Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band debuted off-broadway in 1968 and ran until 1970. Beginning and set in a pre-Stonewall New York, it bust open the closet doors of urban gay men at the time. By the time it ended its run, it was seen to have helped ignite the political atmosphere leading to the famous riots which brought the gay rights movement into living rooms all over the world while also having been adapted into a feature film by the legendary William Friedkin.
While mostly acclaimed, Friedkin’s film – and Crowley’s play by extension – has since taken on a status of almost legendary datedness. Increasingly, The Boys in the Band has become derided for its camp and shallow characters as the dominant mode of gay representation in film and television has shifted almost entirely away from self-critique. We've become so focused on necessarily positive portrayals of gay people that, despite reality, only the rest of the world ever seems to be our enemy.
What The Boys in the Band does so well is distil the enduring culture of shame within the gay community into a single birthday party. The person throwing the party, Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is a lapsed Catholic and recovering alcoholic who has a caustic friendship with the person for whom the party is being thrown, Harold (Leonard Frey).
Also in attendance is Emory (Cliff Gorman), catty and effete; Bernard (Reuben Greene), an African-American gay man; Donald (Frederick Combs), who has depression and left the city to escape the ‘scene’; Larry (Keith Prentice), a polyamorous photographer; and Hank (Laurence Luckinbill), Larry’s straight-acting boyfriend who prefers monogamy.
The night devolves after Michael’s old college roommate Alan (Peter White) arrives, having called Michael on the phone and burst into tears saying he has something to confess. Michael becomes bitterly preoccupied with the idea that this must be his coming out, and the collective scrutiny on how each presents their sexuality – combined with alcohol – causes the group to get bitchier and meaner as the night wears on. Alan has a breakdown and attacks Emory, and while Alan sits on the floor gathering himself, Harold sneers, “Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?”
It’s a deliriously heightened dramatic maelstrom in which nearly every character is either projecting or self-analysing at any given moment. It’s a heady and claustrophobic film, shot almost entirely within Michael’s apartment with surprising dexterity and flair by Friedkin. Crowley adapted his play himself, which means the film’s acidic soul remains intact. It’s bracing and entertaining and certainly of its time; so what relevance could it possibly have today?
The thing about The Boys in the Band is that these characters are so cleverly and deliberately drawn to clash and contrast with each other. Bernard’s presence affords Crowley the chance to show the underbelly of casual racism in the gay community which is now slathered across Grindr profiles. He uses Hank and Larry to explore the push-pull between sexual freedom and mainstream romantic ideals that continues to provoke vicious judgement today.
And most importantly, it’s fundamentally about the degree to which sexuality – beyond the bare, biological essentials – is so much a performance. The constant references to theatre and film and actresses aren’t stereotypical touchstones, they’re evidence of how the suppressive force upon gay identity then and (to a lesser degree) now causes gay men to seek shared references and identification in the other in order to feel like a part of society.
The degree of internalised homophobia present in the players in The Boys in the Band could rival just about anything, and that’s something the gay community still seems aeons away from shaking. The reactions to Emory’s flamboyance aren’t all that dissimilar to the desperation some feel today in the need to cloak themselves in the heterosexual branding of the ‘masc’ and ‘straight-acting’, as though any association between them and femininity of any kind – which becomes universally branded as stereotypical – would be too unthinkable.
For all the material progress in gay rights, The Boys in the Band is a potent reminder that social problems remain, undermining those advancements.
By the time the film ends and the dust settles, Michael is drunk and suicidal. The dark undercurrent already present has well and truly turned pitch black as he begs Donald for all of his medication through wracking sobs. His shame is so overwhelming that it brings him back to this point, and it’s easy to forget – comparatively simple as it now is for many of us to live openly – how commonly this kind of terror takes hold.
For all the material progress in gay rights, The Boys in the Band is a potent reminder that social problems remain, undermining those advancements. No matter how superficially this material has aged, it remains brutally incisive about the ties that bind, and as convenient as it is to slap the ‘dated’ label on a film like this, it’s rarely that simple. Sometimes, as time passes, it’s only what’s on the surface that changes.