At the time of its release, The Boys in the Band was groundbreaking for the simple reason of containing only gay and/or bisexual characters—so it’s no surprise the movie has been praised and vilified in equal measure. This ability to generate controversy is a credit to Matt Crowley, the writer-producer of the movie and the author of the play upon which it is based. In crafting a tense ensemble drama with nine characters representing various archetypes of gay American males, Crowley essentially wrote a referendum on being homosexual at the end of the ’60s, exploring camp, denial, gamesmanship, lust, promiscuousness, regret, self-loathing, and other hot-button issues. The Boys in the Band is emotional and humane, but it’s also deliberately provocative. Further complicating the discourse around the movie is the fact that The Boys in the Band was directed by a straight man, William Friedkin. All of this behind-the-scenes tsuris suits the material, since The Boys in the Band is—in its own vernacular—a story about queens at war.
The entire picture takes place in the Greenwich Village apartment of Michael (Kenneth Nelson), a self-confident professional who’s throwing a birthday party for his old friend Harold (Leonard Frey), to which all of their buddies are invited. Among the guests are mincing Emory (Cliff Gorman) and stoic Hank (Laurence Luckinbill); their wildly different styles of self-presentation are pivotal to the story. The evening’s X factor is Michael’s old school friend, Alan (Peter White), who shows up in New York the night of the party and insists on seeing Michael. Interpersonal fireworks explode the minute Alan arrives, especially when Michael becomes a mean drunk and Harold reveals himself as a vengeful monster.
Most of the drama revolves around the question of how gay men live in a homophobic world. Emory flaunts his identity in order to hide insecurity; Hank lives a double life, splitting his time between a boyfriend and a wife; Michael exists openly but hates himself; and Harold uses booze and sex to obscure reality (“I’m a 32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy,” he moans at one point). Crowley strikes an effective balance between leaving these anguished characters adrift and providing narrative closure, so the theme of people living under cultural siege comes through strongly. At its best, the film is harrowing, though it’s a good 20 minutes too long.
Friedkin uses intricate editing and meticulous pacing to accentuate the performance rhythms of the strong cast, which was directly transposed from Broadway. Frey gets all the best lines, entering the story late and delivering grade-A bitchery from behind tinted glasses. He’s ferocious. Nelson plays a huge range of moods well, even when he’s forced to articulate the story’s themes in overly explanatory dialogue. Gorman, meanwhile, delivers the movie’s lightning-rod performance, straddling the line between camp and caricature.
The Boys in the Band is a fascinating document of an era that’s long gone in some parts of the US—even as the same fear and prejudice that inspired Crowley’s story remain in force elsewhere. FYI, the behind-the-scenes drama of this project was explored in a feature-length documentary, Making the Boys (2011), which features remarks from Crowley and Friedkin, among others.
The Boys in the Band: GROOVY