Happy birthday, The Boys in the Band — just “beware the hostile fag!” (Image via Cinema Center Films)
The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's (b. 1935) play about eight gay men and one opaque interloper sparring at a Manhattan birthday party, opened Off-Broadway at Theater Four on April 14, 1968, running for 1,001 performances.
My Review of The Boys in the Band on Broadway — HERE
The play's 100-seat theater attracted lines of 500-600 people and hosted many celebrities, viewable by its actors because one of them had drilled a hole in the set; Jackie Kennedy (1929-1994), Groucho Marx (1890-1977), Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) with Alexander Cohen (1920-2000), and Carol Channing (b. 1921) were said to have attended.
Both the play and the 1970 movie version (directed by William Friedkin, b. 1935) were pop cultural sensations, but as Gay Lib took hold in the '70s, both fell out of favor with many gay men, who found them to contain embarrassing, even homophobic representations that did little to help the gay cause.
Poster from the original cast's British engagement (Image via Wyndham's)
I've always loved the play, the movie, and the men they explore and immortalize with, alternately, affection and recrimination. Even a teenager could see that the film is different from most others of the era with gay characters in that the men were, while not above some stereotypical swish (who is?), flesh-and-blood human beings who should be taken as they are, as products of their environment. These are neither diabolically nor carelessly concocted phantoms meant to slur homosexuality.
Inside the 2018 Boys in the Band Broadway After-Party!
As the great Vito Russo (1946-1990), writer of The Celluloid Closet (1981), noted, The Boys in the Band, the movie and the play, are “not positive, but fair.” Not positive is right! The film's director, Friedkin, said rather unempathetically:
I hope there are happy homosexuals. they just don’t happen to be in my film.
So, I understand why some gay men might have had a kneejerk hateful response to the film, but it boggles the mind that so many of them seem to think these characters do not exist in real life. I have met them many times.
Also worth considering is the fact that The Boys in the Band was such a unique film it was often framed by the media at the time as definitive, which is why I think so many gay plays, movies, TV shows and even blogs are pilloried by gay men — the sense that something is perceived as being all-encompassing breeds hostility. In the case of The Boys in the Band, Time called it a “landslide of truths,” Look dubbed it “the most touching and honest portrayal of homosexual life ever to come to the screen,” and The New York Times chose as the header for its review, “Crowley Study of Male Homosexuality Opens.” Those types of reactions tended to make the film seem like a documentary or case study, not a story, not a fiction.
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It was about Some Boys in the Band, not All Boys in the Band — and are we going to pretend viciously attacking each other died at Stonewall? We've since invented the term shade, which is practically an Olympic sport now.
Also, let's remember the play was written by Crowley, a gay man seeking to create something from his soul during a “depressed,” clearly introspective time in his life when he was flunking out of the Hollywood scene. Offered a shot at house-sitting the posh Beverly Hills mansion of former film star Diana Lynn (1926-1971), he took that time to commit his vision to the page, recalling that some of the opening dialogue sprang from him immediately when he set to work. (Lynn's final screen performance was in the TV film Company of Killers, which would've been a good alternate title for The Boys in the Band.) It is a work from the heart of a gay man who sees that he isn't perfect, but refuses to accept that gay men are less than human.
But still: I get it. Crowley was writing a warts-and-all story about gay men at a time when we had not yet enjoyed almost any positive characterizations on the silver screen. Gay men were used for low humor, were invariably tragic suicides (the best choice), or were presented as vile, perverted villains almost always in popular culture. To ignore that and attempt to show a group of flawed men might have seemed like a continuation of the negativity, when it was arguably a bold rejection of it and an assertion that gay men aren't all villains, but aren't all saints.
[Crowley’s] characters were losers or borderline survivors at best, but they paved the way for winners.
It's also worth noting that The Boys in the Band is a pre-Stonewall creation — the riots happened in the middle of the play's initial run. It's only natural that a work of art created in that context might reflect aspects of each era. The film came out less than a year after the riots.
Unfortunately, The Boys in the Band's arguably modern approach to gay men existed as a unique work in the world of film for many years, with most successive movies of the '70s continuing the old stereotypes, some misconstruing The Boys in the Band, carrying on its tropes to ill effect.
In the past 20 years, the play and movie have enjoyed some reassessing. The most high-profile new take on the old Boys launches April 30, when a new production begins previews on Broadway. It's taken 50 years for the smash-hit play to enter the Great White Way — Brenda Broadway! — and I think it comes at the perfect time, a time when we should be able to examine the honesty of the play and contextualize why those characters behaved in the ways they did. Perhaps uncomfortably for some, we may also recognize some of the dysfunction that stubbornly clings to many in our community, even after all the great strides that have been made toward acceptance by the world at large and by ourselves.
For anyone still bitching about the bitches in The Boys in the Band, I've got to go with film critic Stuart Byron (1941-1991), who wrote in American Film some time after the film's backlash had begun:
If homosexuals weren't like that in the '60s, then why do we need gay liberation?
Russo concurred, concluding:
The internalized guilt and self-hatred of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.
On the eve of the Broadway debut of The Boys in the Band — starring Matt Bomer (Donald), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Jim Parson (Michael), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Robin De Jesus (Emory), Brian Hutchison (Alan), Charlie Carver (Cowboy), Michael Benamin Washington (Bernard), and Tuc Watkins (Hank), as pictured in the image above right — I rewatched the movie version again 30 years after I first saw it ...