“Seven tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer” — our beloved boys are all dressed up and back on screen.
If William Friedkin’s grim gay thriller Cruising (1980) continues to send some queens, leather and otherwise, into seizures, The Boys in the Band (1970), by the same director, has taken on the aura of a sacred text of modern queerdom. And rightly so. This scathing but ultimately sympathetic group portrait of a gay birthday party that virtually self-destructs before the terrified eyes of mainstream audiences was the first Hollywood feature to take a close-up look at queer culture. In spite of a plethora of topical or dated references — “midnight cowboys,” marihuana hidden in Band-Aid boxes, Maria Montez — the film is brilliantly acted and has an emotional clarity and power that hasn’t dimmed over the years. It was also a breakthrough in obtaining an R rating from the usually prudish MPAA, which the year before had given the dreaded X to both Midnight Cowboy and The Killing of Sister George, which mined some of the same territory.
Much of what makes The Boys in the Band so enjoyable today is Mart Crowley’s superbly dishy dialogue, which in sheer volume and vitriol preempts all its predecessors, gay and straight. Even a classic like All About Eve, touted for its hothouse script, pales beside the boys’ barrage of verbal pyrotechnics. Words are both the weapons and the armor in their endless skirmishes, and many of these words have found a permanent place in the culture. Surely not a day goes by without some queen, somewhere, quoting Emory’s “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?” or Harold’s acid bon mot, “Michael has countercharm.” And even straight audiences no doubt filed away for later use comments like Michael’s indisputable “One thing you can say for masturbation; you certainly don’t have to look your best.”
Initial reaction to The Boys in the Band was mixed at best. Critics mostly approved, with the notable exception of the arguably homophobic Pauline Kael, who inexplicably hated Friedkin and rejected anything he did. Variety, which usually applied commercial rather than critical criteria in its reviews, said it “drags” but thought it had “perverse interest.” A measure of some of the confusion around the marketing of homosexuality at the time can be gleaned from the reaction of the Los Angeles Times. While a critic there praised it as “unquestionably a milestone,” the advertising department refused to accept its ads. (“It’s not a musical” was the threatening tagline.) For Time magazine, more liberal then than now, The Boys in the Band was a plea for tolerance, a “humane, moving picture.”
Crowley himself was mostly pleased with Friedkin’s rendering. He sought out the director based partly on Harold Pinter’s enthusiasm for Friedkin’s filmed version of The Birthday Party, and Crowley and the director became close friends, even going to Fire Island to do “research” on gay sex. (In a celebrated story, Friedkin describes being cruised by a man there and intending to trick but chickening out at the last minute, perhaps like the straight character Alan in the film.) Crowley liked the way the director opened up Pinter’s play, but Friedkin mostly took the opposite tack in adapting Boys. There are a few set-up scenes at the beginning — Emory memorably mincing down the street looking for a hustler-present, Donald sneaking books out of a Doubleday’s — but mostly the action, like the characters’ lives, is internalized and insulated against the assaults of the hostile world.
Crowley and Friedkin had a gentleman’s agreement not to engage in the kind of screaming matches that both were apparently noted for, and this simpatico no doubt explains some of the very focused intensity of what they created. They also collaborated on what would be excised from the play. Some of these cuts were dictated by simple time constraints — Emory’s elaborate explanation of how he found his hustler, for example, was easily dropped (much as we’d love to see Emory doing or saying anything). Other edits were problematic; cutting Hank and Larry’s early dialogue about a fidelity agreement drains some of the power from their later encounters about this subject. On the other hand, the deletion of Michael’s long monologue about being turned gay by his mother challenges claims that Friedkin and Crowley simply mined stereotypes.
The Boys in the Band was not as big a success commercially as some may think, given its secure place in the firmament of instantly recognizable modern films. Some of its business may have been preempted by queer critics, who were among the harshest. (Friedkin would learn a lesson from this; Cruising begins with a groveling disclaimer that says the film is “not meant to be representative of the whole” gay community.) The late Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, no doubt spoke for many in being conflicted about it, calling it both “not positive” and “fair” in the same sentence. But ultimately he condemns it as a kind of Green Pastures for queers and a lamentable exercise in self-loathing. This narrow interpretation misses the sheer magnetism, humor, and power of these super-queens. Missing too from most discussions of the film is the fact that, as tied to its time and its subculture as it is, Friedkin pushes the drama onto a wider canvas of human frailty and limitations and lost dreams. “I never understood any of it” is Michael’s bitter parting comment, pointing to larger questions that far outweigh the nagging little ones of what sweater to wear and how much to pay the hustler.