The Boys In The Band

Video, 1970

William Friedkin

Mart Crowley
Based on his play

Kenneth Nelson,
Peter White, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Frederick Combs, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Reuben Greene, Robert La Tourneaux

Rated R, 119 minutes

The Boys Are Back
In Town
by Michael D. Klemm
A shorter version first appeared in abOUT, November, 2008

Once upon a time, gay men were always portrayed onstage and in the movies as prancing stereotypes that provoked ridicule. In 1968, the year before the Stonewall riots, Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band premiered off-Broadway. It was groundbreaking in its day, and Clive Barnes in The New York Times called it "the frankest treatment of homosexuality I have ever seen on the stage." In 1970, it became a movie, directed by William Friedkin, with its original cast intact. For its 40th anniversary, it is making its long-awaited debut on DVD.

A group of thirty-something gay men gather to celebrate their friend Harold's birthday. Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is an angry and self-loathing alcoholic who lights candles at midnight Mass and wishes that he wasn't gay. Swapping tales about analysts with his friend, Donald (Frederick Combs), he announces that he hasn't had a drink in five weeks. His new sobriety, however, will soon be history. The guests arrive. Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) is quarreling with his partner Larry (Keith Prentice). Their lover's spat escalates when Hank realizes that Larry and Donald know each other from meeting in the baths. Rounding out the soiree are the flamboyant Emory (Cliff Gorman), a man of color named Bernard (Reuben Greene), and a brainless, young hustler in cowboy attire (Robert La Tourneaux) who is Harold's birthday present.

Crashing the party, and providing the biggest dramatic tension, is Alan (Peter White), Michael's college friend. Once suspicious of Alan's sexuality, Michael loved him with unrequited passion. Alan, who married into high society, telephones and tearfully begs to speak privately with Michael. The implication is that Alan has left his wife and that he is now questioning his real feelings for his old friend. Under different circumstances, Michael might have used this opportunity to seize the day. But he is about to host a party with "six tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer" and is relieved when Alan agrees to meet him the next day. Unfortunately he drops in anyway, and his timing couldn't be worse. When birthday boy Harold (Leonard Frey) finally arrives, Alan is beating up Emory, the party is in chaos, and Michael is pouring himself a drink. Let the games begin!

Act II is a descent into hell as Michael continues drinking and turns into the biggest bitch since Bette Davis entertained Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Alan, refusing to leave, sits in judgment and Harold observes from the sidelines while a nasty parlor game, rivaled only by the vicious diversions in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, brings all their simmering emotions to a boil.

For better or for worse, almost every gay plot we have seen for the last four decades has its genesis here. Themes include coming out issues, passing for straight, the unrequited love for a straight friend, the man who leaves his wife when he finally accepts the truth about himself (I'm talking about Hank here as we never find out for sure about Alan), and the "Christ, was I drunk last night syndrome." There are numerous theatre jokes ("You have just eaten Sebastian Venable"), bitchy one-liners, and Bette Davis imitations. Emory, whom Alan calls "a butterfly in heat," fulfills the uber-queen role who gets most of the laughs, and Michael is the quintessential self-hating queer.

Seeing Boys today can be a tad schizophrenic. The Boys in the Band is a sympathetic portrait but what is one to make of the self-loathing that permeates this seminal work? Take, for example, Harold's famous speech to Michael:

"You are a sad and pathetic man. You're a homosexual and you don't want to be. But there is nothing you can do to change it. Not all your prayers to your God, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you have left to live. You may very well one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough - if you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate - but you will always be homosexual as well. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die."

Today's more permissive climate has made The Boys in the Band controversial. My partner calls it a minstrel show. I prefer to think of it as a period piece; like a Merchant-Ivory film that depicts the old aristocracy in all its glorious and outdated snobbery. The Boys in the Band is a savage comedic drama that undoubtedly was a mask for the playwright's own inner pain. Yes, they whine too much, but it is a fair and honest depiction of a time when police harassment was common and gay men usually offed themselves at the end of movies. Try to forget political correctness. Do you really expect Crowley's characters to be well adjusted and happy?

The script contains my favorite, and my most loathed, line of gay dialogue ever written. The loathed? "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse." And my favorite? "Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?"

The principals deliver the goods with bite and wit. Anyone who relishes verbal sparring will find the bon mots in Boys delicious. Words become finely honed weapons. The boys lash out at each other with the same fervor as the society that threatens to annihilate them. At times, the bitch-fest gets out of control yet each is granted at least one moment of quiet dignity. "I may be nellie," Emery remarks, "But I'm no coward." Most touching is when Larry and Hank reconcile their differences and profess their love. Michael's panicked collapse at the end still packs an emotional wallop.

William Friedkin was selected to helm the project after Crowley saw his film version of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. Friedkin (who would also direct Cruising ten years later) is to be commended for his dedication but I question some of his directorial choices - specifically the thunderstorm (complete with a momentary power failure) during Michael's "Truth Game" in Act II. This isn't supposed to be a Grand Guignol horror film; one would think that that the wrath of God was raging outside. The film's mood is often too dark. At times, it plays like a dirge. A stage performance that I once attended, mounted here in town by Buffalo United Artists, was far livelier and all the whining didn't stand out nearly as much.

Dost the ladies protest too much? This point can be debated for years. Younger gay viewers who grew up with Ellen and Will And Grace, and watched the proud boys of Liberty Avenue strut their stuff on Showtime's Queer as Folk, can forget that most gay men once had to hide in a closet. Michael's remark that they shouldn't hate themselves so much would be echoed again in Terrence NcNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! more than two decades later. Yes, most of them whine too much. Yes, they can be a superficial bunch. Yes, Michael and Harold are too obsessed with make-up and designer clothes. Yes, Michael is a super bitch and a racist. But, for all their faults, there is still an unmistakable camaraderie. After Harold's scathing rebuke of Michael at the end, he also tells him that he will call tomorrow. Whatever one thinks of the histrionics, The Boys In The Band is a masterfully written play that spoke to, and can still speak to, generations of gay men. There might be a hell of a lot more gay pride today but, watching it, one painfully realizes that, in 40 years, some things still haven't changed.

It is important to note that The Boys in the Band dealt with gay topics as a time when no one else was doing so. It's not that gay men and women never existed in plays before; look at the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams. But most plays usually dealt more with the subject as a "dirty little secret." Citing Williams again, most of his gay characters are dead before the play even begins. As for the boy in Robert Anderson's Tea And Sympathy, he wasn't really gay he was just "sensitive." While it was common knowledge that many of the great playwrights, directors and choreographers were gay (not to mention a good chunk of the actors), there was still rampant homophobia amongst mainstream theatre critics in the early 60s. Some of them picked up on the codes "hidden" in many plays of the era and were not amused. Edward Albee was often a target; his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was attacked for being a mockery of heterosexual marriage or, even worse, really being about two bitchy gay couples disguised as straight. In spite of this, however, Boys got mostly good reviews after it opened. Cliff Gorman even won an Obie award for his role as Emory.

The movie received mixed press on its limited release. Gay audiences on the East and West Coasts either embraced its catharsis or they reacted negatively to all the self-pity. By the time the film version had come out, Stonewall exploded, the earliest gay liberation movements demanded positive images on screen, and The Boys In the Band was out of favor. No one in the first waves of gay pride wanted to watch a pile of bitchy queens piss and moan for two hours. That was then, this is now. It was finally revived again Off-Broadway in 1996 and a reviewer wrote that it was okay to like The Boys In The Band again.

Commentators in 1970 usually emphasized Emory's antics and Harold's acid tongue while failing to note the very moving story of Larry and Hank and their differing views on monogamy vs. an open relationship. Straight reviewers in 1970 probably felt the most threatened by them because they are truly in love while being the least outrageous characters of the bunch and the most "straight acting." It's a case of life imitating art as the play's Alan also cannot accept the seemingly "normal" Hank being in love with another man.

It seemed that the filmmakers too, despite all their good intentions, couldn't deal with showing it either because a scene of Larry and Hank making up and finally kissing wound up on the cutting room floor. On the disc's extras, director Friedkin remarks that the scene wasn't needed and that the film was already controversial enough. I call this a cop-out, but perhaps he has a point because many newspapers refused to run the advertising for the film - which featured photos of Harold and the hustler with the captions: "Today is Harold's birthday" and "This is his present."

There is a charming anecdote in Boze Hadleigh's book, The Lavender Screen, attributed to actor Frederick Combs. He was playing Donald again in the London production when he heard, through a friend, that Princess Margaret told her guests at a royal dinner that she had just seen the most delightful play about homosexuals and then asked if anyone knew what "rimming a snowman" meant.

Playwright Mart Crowley comments on the DVD that he turned down offers from Hollywood to film the movie with established stars. He insisted on writing the screenplay himself, and keeping the original cast and director. The actors in The Boys In The Band were noted stage players; Kenneth Nelson (Michael) was in the original production of The Fantasticks. But because they had only worked on stage, the studio wanted someone on the set who knew how to direct a movie and so Crowley agreed to this concession in order to win his other demands. This was a big deal; using the entire original cast from a play was a rarity in Hollywood stage adaptations and still is. I can think of few, if any, others. Elia Kazan almost succeeded with A Streetcar Named Desire but the studio needed one name on the marquee and Jessica Tandy was eighty-sixed so that Vivian Leigh could star as Blanche. This was par for the course; even Chita Rivera was replaced when West Side Story became a movie. A moment in history was preserved by keeping the boys intact.
As noted earlier, William Friedkin was selected to direct because of his ability to render Harold Pinter onscreen. In his commentary on the DVD, we learn that he saw the play and couldn't dream of replacing any of the actors either. He is sincere in his admiration for Crowley's script and his desire to do justice to such a groundbreaking work. He recalls going to Fire Island with Crowley and watching how gay men partied, and describes his creative process in translating the play into cinema. He goes to great pains to explain how bad the closet was in the 60s and salutes the courage of The Boys in the Band's actors. Strangely, he never bothered to find out which of them were actually gay and thought it was unimportant; he just considered each of them to be perfect in their parts.
In many ways, he was the ideal director. He enjoyed the challenge of working on a single set ala Hitchcock's Rear Window and, aside from the montage of New York scenes in the beginning, resisted the urge to "open up" the play. Friedkin would block the actors in ways that were true to its stage roots while being cinematic at the same time. For the most part, Boys does not look like filmed theatre, and it moves at a good pace. But, as I said earlier, I have issues with some of his other directorial decisions - especially that pointless thunderstorm. I also feel that certain characters and incidents sometimes do not always get the emphasis that they should in the camera set-ups. The shot when Michael downs his first drink needed to be held for much longer and its impact isn't want it could have been. Harold has one of the greatest entrances in modern theatre, and he certainly does here too, but why does the first shot of his face have to be an extreme close-up that resembles the introduction of the monster in James Whale's Frankenstein?
The remastered DVD looks terrific. The film was restored using a new digitally cleaned-up and color-timed print. The final transfer was achieved by overlaying an oversaturated copy over a black and white dupe and the result was a DVD that looks better than any print of the film in existence. Fans of the film are in for a treat.

The DVD features informative - but not scene-specific - commentaries from both Friedkin and Crowley. There are three documentaries that trace its evolution from stage to screen. Notables such as playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) add much needed historical perspective. Two of the surviving actors, Laurence Luckinbill (Hank) and Peter White (Alan) are also interviewed for the extensive extras. One of the highlights is Luckinbill's description of the reconciliation scene between Hank and Larry that was cut. The scene, as improvised by the actors, sounds wonderful and it would have been nice if it was included on the disc. Presumably the footage no longer exists, and this is the only excuse I will accept. Some production photos from the stage version would have been nice too. But these are quibbles; by the time you have watched the film, the commentary and the documentaries, you will certainly have been exposed to almost everything you always wanted to know about The Boys In The Band but were afraid to ask.

Whether you love The Boys in the Band or hate it, this new DVD is a must for any serious student of queer cinema.

A play or a film that lends itself to multiple interpretations can be far more interesting than one that wraps up everything in a bow at the end. One of the big questions that audiences of The Boys In The Band have debated for decades is Alan's ambiguous sexuality. What is the real reason that he called Michael and wanted so desperately to speak with him? This last section is for readers who have already seen The Boys In The Band; major spoilers are ahead..

Alan probably always knew, or at least suspected, that Michael was gay and chose to never discuss it. Perhaps he even sensed that Michael loved him but, as long as Michael never came right out and said it, everything could go on as it was. The presumption at the beginning, when he calls Michael in a panic, is that Alan has decided to leave his wife. The big question is whether he was also questioning his own sexuality and wanted to finally tell Michael that he has feelings for him.

When Alan arrives at the party, he is shocked to find what he perceives to be a pile of flaming queens dancing. He is drawn to the "straightest acting" man at the party, Hank. Ironically, we later learn that Hank's situation mirrors Alan's. Although he doesn't reveal this to Alan until later, Hank is getting a divorce from his wife because he has finally stopped lying to himself; he tried to change but it didn't work. Is Alan facing the same dilemma? When Alan speaks with Michael alone, he innocuously remarks that Hank is a "very attractive fellow." This is not something a straight man would normally say.

Alan is most threatened by the effeminate Emory. Poor Emory would be Alan's worst nightmare if, in fact, he was about to come out to himself. When Emory baits him, Alan responds with his fists. And then, inexplicably, Alan still doesn't leave the party. Why doesn't he depart? What does he hope to gain? During Act II's truth game, Alan is possibly faced with the embodiment of his own crisis and that must be why he reacts so strongly when he learns that Hank left his wife to be with Larry. Did he marry into high society to hide his own true nature?

Finally, Michael calls Alan a closet queen and accuses him of sleeping with another college friend, Justin Stuart. Michael claims that Justin told him this himself and Alan denies it, stating that he broke off their friendship when Justin professed his love. This has echoes of Brick and Skipper in Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Michael hands Alan the phone and orders him to call Justin and tell him that he loves him. As the others watch, Alan takes the telephone but he calls his wife instead. It is a devastatingly dramatic scene. Michael is humiliated and Alan cryptically thanks him as he exits the apartment.

Again, I pose the question. Why did Alan call Michael in such a panic? Was he going to tell him that he loves him? Did what he witnessed at the party cause him to change his mind? There is just so much food for thought.

Friedkin, in his commentary, is convinced that Alan was not gay. Michael, he explains, had once dated Alan's wife and so he is the logical person to call because the three of them knew one another. But Friedkin is straight, most gay men will probably think the opposite. Is Alan secretly gay but will never admit it to himself? Was Alan lying when he denied sleeping with Justin? Either answer works. The play and the film never answer this question definitively and it is this ambiguity that is part of The Boys In The Band's intrigue. This particular plot device has been recycled repeatedly in the decades that followed. Despite all the reviled self-loathing, Crowley's opus is really not as dated as many insist.

My first introduction to The Boys In The Band was actually on stage here in Buffalo. In 1997, I saw a wonderful staged reading for charity that was mounted by Buffalo United Artists. It was directed by the company's founder, Javier Bustillos. I clearly remember being blown away by the play, and by the reading, and being especially impressed by Peter Davis and Brian Riggs as Michael and Donald in that explosive finale - which the two actors performed, powerfully and flawlessly, without scripts.

I then rented the film on VHS and found that I actually preferred BUA's staged reading. Five years later, in 2002, when BUA re-mounted the play in a full production, I had a conversation with actor Chris Kelly (who played Michael), in which Chris called the film "deadly" and said that they were going to make it less funereal. (I'm not sure about "deadly" but I agree that the film is often too dark - once again, that thunderstorm!) Javier directed again and he had a great cast which included a superb Eric Rawski as Donald, Tim Finnegan and Brett Runyan as Hank and Larry, and Jimmy Janowski, whose performance as Harold was one for the ages. He delivered that line about "rimming a snowman" with far more panache than Leonard Frey did.

BUA first staged it in 1993, which means that their local production actually pre-dated the first New York City revival by three years!!! One of the great things about Buffalo is that we have almost twenty professional theatre companies and BUA has introduced playgoers here to some edgy stuff over the years, including The Laramie Project, the plays of Brad Fraser, and the first productions outside of NYC of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! and Some Men. My hats off to the company. Who says that Buffalo isn't hip?


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