Between 1968, when playwright Mart Crowley wrote his off-Broadway hit “The Boys and the Band” and 1970, when William Friedkin turned it into a movie, there were the Stonewall riots. For the health and well-being of the movie version, this was the worst thing that could have happened.
In June of 1969, decades of abuse, routine arrests and fear-mongering by the police department of New York City against the city’s population of gay men finally came to a head in front of a trashy, mob-owned gay bar called The Stonewall Inn. The result was a victory for the gay male population, not just of New York but, in fact, the entire country. History would recall that this singular event would empower the movement toward a larger struggle for equality (though the accuracy of that is in dispute). Suddenly gays who had hidden in the closet and were routinely harassed by police found a new sense of themselves, a new and powerful spirit that would propel them forward.
By the time of Stonewall, Crowley’s play was still running successfully off-Broadway, but something came out of the Stonewall riots that shifted perspective and damned the film version before it reached the public. The struggle for gay rights gave gays and lesbians a sense of self-worth, of personal pride and the courage to join the movement for their basic human dignity. In this new wave of social perspective, The Boys in the Band seemed to be a thing of the past. The story, about nine men – eight gay and one straight – attending a birthday party where they struggle with varying degrees of sexual identity and self-loathing, was seen by many post-Stonewall activists as a relic, a monument to attitudes that were now a thing of the past. Many took to calling it the gay male version of a minstrel show.
Upon its release it received a knee-jerk accusation of having been stamped as dated which led to its commercial failure at the box office and its disappearance into the dustbins of history. Even today the mere mention of The Boys in the Band (the film) is met with a kind of nervousness. Either you are with it or, in many cases, wholly against it.
Watching the film again recently, I kind of get it. I think I slightly understand why the gay community tends to reject it. The Boys in the Band is not a fun experience. It’s angry, it’s bitter, it has a nonet of characters who often tend to wallow in self-loathing and self-deprecating humor. Its about a birthday party that starts off friendly enough but the deteriorates into a game a cruel truth-telling that has you wondering if these people will ever want to talk to each other again. As much as I liked the film, I will freely admit it’s not something that I am ready to spend another evening with.
Yet, by no means, do I mean to say that the film is bad. I just mean that like Revolutionary Road or Moonlight it is undeniably a solid film but it is not one of those films that you want to kick back with on a lazy evening at home.
The Boys in the Band tells one of those stories in which the setting and the occasion are an excuse to lock several people I a room together, liquor them up and then engage them in a bitter war of truth-telling. Told in two acts the whole thing all takes place in the New York City apartment of Michael (Kenneth Nelson) who is preparing a birthday party for his longtime friend Harold (Leonard Frey). As Act I opens we meet Michael, who is a piece of work. He is a staggering alcoholic filled with self-loathing and bitterness who is Catholic and gay and wishes desperately that he wasn’t either one. He tells his friend Donald (Frederick Combs) that he hasn’t has been sober for five weeks, but over the course of the evening, that streak will end.
Into the festivities come other guests. There is a feuding couple Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and his partner Larry (Keith Prentice) whose quarrel escalates when it is discovered that Larry and Donald know each other from the baths. Also, there’s Emory (Cliff Gorman), a flamboyant uber-queen whose skills at catering have earn him the self-entitled nickname of Connie Casserole. Also there’s Bernard (Reuben Green), the only black man at the party, and a hunky cowboy prostitute (Robert Le Tourneaux) that Emory has hired as a gift for the guest of honor.
The party is crashed, in many respects, by the arrival of Michael’s former college roommate Alan (Peter White) who is straight but only suspected that Michael was gay. Why did he call out of the blue, and why was he in tears? Why is he suddenly contacting Michael after so many years? It is left up to you to decide but it definitely has a massively dramatic effect on the progress of the party. Michael was relived that Alan agreed to call him the next day but was buffaloed when he dropped in that night.
The festivities begin pleasant enough, but Alan’s presence makes things, to say the least, a little volatile. By the time Harold shows up, the drama over Alan has resulted in him physically assaulting Emory and Michael already halfway drunk and the party has descended into chaos.
Harold’s entrance is kind of wonderful. Director Friedkin frames him darkened in the doorway with the sounds of chaos going on inside the apartment, wearing a tailored suit, cigarette in hand, purse clutched under one arm. He is amused by what is going on but far from surprised. Michael berates him for not only being late but also stoned as well. Harold is armed and ready:
“What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, its nobody’s god-damned business but my own. And how are you this evening?”
Act II is a downward slide into self-loathing Hell. A series of events of dancing to Motown on the terrace and noshing on Emory’s lasagna (which looks really good) deteriorates as Michael’s issues and drinking escalate. Alan refuses to leave and Harold sits wearily at the sidelines unfazed by any bit of personal or emotional acid that Michael is ready to dispense. He’s seen it all before, and knows instinctively that this is all par for the course.
A rainstorm pulls everyone in from the terrace and closes them in Michael’s living room where Michael begins a cruel telephone game of having everyone take turns calling someone they have been in love with. The expectation is that the self-hatred will end once someone confesses to who and what they really are. What comes of these forced confessions seems cruel but somehow it humanizes the characters, especially Emory whose out-and-about shell withers when he is forced to call a doctor who once humiliated him.
Finally, it is Michael who has the breakdown. Pushed against the wall of his own insecurity, he is splashed with reality from Harold: “You’re a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve got left to live. You may 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’ll always be homosexual as well. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die.”
Harsh? Yes. Truth? Possibly. What does that say about a culture of gay men who, at the time were told that they were criminals and mentally ill? What does it say about the misinformation that being gay is a choice? Harold makes it very clear that it isn’t, that Michael’s reality is inescapable no matter how hard he tries to wriggle out of it. This was an internal struggle for gay men at the time (and even now) at being born into a skin that much of society wants to eradicate.
By the beginning of the 1970, the social stains that had repressed gays and lesbians were still alive and well. The portrayal of gays in the movies was usually chaired in a deep melodramatic scenario that almost always ended in death, the most egregious being Suddenly Last Summer in which the gay man in question, Sebastian Venable, was eaten by cannibals. This was not isolated.
The Boys in the Band was unusual in that it dealt with gay men who not only survived the film but were also portrayed as living, breathing human beings with lives, feelings, histories, joys, sadness, dimensions, senses, affections, passions. They were a product of a time that regarded them as mentally unstable, dregs of society that the inritauit cum publice thought of as a dirty gutter lifestyle.
Television wasn’t much better. The same year that Crowley wrote the play, CBS aired a special report called “The Homosexuals” in which Mike Wallace reported on the social stigma of gays in American society the included medical experts who blatantly and openly called it a mental disease. Gays on television were usually seen as criminals as in a 1971 episode of the Burt Reynolds series “Dan August” featuring a man who kills his girlfriend when she discovers that he is gay.
Crowley’s play, by contrast, was an act of rebellion, a daring insight into the lives of men that few in straight society would dare to consider anything but abnormal. His story rebelled simply by showing them as sensitive people who had been forcefully and psychologically encouraged to remain in the closet. The movies saw gays as doomed, and television saw them as criminals and killers.
But by 1970, the crucible for many who had been encouraged by the Stonewall Riots has begun to turn. For many, The Boys in the Band was a thing of the past, a relic as outdated as blackface. Today it still wallows in controversy between those who find it insightful and those who find it insipid. For those reasons, the film didn’t do well and would only find a measure of respect as times went on and gay men became more and more visible. The aftermath of Stonewall may have made it seem like a thing of the past but those looking deep into the film’s heart can see that it is not irrelevant.
But still the stigma sticks. This is an angry film. It’s a bitter film. It’s often hard to watch. But I don’t think that it is ever false or insulting. Crowley is trying to gain an insight, even though some might think that the instruments are too blunt.
Personally, I think the tone and mood and brutal honesty of The Boys in the Band are what keep it such a difficult story to work through. Again, this is not a fun story. It is an insight into a culture of men who’s very being had been criminalized, lobotomized and medicalized. How could anyone live in that social and cultural police state and not feel some sense of psychological torment? It is important to peer through the historical window and see how far the culture has progressed and how far it still has to go.
Those who demonized and vilified the film for being an Uncle Tom-ism of gay men are really missing something important. The Boys in the Band is bitter but it’s not outside of the reality of how gay men felt about themselves in real life, despite Stonewall. How far down did the psychological torment of being ousted and institutionalized by a society that hated them really go? Do those attitudes still exist despite the current progress? And even if the film is a depiction of attitudes of the past, why bury it? Why not see it as a window on the past? Why not see it as a historical reminder of attitudes that may seem passé but aren’t entirely outside of the realm of reality? Yes, the film is nearly 50 years old but what does it still have to say?