Released: 30th September
Seen: 1st October
In 1968 the groundbreaking play The Boys in The Band premiered off-Broadway. Written by the late Mart Crowley (who passed away in March of this year), the play revolves around a group of gay friends coming together for a birthday party which slowly turns into a chaotic night of revelations, bitchiness and a lot of self-loathing. It’s one of the first plays that showed gay men as actual characters with love lives and personalities, it’s so ahead of the curve that it premiered roughly a year before Stonewall putting it right at the start of the gay liberation movement. The 1968 play would later be adapted into a feature length film in 1970. 50 years after the off=Broadway play premiered, in 2018 it was revived on Broadway and now here we are, 2 years later and we have a new film adaptation and it’s just wonderful.
Before we even touch the material, the very existence of this adaptation of The Boys In The Band shows how much society has changed in 50 years. The original play certainly had gay cast members, but many were closeted and a lot were just straight men. A particular scene in the film adaptation where two characters would make out had the actors feeling uncomfortable about doing it, and in the end ended up being edited out because it might be considered too much for an audience in 1970 (which was 2 years before Deep Throat was to come out, just so you know where cinema was at that point). That was 1970, back when playing gay was not something one did if they wanted a career… the 2020 version? The entire cast is openly gay and they don’t have a single hang-up regarding the material, which means that not only are we seeing performers who aren’t afraid of the material but we’re seeing performers who understand the importance of the material and they play it perfectly.
The Boys in the Band is a fast, whip smart show with blistering dialogue that’s made to be rapid fired between the cast who speak in exaggerated tones while holding a whisky in one hand and a smoke in the other. Its plot structure is delightfully simple, it’s a party where 8 gay men of various kinds (The sissy, the jock, the promiscuous, the straight acting, etc.) come together to celebrate the birthday of one of their friends. The party is hosted by Michael (Jim Parsons) who is in a relationship with the neurotic Donald (Matt Bomer). The party is for Harold’s (Zachary Quinto) birthday and the rest of the guests include Larry (Andrew Rannells), who has a problem with monogamy which doesn’t go over well with his partner Hank (Tuc Watkins). There’s also Emory (Robin de Jesús), the flamboyant one of the group who also hired a hooker known only as Cowboy (Charlie Carver) as Harold’s present. Lastly there’s Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) who is probably the most reasoned and intelligent of the bunch. During this party, an old friend of Michael’s turns up, his name is Alan (Brian Hutchison) and Alan is definitely not used to being at a party full of drunken gay men, but he’s about to learn how this strange little family works.
The Boys in the Band moves quickly with everyone on top of their game, which would make sense since they did this literally over 100 times on Broadway and that amount of time spent with the characters really shows off. Everyone’s timing is spot on, their delivery impeccable and every movement precise. Doing this material so often means that they know how to get the most out of a line, they’ve done it enough times that every pause feels like it’s been scientifically tested to last for just the right amount of time and every little look shared between the actors has just the right amount of snark attached. They’ve definitely adjusted their performance style for the screen, allowing subtle gestures and changes in tone to get the laugh or land the emotional punch but you can just feel the connection between this cast. You can feel the camaraderie, the familiarity with the material that makes it sing like nothing else.
Every single one of them gets a moment to shine and god damn when they get that chance they take it. They don’t dare drop the ball at any point, these are the kinds of performances you only get from true greats who took the time to make sure they got it right. It’d be easy to call out the obvious standouts, from Jim Parsons’ slow descent into drunken fury to Zachary Quinto’s delightful job just firing off one liner after one liner like he was channeling Bette Davis in a late night talk show interview. You could call out Andrew Rannells’ brilliantly bitchy berating of his henpecked partner or the cute cluelessness of Charlie Carver’s cowboy. Robin de Jesús’ flamboyant fairy is fantastic (and the only Tony nominated performance in the cast), Michael Benjamin Washington steals every single scene he’s in with raw emotion that explodes with every line, Matt Bomer’s casual banter that shows how intelligent his character is to the point where it’s almost offensive how perfect he is, Tuc Watkins having possibly the most thankless job of just being there for Rannells to fire barbs at until it’s Watkins turn to make everyone’s heart break with one of the emotional highlights of the film and even Brian Hutcherson who is there essentially to get the fight started but somehow still manages to make memorable moments happen even with his role being as small as it is. You could call out and praise any single solitary performance but the truth is that they are so intertwined that unless you do it for all of them (as I just did) you really can’t do it for any of them because their performances wouldn’t work with any other cast.
Boys in the Band is also wonderfully filmed, mostly taking place in a single apartment and on a balcony with the occasional outside shot at the beginning and end of the film in order to set the tone, but the director never really lets it feel like they’re just filming the play. There’s great little camera moves that enhance the emotions of the moment, little things like the film suddenly going handheld when a fight breaks out or how they shoot the adorable porch dance scene gives this film a serious lift, elevating it above just a filmed play. They allow themselves the chance to do things that wouldn’t work on stage, allows for more quiet solitary moments or flashbacks, just making the story accessible to an audience who had no chance of seeing the play when it hit Broadway. Considering the director of this film has only 4 titles under his belt and all of them are adaptations of stage shows, it’s a genuinely great job and I really want to see him do more. Even if all he does is adapt the gayest plays he can find into movies, I’m all kinds of OK by that.
Now, sure, some parts of The Boys In The Band really do cross lines of political correctness. Abundant use of the C-word, racial slurs, homophobic language, so many things that will probably upset people and that is understandable. Of course a big part of the narrative is that the toxicity that slowly grows throughout the night, brought on by the alcholism and self loathing, ends up infecting everyone involved. Some parts are probably going to make you feel uncomfortable and I wouldn’t dare suggest that you should just be OK with some of the language used (though keep in mind a lot of this was written in the 60s by a man who admitted he was dealing with a lot of things and put it all on paper). There’s actually a small documentary on Netlix that’s attached to this movie titled Boys in the Band: Something Personal where they address this head on. I was able to look past some of the harsher moments because they were part of this story of self-destruction, I know some people can’t look past those moments so you can make that judgement call for yourself.
Through all the admittedly hilarious cattiness, the thing that The Boys In The Band excels at is showing off the actual self-loathing that the queer community had at the time. It was the in thing to be a self hating homosexual back in that time, everyone else was doing it so why not? So many of these characters are at odds with their own sexualities and a lot of the comedy comes from them putting each other down… but you can’t help but notice that, even at their most cruel, this little group is its own family. Yes they are full of self loathing, some brought on by religion, some by upbringing, some just because it’s set in the late 60’s and that’s what was done but this is also a film about a family who will fight like hell but somehow get through, even after all the self loathing there is still hope for these characters.
Brilliantly acted and shot, The Boys in the Band is the kind of film that we don’t get to see too often… a drama about gay people who live to the end of the story where the conflict isn’t about if they’re going to die from AIDS (I swear to god that feels like it’s the only kind of gay drama we get!). It’s powerful, it’s funny, it’s romantic and charming and unashamed to be as loud and proud as possible. It’s a genuine delight to see a great gay film with a completely gay cast who deliver some of the best work of the year. Truly, this band of boys is something special and I hope everyone knows it.