There’s a key difference between the concluding moments of Netflix’s film adaptation of The Boys in the Band and the Tony-winning 2018 Broadway production that spawned it. So if you’re unfamiliar with the source material, let this count as a spoiler alert. On stage, the closing scene ended with the lights dimming on a couple whose sparring had reached a truce with a sensual reaffirmation of their love. It was a beautiful, defiantly exultant image that spoke of strength and survival in the face of shame, ostracism and fear.
That visual flash is part of the wrap-up montage here but not the definitive final shot. Instead, it’s one of a number of closing glimpses of the various characters, gay men in 1968 New York, before the Stonewall riots and the LGBTQ rights movement had accelerated the arduous process of change that would usher in the Pride era.
Gay-bashing begins at home.
One character has found sexual companionship for the night with a hustler more tender than he is; two more have returned to the healing cocoon of friendship; another is stretched out on a sofa with a Doris Lessing novel; and one is nursing a solitary nightcap at a bar, possibly retreating deeper into the closet if you believe the theory batted around about him. But the main character, Jim Parsons’ tortured, self-loathing Michael, is running down a street to the melancholy strains of Chet Baker’s trumpet on “Alone Together.”
The shot is open to interpretation — Michael could just possibly be running toward something. But his direction, headed away from the camera into the lonely night, seems to reinforce a switch back from the celebrated stage revival’s concluding note of hope and resilience to the wallowing misery that historically has made Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play so polarizing.
That impression, of course, is entirely subjective, and whichever way you look at it, this lovingly crafted film — with director Joe Mantello and his marvelous ensemble all reprising their stage roles — has value even as a highly polished museum piece. It’s good medicine for contemporary queer audiences to witness the poisonous internal effect of living in an environment of hate and intolerance, now resurgent in an America where screeching far-right conservatism is emboldened and on the rise.
The screenplay by Crowley and Ned Martel (Glee, American Horror Story) credits both the play and William Friedkin’s 1970 screen version as its source. Like the new film, that one reunited the entire theatrical cast of its long-running off-Broadway premiere. But attitudes had shifted in the two years between the original stage debut and the Friedkin film’s release. The Boys in the Band, while remaining funny, acerbic and poignant, had become an awkward pre-liberation artifact inferring that the life of a gay man is one of overwhelming sorrow, loneliness and bitterness.
Mantello’s Broadway production, like well-received smaller-scale New York and London revivals before it, transcended that negative stereotype. The line is fuzzier in the new film, despite the welcome advance of a superlative cast of out gay men digging deep into the complexities of their roles. But there are nagging ways in which the 2020 redo adds little. Friedkin’s film was frequently dismissed as stage-bound, its performances adhering to a heightened theatrical style that played a little too large in naturalistic screen close-up. Those traits remain in evidence here.
The hyperventilating performances grate especially in the early scenes, as Michael flaps around his West Village duplex preparing for his guests to arrive while lending an unsympathetic ear to his neurotic friend Donald. That role is the most unconvincingly written, and Matt Bomer’s miscasting sticks out onscreen. He’s too handsome, too perfectly sculpted, too innately calm and collected to be the supposed quivering mess that arrives early on Michael’s doorstep because his therapist is unavailable. That panic is undermined by the fact he seems pretty much fine thereafter, and certainly is among the more well-adjusted figures populating the play.
I’ve never really bought Donald as a character, so the always appealing Bomer is not at fault. But the deluxe casting in a peripheral role is also one way in which this film conforms to the syndrome of the Ryan Murphy Production. Everything is just a tad too overwrought and aesthetically manicured for emotional authenticity — though it’s almost neorealism compared with something like, say, Ratched, which shares two actors with this ensemble.
The occasion around which Crowley’s play is structured is a birthday party for Michael’s best frenemy Harold (Zachary Quinto, giving what remains the standout performance), who describes himself as an “ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” and emanates languid disdain from every enlarged pore. From his fabulous late entrance in a green velvet suit, already baked from the joint he smoked at home while dressing, Harold rules the room even while sitting back and letting Michael work himself up into a lather of venomous hysteria.
“Turning,” warns Harold as he observes the host fall off the wagon and start lashing into his guests. “Revolution complete,” he adds later with cruel satisfaction, as Michael’s bitchy barbs evolve into vicious character assassinations. The bloodiest wounds, of course, are those inflicted on himself, an aging single man, riddled with Catholic guilt and addicted to living beyond his means as a way of compensating for the gaping emotional hole in his life.
Crowley’s debt to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is evident in the juicy get-the-guest portion of the evening. Michael’s targets include campy decorator Emory (Robin de Jesús), who uses outrageous humor to shield his vulnerability; grounded librarian Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the one non-white member of the group, who allows Emory to “Uncle Tom” him as a means for his pal to boost his shaky self-esteem; and bickering couple Hank (Tuc Watkins) and Larry (Andrew Rannells), the former a math teacher leaving his wife and children for the latter, whose aversion to monogamy causes friction.
On the sidelines and treated as too dim to be stung by Michael’s derision is Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a young himbo hustler purchased for the night by Emory as Harold’s birthday gift. Then there’s uninvited guest Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s supposedly straight Georgetown college roommate, who has turned up hoping for a supportive shoulder but ends up enduring a bilious personal attack.
Michael’s flailing aggression is channeled through a dare game requiring the participants to make a phone call to the one person they ever truly loved, with a point system based on the extent of their self-exposure. This yields some affecting monologues, notably from Washington’s Bernard, whose double-minority discomfort is painfully bared when he relives his obsession with the son of the wealthy white family for whom his mother did domestic work.
Having played their roles for three and a half months on stage before shooting the film, these actors inhabit their characters like second skins. An accomplished actor himself, Mantello excels at drawing layered work from his cast and recreating the tight unity of a finely tuned stage ensemble for the screen. The advantage here is that DP Bill Pope’s attentive camera and Adriaan van Zyl’s mercurial editing constantly draw our attention to the shifting reactions of characters who on stage spend large portions of the action standing around in silent observation. A mix of vintage Motown and pop with primo jazz cuts — Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock — also helps keep things cooking.
Parsons does much of the heavy lifting in a role as notable for the corrosive internal damage as the verbal bloodletting. His meltdown — when Michael pushes everyone to the limit and Harold, who is more than his match, lets him have it — is a wrenching high point. Quinto makes Harold reptilian, aloof, a fiercely intelligent wit who has found a functioning way of coexisting with his sourness.
I particularly enjoyed the banter between de Jesús’ Emory and Washington’s Bernard, both while they’re mocking one another and then seeking forgiveness after overstepping the line. And Rannells is a wicked delight as the ultra-confident, sashaying player who refuses to apologize for his sexual appetites. But each of the men in the exemplary cast has his moments.
Mantello and the writers have opened up the action with pre-party glimpses of the characters around town, ranging from Michael dashing about upper Fifth Avenue with an armload of boutique purchases through Cowboy sucking a rocket popsicle in the doorway of a Times Square porn store to Larry cruising a guy on the street and sharing a cocktail at Julius,’ the West Village gay-bar institution currently threatened with closure due to the financial stress of coronavirus lockdown.
These zippy vignettes, enlivened by some gorgeous split-screen wipes, tell us a lot about the characters before they even speak. More intrusively flashy in signature Murphy high style are the intermittent flashbacks conjuring moments pertinent to each of the guest’s party-game phone calls.
The action still remains quite stagy, especially once a sudden downpour sends the partiers rushing indoors from Michael’s enviable rooftop terrace. (Production designer Judy Becker created the lavish sets in a Hollywood studio.) A quick shot reveals — with what appears to be a pop-cultural wink — that someone left a cake out in the rain, signaling tears to come.
Crowley, who died in March and to whom the film is dedicated, was ahead of his time in putting gay men’s unvarnished lives front and center on stage, without the veil of allegory used by other LGBTQ writers of that era and earlier, like Tennessee Williams. The Boys in the Band in many ways is dated and formulaic. But it’s also very much alive, an invaluable record of the destructive force of societal rejection, even in a bastion of liberal acceptance like New York City. Despite its flaws, this consistently engaging film provides a vital window for young queer audiences into the difficult lives of their forebears.
Production company: Netflix
Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins
Director: Joe Mantello
Screenwriters: Mart Crowley, Ned Martel, based on the play and movie by Crowley
Producers: Ryan Murphy, David Stone, Joe Mantello, Ned Martel, Alexis Martin Woodall
Executive producers: Mart Crowley, Eric Kovtun, Todd Nenninger
Director of photography: Bill Pope
Production designer: Judy Becker
Costume designer: Lou Eyrich
Editor: Adriaan van Zyl
Casting: David Caparelliotis
Rated R, 121 minutes