Matt Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band shocked mainstream audiences when it opened Off Broadway in 1968. It tells the story of seven gay men at a birthday party in a New York City apartment, which was groundbreaking at the time in how it pioneered representation of gay life. Now, the story is being brought to life once again in a new movie from Netflix and a team of producers that includes Ryan Murphy — as part of his $300 million deal with the streaming service.
To give this 2020 release some context: the 1968 Off Broadway production was so significant, some even argue it may have played a part in inspiring the Stonewall riots, often considered the start of the gay liberation movement in America. The play was adapted into a film by William Friedkin in 1970, and in 2018 it was revived on Broadway in a production directed by Joe Mantello featuring a cast entirely made up of openly gay actors. The 2020 film most closely resembles this Tony-winning revival, using exactly the same cast and director.
Even without prior knowledge of its history, a viewer can quickly surmise this film is based on a play. It follows a familiar set up used in plays like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (staged in 1962, adapted for film in 1966) and later in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (published in 2008, adapted for film in 2011); a simple gathering devolves into verbal swordplay as drinks are poured and secrets are spilled. The difference between The Boys in the Band and the aforementioned plays is, in this case, all but one of the characters at this dismal birthday party are gay men. Their malice isn’t only reserved for one another — it often turns in on themselves.
Michael, the party’s host (played with deep conviction by Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory), particularly grapples with self-loathing, or as he calls it, “the icks… anxiety, guilt, unfathomable guilt,” the product of internalized homophobia. His paranoia and insecurity are heightened when Alan, a straight friend from college, crashes the party. Jokes take on a bitter flavor, teasing turns to vindictive slurs, and punches are thrown. The stakes rise higher as Michael gets drunker. “When he’s sober, he’s dangerous. When he drinks, he’s lethal,” a guest quips. That’s when Michael suggests a game. Each partygoer must call up the one person they truly love and confess their feelings. Each character has a moment in the spotlight accompanied by flashbacks granting us a blessed, if brief, escape from this suffocating apartment.
While this is one dinner party I’d happily lose my invitation to attend, the movie is somehow both devastatingly ugly and riotously funny. The dialogue is quick-witted, and the cast is more than up to the challenge of delivering it well. While Jim Parsons’ Michael propels the narrative forward and carries the most emotional heft, The Boys in the Band is an ensemble piece, where the men each give dynamic performances. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) doesn’t throw away a single line as Harold, the birthday boy himself. From the moment he strolls into his own party late, stoned, and with a self-deprecating soliloquy, he has your attention and doesn’t waste it. Many of the film’s biggest laughs can be credited to three-time Tony Award nominee Robin de Jesús as the effervescent Emory and Charlie Carver (Ryan Murphy’s Ratched) as Cowboy, the himbo prostitute Emory hires as a birthday present for Harold. I could go on about every actor here, as these characters are sharp as glass and just as fragile under Joe Mantello’s direction.
Performances aside, the simple plot and whip-smart dialogue haven’t changed much since 1968, so why make this now? Why another adaptation? The original play is considered one of the first to put gay men front and center. We’ve come a long way since then. Last year, GLAAD reported the highest percentage of LGBTQ characters on TV ever recorded. With queer representation at an all-time high, does a movie about gay men hating themselves feel tired in 2020?
It’s true The Boys in the Band isn’t exactly a bastion of “gay pride,” (the term didn’t even exist when the play was written). In a climactic moment, Michael cries out, “If we could just not hate ourselves so much!” In a particularly disturbing scene, he throws racial slurs at the group’s only Black member. His behavior is troubling, to say the least. But The Boys in the Band isn’t concerned with clear-cut heroes and villains, nor is it interested in presenting these men as anything less than human. NPR’s Glen Weldon beautifully warns against overly idealized queer representation, which paints its subjects as paragons. “To do so is to reduce us, to strip away our complexity and our humanity. It’s also to value the perceptions of an imagined straight audience over our authentic lives,” he writes.
The Boys in the Band neither criticizes or glamorizes queer culture, but instead captures an intimate snapshot of seven gay men living in the not-so-distant past.