By Joe Ferrelli
(Editor’s Note: The trailer for producer Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Mart Crowley’s seminal play The Boys in the Band debuted today. Flagrant contributor Joe Ferrelli looks back at the incredible influence the original 1970 film had on his queer coming-of-age. Murphy’s remake debuts September 30 on Netflix.)
More than any other film in my (gay) lifetime, it is difficult to gauge the effect or influence The Boys in the Band (1970) has had on me. I would guess I have seen the film well over 25 times. So when it was announced that there would be an all-gay 50th Anniversary revival on Broadway in 2018, I knew that a trip to NYC was essential. With the success of that production, a new movie featuring the Broadway cast was produced. After years of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misrepresentations, it seems as though the original “Boys” is ripe for re-evaluation and may finally be getting it’s due as the gay cinema classic it is to many of us.
My first introduction to the very existence of The Boys in the Band came on a gloomy, rainy Halloween night in 1976. No doubt discouraged by the weather, I skipped trick-or-treating and stayed in. As fate would have it, an NBC “Big Event” titled “Life Goes to The Movies” made its tv debut that night. There were three hosts of this three-hour Hollywood TV extravaganza; Henry Fonda, Shirley Maclaine, and Liza Minelli. Somewhere in the midst of all the talking heads and film clips, a scene from The Boys in the Band began to unfold.
A bunch of male party guests were in a serious discussion and all of a sudden It got my attention. One of the guests (Alan) implored another man (Hank) to leave the party with him and leave his roommate Larry behind. It was then explained to Alan that “Hank and Larry are lovers. Not just roommates. BEDMATES!” My 13 year old head began racing. Could it be that guys like this (like me) existed in the world? Lived everyday lives? Didn’t have to completely hide away?
Over the next few years I did some secret library research and discovered that “Boys” was written by Mart Crowley, a former personal assistant to Natalie Wood, who would help finance the stage version. It became quite a successful off-Broadway production that never quite made it to Broadway. Despite this, William Friedkin was signed to direct a film version of the play. With the theatrical cast intact, Friedkin set out to film this groundbreaking play which became a touchstone of my existence.
It would be another five years, after my initial exposure, before I would see The Boys in the Band in its entirety. At the dawn of the home video revolution, I saved up the money to rent a VCR and a videotape from The Video Station, where I later worked for a few years in the early 80s. At the cost of $35, I propelled my (gay) movie life forward and sat spellbound by what I saw and heard.
To say the movie was a revelation is not overstating the case whatsoever. Set at a booze-soaked and pot-heavy birthday party, the scene opened in front of my eyes. To me, it seemed like a good many personalities were represented: the bookish African American regular guy Bernard; the “nelly queen” (and later victim of a violent physical outburst) Emory; the coupled photographer Larry and teacher Hank (who has a wife and family he left behind); the in-therapy Donald, on again off again boyfriend of party host; pro(an)tagonist Michael; birthday boy and self-proclaimed “32 year old ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy” Harold; The Cowboy, Harold’s birthday present/hustler for the evening; and Alan, the “is he or isn’t he” married former college chum of the host.
I remember laughing throughout and loving the witty/bitchy banter in which all the party guests were engaged. (“One thing that can be said for masturbation—you certainly don’t have to look your best.” and “Oh Mary don’t ask!” and ”Connie Casserole!” and “Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?” and “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?”) I thrilled at the thought there was this (or any!) queer community out there waiting for me.
While the play was quite the success, when the movie was released there was considerable backlash. In the intervening years, and in light of the burgeoning Gay Rights movement, the people and situations were deemed by some to be too stereotypical, too negative and ultimately bad for queers.
“The Celluloid Closet” author Vito Russo wrote that “Boys” captured the “essence of self-hatred and summed up a generation of gay men who were taught to blame all their troubles on their homosexuality” and also that “although it was difficult to see this clearly in 1970, ‘Boys” presented some attractive and functional gay men who formed an implicit challenge to the stereotypes exploited.” The New York Times critic Vincent Canby lamented “here is something basically unpleasant, however, about a (story) that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.”
Director William Friedkin, who would go on to direct such hits as The Exorcist and The French Connection, would court further queer controversy and bad notices ten years later with Cruising, another film that suffered the slings and arrows of some activist gays, suggesting the negative images of S & M clubs and a potential gay serial killer was ultimately detrimental to societal progression of queer rights. Somehow this one film was apparently responsible for everyone it didn’t represent. Friedkin even had to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the film saying the film in no way had any intention of representing the whole of a community and it is unrealistic even to entertain such a notion.
Queer cinematic images were indeed limited at this time and this mindset of rejecting said negativity is certainly understandable —indeed I have friends who were “scarred” by “Boys” and absolutely loathe it. Some cast members could not get work after appearing in “Boys”, igniting whispers of a The Boys in the Band curse. Tragically, many cast members succumbed to AIDS and only two of the original actors are still alive. While this imagery had little to counter-balance it at the time (no Rupert Graves and James Wilby cavorting in Maurice yet), it stands to reason then that at some point, there could be a re-evaluation of Crowley’s work and another opportunity to experience it. While over the decades there were small revivals of the play here and there, it would be 50 years before “Boys” was given a chance to really shine.
In 2018, the “Boys” finally made it to Broadway. A decidedly queer undertaking, it was produced and directed by openly gay men Ryan Murphy and Joe Mantello, respectively. It featured a veritable dream cast of out gay men, including Broadway baby Andrew “Book of Mormon” Rannels, TV heavyweights Zachary “American Horror Story” Quinto and Jim “Big Bang Theory” Parsons, as well as breathtaking Matt Bomer (appearing in the altogether much to everyone’s delight!) and adorable Charlie Carver. Robin de Jesus was Tony-nominated for his exuberant portrayal of Emory. Seeing this play, with this cast on Broadway was like a lifelong dream come true. I never imagined that such a beautiful thing could happen and that I would be able to witness it.
Super trouper lead, Jim Parsons, braved a broken leg to perform the night I saw the show. And let me just say that performing is one thing—performing on a multi leveled stage set whereby you must go up and down a full flight of stairs throughout the show with a recently broken leg, now that’s impressive! The audience, many of whom I would venture to say had never seen either a performance of the play nor the movie version of “Boys” seemed delighted. I was surrounded by constant laughter and a feeling of empowerment. All those times I had laughed in the shadows at Crowley’s words became somehow validated. Knowing these characters (and the performances) so well from the film, I wasn’t sure how well I would take to the new cast. I was able to just relish the performances as they transpired and even though I knew every outcome, I would note this inflection or that phrasing and see what was the same (much of it) and what wasn’t used (including one of my favorite lines when everyone is eating the lasagne—Michael taps his glass and says “Ladies and gentlemen… I beg your pardon. Ladies and ladies. You have just eaten Sebastian Venebal” – the queer in “Suddenly Last Summer”) The limited Broadway run did quite well and production began on making the film with the same cast and director.
Hopefully this will give a new generation an opportunity to see the new movie and also to seek out the original. As for the bad impressions and criticisms that were hurled upon the film during its release in 1970, Mick La Salle wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Some will accept and others will reject the film’s portrayal of the gay experience at this time. But don’t get bogged down in that issue. Think instead of what the movie is implicitly saying: that self-realization is tied to societal acceptance, that it’s too much to expect someone to think well of himself, even within a close peer group, if everything in the outside culture is telling him that he’s garbage.” Hopefully we’ve come a long way, Mary!
(Writer Joe Ferrelli received his Master’s in Critical-Cultural Studies with a minor in Film and for his thesis project, he founded Filmout San Diego: An LGBT Film Festival, which just celebrated its 22nd Anniversary. After relocating to NYC, he managed a small East Village cinema, The Pioneer, and performance space The Den of Cin. He has since returned to Buffalo, NY with his longtime husband Tom and appears as a guest speaker for various events at The Screening Room.)