A nuanced and urgent portrait of the lives of gay men in the early 1970s.
Based on Mart Crowley’s disruptive 1968 play of the same name, Joe Mantello’s The Boys in the Band transports his acclaimed 2018 Broadway revival to the small screen for Netflix. Released before the gay liberation movement gained traction, Crowley’s play and its original 1970 film adaptation were groundbreaking in bringing their stark portrayal of gay men to the mainstream. It’s important to note that the American Psychiatric Association classed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973, and so The Boys in the Band symbolised resistance and demand for the gay community to be seen and heard. As such, the 2020 film takes place over fifty years ago. Yet, despite its antiquated context, as we move towards acceptance in the 21st century, The Boys in the Band presents a vital lesson for the queer youth of today: know your history, and learn from your ancestors.
The plot centres around a group of gay men who are gathered together to celebrate their friend’s, Harold, birthday. The party is interrupted by the arrival of the host’s, Michael, college roommate, whom he has always suspected is gay but never shared his own sexuality with. As the evening progresses, the atmosphere grows increasingly venomous, as the boys are forced to confront their deep-rooted insecurities, culminating in what must be the least healthy and constructive party game since Cards Against Humanity. The Boys in the Band is a fascinating exploration of the oppression faced by the gay community and the destructive nature of the closet.
The film feels lifted straight from the stage, which is both a blessing and a curse. All the action takes place inside Michael’s studio apartment; it’s claustrophobic and relentless, mimicking the motions of the rising tension amongst the boys. However, it can also be quite static. The nature of the film (unlike the stage) is necessarily flowing and free, so a few of the wordier moments feel stagnant and are a slog to get through. At points, you can’t help but want to tear down the walls and inject some oomph into the scene. Thankfully, Bill Pope’s cinematography constructs a rich painting of the evolving dynamic between the boys, ensuring the eyes stay entertained during the slower moments.
Mantello brings the entire cast of his Broadway production back to reprise their roles. The ensemble is comprised of a powerhouse of LGBTQ+ actors: Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, and so on. In an age when LGBTQ+ roles are few and far between, and frequently filled by heterosexual actors (looking at you, Call Me by Your Name; Love, Simon; Carol!), it’s refreshing — and exciting — to see queer roles played by queer actors. The boys are a kaleidoscope of characters, reflecting every facet of the gay experience. The performance that stands out most is Jim Parsons, as the toxic, tortured Michael. Audiences will primarily know Parsons for playing the bizarre but well-meaning Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory for 12 years. However, in this, he proves he’s capable of considerably more than offbeat humour, bringing a multi-layered childlike vulnerability and sense of loss to the role that prevents Michael from becoming totally detestable.
As I was watching the film, a family member remarked that some of the portrayals of gay men were somewhat unfavourable and could be damaging. But that’s what makes The Boys in the Band so good: it doesn’t attempt to depict gay life through rose-tinted glasses. Not all the characters are likeable — in fact, some are incredibly unlikeable — but they’re human. So often, gay men in films are delegated the role of the “gay best friend”: a superficial side character whose sole role is to fulfil every stereotype and provide comic relief. The Boys in the Band is a rare example of gay men being shown as complex, three-dimensional people. The boys are messy, sometimes even nasty, but they’re real.
Fundamentally, however, what the film highlights is the strong friendships at the heart of the gay community. At the end of the night, when the party comes to a bitter conclusion and ugly truths are aired, the relationships between the boys are the only thing left standing. The men go their separate ways, but none of them are on their own. That is, except Michael; whose fundamental hatred of his own sexuality stands in the way of him ever finding peace. “If we could just learn to not hate ourselves quite so very much,” he cries, summarising the effect of generations of pain on those who wish nothing more than to lead a “normal” life.
The Boys in the Band isn’t flawless, but it is relentless. Some of the content may be dated but, nevertheless, its message remains as urgent as it was in 1970: queer people need to love ourselves and each other, otherwise we have nothing.