Bright Lights Film Journal

“Oh Mary, Don’t Ask”: The Boys in the Band on DVD

“In the ensuing post-Stonewall civil rights struggles, The Boys in the Band became crazy Aunt Betty locked in the attic when guests came over.”

The Boys in the Band, American cinema’s very own Birth of a Queer Nation, has a history marked by one reversal after another. It began as a 1968 off-Broadway outing undisturbed by commercial potential or marketing hype. But as an incandescent work of truth-telling, it grew bigger than its aspirations, logging in 1,001 performances. Then came the film version, in which playwright Mart Crowley (advantageously positioned as screenwriter and producer) and director William Friedkin made a succession of wise decisions in the adaptation. They open with cast introductions via crosscutting and a jaunty cover of “Anything Goes” by the momentary band Harpers Bizarre. The original little-known stage actors were rehired, the rapier dialog was preserved, and the film’s action was moved outside long enough to breathe in the stench of a New York summer. Released in 1970, the film earned mixed reviews and middling box-office. In the ensuing post-Stonewall civil rights struggles, The Boys in the Band became crazy Aunt Betty locked in the attic when guests came over. Surely such colossal displays of self-loathing and negative stereotypes are best kept out of sight as a people fight for a measure of respectability. It was during Boys’ long winter that all but three of its nine cast members died, most due to HIV complications.

Then came the backlash to the backlash. The reparation of Boys began as early as 1990 with a production by San Francisco’s Theater Rhino. Damn if it didn’t look like fabulously arch, psychologically astute (dare I say timeless?) theater. The long-awaited first DVD release of the film didn’t happen until November 2008, and by then it was okay to love Boys again. It gets 3 1/2 stars out of 4 from Leonard Maltin, and 4 1/2 out of 5 at Amazon. Friedkin, who later joined the mainstream with The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Cruising (of all things), looks back with manifest pride. Tony Kushner is happy to extol its virtues in the DVD’s extras. (One longs for Gore Vidal and Edward Albee to drop by, but it was not to be.) Are we witness to an American canonization? Has The Boys in the Band transcended the gay ghetto to take its place among the likes of Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The setup is pure theatrics. A melange of gay men assemble in the apartment of catholically damaged Michael for the birthday celebration of Harold (right, with Cowboy), a self-proclaimed “32-year-old ugly pockmarked Jew fairy.” These boys were the last ones chosen for P. E., and the first to survive by wits. Tribal unity has the ironic element of verbal onslaughts as Crowley glories in a subculture’s artful engagement with its own dialect. Fire-breathing love songs to language are sung here, and if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the walkup. Some lines grow truer by the year. (Question: “What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?” Answer: “A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation.”)

Michael is based on Crowley, but the pathologies on display are by no means uniform. Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) are a couple who reek of the closet, and are chafing under the oppositional yearnings of monogamy and promiscuity. The unexpected guest Alan (Peter White) is Crowley’s eyes and ears to the outside world, and the scratching post for so many cats. But White invests Alan with a quiet, compelling vulnerability that renders his sexual ambiguity both coherent and touching. His utilitarian function ceases to matter as White becomes another of the ensemble to deliver the goods.

There is great pleasure in watching Leonard Frey as Harold rise from his chair as fluidly as cigarette smoke and glide toward his prey with the authority of a hungry copperhead. As the “Cowboy” employed for Harold’s entertainment, Robert La Tourneaux is Tom of Finland handsome, plays dumb as dirt, and is simply perfect. Then there’s Emory, the out-and-out flamer indelibly played by Cliff Gorman. He’s arguably the bravest of the bunch, daily confronting a world that would rather kill him than set him free to pursue true love. He’s a champion fighter, his very name an apropos homonym for grinding, filing, abrading bitchiness.

The nerve it took to play these roles in the late ’60s is breathtaking. Back when sex for money and the word “lover” could elicit gasps, Boys was tantamount to watching a group of actors join hands to jump off a cliff called “Career Suicide.” Indeed, subsequent bright spots were fleeting. Frey was Oscar nominated for his Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof the following year. White had a regular spot on the inexhaustible soap All My Children. Cliff Gorman had a career post-Emory, but casting agents and filmgoers never allowed him much distance from his most famous creation.

Not everything works in The Boys in the Band, and there are moments when we are reminded that a tyro director is behind the camera. A spasm of physical violence is too abruptly played and reconciled. As Michael, Kenneth Nelson dominates, but his performance doesn’t always work. His emotional shifts are sometimes overplayed in ways that suggest an actor’s limitations rather than a character’s dilemma. But his final scene (right, with Donald) remains a singular cinematic howl, and Nelson’s absolute commitment to giving tangible form to Michael’s soul.

Only the most myopic could interpret the booze, dope, and self-mutilation as manifestations of innate pathology rather than personal responses to a society that hates fags. In that respect, The Boys in the Band is a clarifying reminder of the uneasy relationship between the individual and the group. It gives artistic life to anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s still relevant words of Catch-22 first published in her classic 1934 work Patterns of Culture: “[The homosexual’s] guilt, his sense of inadequacy, his failures, are consequences of the disrepute which social tradition visits upon him, and few people can achieve a satisfactory life unsupported by the standards of their society. The adjustments that society demands on them would strain any man’s vitality, and the consequences of this conflict we identify with their homosexuality.” Society, then as now, is loathe to repair its own institutions, and instead turns on the very people it pledges to defend.

It’s no wonder The Boys in the Band remains an anomaly. While Brokeback Mountain derived its power from the grand movie tradition of star-crossed love, no gay themed movie before or since Boys has had such force of honesty. That should give anyone pause. In the wake of largely sympathetic homosexual portrayals going back to 1961 in British films such as Victim, The L-Shaped Room, and A Taste of Honey, Boys shines a beacon on America’s staunchly regressive sexual politics. Yes, The Boys in the Band blazed a trail, but it was cut through the uniquely vast North American wilderness. Today, America stands above other Western nations in its dishonor to gay people. Proposition 8, the state-by-state door slamming on same-sex marriage, Obama’s choice of inaugural preacher, and the United States’ refusal to support a UN measure decriminalizing homosexuality have arrived in quick succession. Plus ça change, plus que c’est la même chose.