❉ 50 years on from Stonewall, in LGBT History Month, the boys are back.
When Mart Crowley’s The Boys In The Band rocked the New York stage in 1968, it became an instant cause celebre amongst critics and uptown theatregoers alike – a frank, funny, honest insight the lives of seven gay men, gathered together for a birthday party in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they are joined by a pretty but dumb piece of rough trade and an unexpected guest. Like all the most notorious soirees in drama – All About Eve’s “bumpy night”, or the psychological parlour games of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and The Birthday Party – as the evening darkens, so does the mood, with cat and mouse games and a round of revelations as the façade of glittering repartee crumbles under the weight of so many home truths. Finally, in the dawn’s early light, there is the glimmer of possibility of redemption and a new morning through catharsis… or do we play the game again?
Traditionally, due to censorship laws and social mores, gay characters in legitimate drama – both on stage and screen – were either ‘coded’ through metaphors (Brick’s disability in A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) or knowing allusions and effeminate mannerisms (Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon) but invariably seen as tragic figures, more often than not social outcasts and creatures of a crepuscular habitat.
The Boys In The Band was, at the time, something of a game-changer in that it offered a frank, open, portrayal of gay men in society, albeit from a fairly well-to-do walk of life: this being Manhattan one is an interior designer and another a fashion photographer, a third is in psychoanalysis. Clearly all close friends, they enjoy a breezy camaraderie full of confident, quippy, camp sparring, and in terms of mannerisms run the gamut from the ‘straight-acting’ or ‘masc’ couple of Larry & Hank, to the unapologetically effeminate Emory, the dictionary definition of the flaming queen, high-concept gay. The spark in this tinderbox is provided by the arrival of the birthday boy himself, “42-year-old pock-marked Jew fairy” Harold, whose piss-and-vinegar lancing wit and withering putdowns provide The Boys In The Band with many of its memorable moments and most quotable chunks of dialogue (“Your lips are turning blue, you look like you’ve been rimming a snowman”).
The play was such an immediate, ground-breaking success that it was adapted for cinema by 20th Century Fox, retaining its original off-Broadway cast (almost all of whom were, radically, gay men in real life) and with its original writer given a free hand over the screenplay. A young filmmaker, William Friedkin – later to make his name with The Exorcist, the French Connection and Cruising – made his directorial debut lensing the film, making the most of the camera’s ability to literally explore the play from all angles rather than take the predictable route of a ‘proscenium arch’ style literal representation of the stage play, and his direction, while not overly showy, gets into spaces and commands maximum use of the apartment set where most of the action takes place.
A warts-and-all documentation of the complexities and hang-ups of late ‘60s thirtysomething gay life, with all the neuroses and insecurities that were the inevitable by-product of a generation of men who had grown up repressing their natural impulses at a time when homosexuality was not only illegal but also classified as a mental illness, The Boys In The Band arrived on the silver screen just as a major revolution occurred, and this brilliant film became a victim of its own success as the wider gay community found its own voice.
At the time The Boys In The Band went before the cameras, a riot was going on – literally. The now-legendary Stonewall riots radicalised the gay subculture, with its chant of “out of the closets and onto the streets” and Gay Power, or Gay Liberation, became the latest civil rights movement to storm the barricades. The movement opened the doors to a new generation of gay culture, where to openly declare your sexuality was not just a lifestyle but a revolutionary act, and the movement recoiled in shame from The Boys In The Band, with its brave, bold, complex but defiant characters – “already-confident outsiders” as Time Out put it – dismissed as pitiful avatars of self-hatred (So, you see, the death of nuance is not a social media thing but has always been with us – but I digress). Not for nothing was the first full-length gay pornographic movie to enjoy a legitimate cinema release referentially titled The Boys In The Sand, the sexual fantasia that followed the carefree adventures of sunkissed golden boy Casey Donovan on the hedonistic enclave of Fire Island.
This is something of a shame, as – as with the notable lack of awareness or respect amongst a significant number of twenty-first century gay men for the trailblazing efforts of much-persecuted gay activists who won them their freedom by putting themselves in the line of fire – you cannot appreciate where you are without acknowledging how you got there and who helped put you there.
So it’s fitting that, fifty years on from Stonewall, when ‘gay pride’ meant something more meaningful than paying over the odds to see Hazell Dean lip-sync old SAW hits with a bunch of rubbernecking self-proclaimed fag-hags, that the boys are back in town, in this timely Blu-Ray and DVD release from Second Sight Films, in 2019’s LGBT History Month.
There is a cycle that all cultural artefacts go through as the relentless passage of time marches on. When something lands at the right time and the right place, it’s now and contemporary. As fashions and attitudes change, it becomes ‘dated’. Then, given enough time for everyone to look back and appreciate said artefact in its proper context, it becomes a Valid Historical Document.
Preserved in amber it may be, but that’s not to say that this digitally polished shiny disc doesn’t have anything to offer beyond acting as a queer time capsule. There’s not an ounce of fat in Mart Crowley’s taut script, and that it captures the original theatrical cast when they were still red-hot means that the performances are as tight as a coiled spring; while Friedkin’s direction calls to mind William Burroughs’ description of the camera as “the eye of a cruising vulture”. The use of music evocatively recalls a specific time and place even for those of us who never lived it, from Harper’s Bizaar’s chintzy version of Anything Goes that scores the opening montage as we see the boys go through their daily lives to the boys’ ad hoc mince through Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave just before a Shakespearean downpour that theatrically signals the commencement of the darker second act.
Performance-wise there’s something poignant about watching this group of young actors, several of whom were claimed by the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s, and Leonard Frey’s fierce show-stopping turn as Harold burns up the celluloid. Such was the impact Frey made, he reprised his role for a campy cameo in Peter Sellers’ The Magic Christian before Boys was even filmed!
Likewise, Cliff Gorman (who originated the role of Lenny Bruce in the play Lenny) transforms the campy, flamboyant Emory into something much more than a one-note limp-wristed caricature, while it’s sobering to note that the presence of Reuben Greene as Bernard is still that most rare of characters – a gay man of colour in a feature film.
Elsewhere, the issue of whether or not preppy, handsome Alan (Peter McCarthy) is a questioning or closeted homosexual remains as tantalising ambiguous as it ever was, just as one can argue that the reason The Boys In The Band has been both disowned and rediscovered by subsequent generations – there was a 2016 West End revival with Mark Gatiss donning Harold’s tinted shades, which transferred to Broadway last year starring openly gay actors Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) – is that for all the advances the charactersremain identifiable, sometimes uncomfortably so. Each character, easy to dismiss as a stereotype, is familiar because they resonate, and it’s also interesting to note that some of the characters’ debates – from cohabiting, to open relationships, ‘masc’ vs ‘camp’, and alcohol dependency – are still issues within gay culture. Above and beyond it’s still a “goddamn laugh riot”.
This Blu-Ray is complemented by a bundle of special features, including a three-part documentary on the play, the film and the aftermath ported over from Kino Lorber, an insightful interview with Gatiss and his partner Ian Hallard on the play’s themes and relevance, as well as a commentary track by Friedkin and Crowley. Essential!
❉ ‘The Boys in the Band’ Special Edition Blu-ray was released on 15 February 2019 from Second Sight Films. Cat.No.: 2NDBR4092 RRP: £19.99. Cert: 15 Running Time: 120 mins.
❉ James Gent is a writer, designer, social media & digital marketing manager, and editor of We Are Cult.