slows the action down and is not necessary in order to understand the characters.

Most of the story takes place in real time and in a single location, Michael’s apartment on the upper East Side (which is to die for, being modeled on actress Tammy Grimes’ real apartment). He’s throwing a birthday party for Harold (Leonard Frey) and has invited Emory, Larry, Donald, Bernard, and Hank (Laurence Luckinbill), Larry’s lover. Cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux) also arrives—he’s a hustler whose services have been purchased as a birthday present for Harold—as does an uninvited guest, Alan (Peter White).

One of the classic storylines is “a stranger comes to town” and that’s what happens in The Boys in the Band, with Alan being the stranger and Michael’s apartment and the party being the town. Alan is neither hero nor a villain, however, but someone who has lost his way, goes through a trial, and finds himself again (and that’s another classic storyline in miniature—the hero’s quest). Alan’s entire storyline reeks of heterosexual privilege—he gets to crash a party, insult the invited guests and start a fight, and is rewarded for his bad behavior (and gets to think all along that it’s all about him anyway)—and while I guess I shouldn’t be surprised (since that is often how things work out in real life), the lack of recognition of this aspect of the story in commentary on the play and film does annoy me.

We never learn why Alan crashed the party, other than he felt a pressing need to speak to his old college chum Michael (both Georgetown boys, and their class privilege also reeks) about a personal issue. At one point it seems that Alan may have decided that he is gay, while at others it seems he might simply be having ordinary marital problems and wanted to talk it out with someone. Since Alan doesn’t seem to have a clue about Michael’s sexual preference, and speaks to him assuming they share a disdain for stereotypically gay behavior, I tend to think it is the latter, but part of the genius of the story is that you never really know.

And, oh, what a party he crashes. Much has been made of the hateful and/or self-destructive behavior by the characters, but just as strong is the assertion of the strength and diversity of New York City’s gay culture, which had to remain under the radar, thanks to the legal and social system of the time, but was flourishing in parallel with the official, straight culture of the city. It’s no accident that the happiest moment of the film, an impromptu dance performance to “Heat Wave” (with references to Fire Island), is interrupted by the arrival of the straight world in the form of Alan. When things get really cruel later, it’s worth remembering that Crowley is not attacking his characters so much as showing how they have been damaged by a world that has no place for them. Not coincidentally, the most heartbreaking moments of the film are also the occasion for some of the best acting, with Gorman a particular standout.

Extras on the Blu-ray include informative featurettes about the play (14 min.), the film (25 min.), and the impact of both (5 min.), as well as a feature commentary by Friedkin. This release is an ideal introduction to the film, because it includes enough about the pre-Stonewall context to explain a lot of things about the film that may seem jarring to those privileged to have grown up in more accepting times. For those who were there in 1968, it serves as a reminder of how much things have changed. | Sarah Boslaugh

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