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.
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.
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.
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:
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 ...
The Boys in the Band, the movie, was shot during the Off-Broadway play's run and released March 17, 1970. It was directed by William Friedkin, who before this had directed the Sonny and Cher flop Good Times (1967), a film presciently entitled The Birthday Party (1968) and The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), about the invention of the striptease. Could he have had a better trio of films to prep him for The Boys in the Band? (Note: He followed it with The French Connection in 1971 — for which he won the Oscar — and The Exorcist in 1973.)
Like his character Harold, Leonard Frey turned 32 the year the film was released. Having appeared as Mendel in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof (1964), he was Oscar-nominated for his performance as Motel in the 1971 film version. He had an extensive career in the theater, receiving a Tony nomination for The National Health (1974). He later made oodles of TV appearances, including a recurring role as a villain on Best of the West (1981-1982) and game-show guest spots. He never regretted playing Harold, but did aggressively play down his real-life homosexuality to avoid typecasting, joking that he couldn't be gay because his gag reflex was so poor he couldn't eat bananas. He died of AIDS in 1988. (Image via Cinema Center Films)
As the film opens, we're treated to “Anything Goes,” written by Cole Porter (1891-1964), as covered by the sunshine-pop band Harpers Bizarre, who had enjoyed a #43 hit with the single a few seasons earlier. The song's naughty lyrics and the group's insinuating vocal is the perfect choice for a film that will blow the lid off what happens at a gay birthday party, and the images we see — countless toiletries belonging to who will be revealed later in the film as a self-conscious gay man, Harold aka Princess Hal (Leonard Frey, 1938-1988) — are another cue that the film will be about secrets.
Deliciously, the use of a Cole Porter number is code for those in the know, since the notoriously wanton composer knew a thing or two about gay parties. The opening of the song is Cole Porter's version, so we actually hear the bon vivant's own voice in the film. After that, it kicks into Harpers Bizarre's breathy cover:
In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows — anything goes!
It is a cheeky warning to audiences to expect a film that won't play by the rules, and a thumbing of the nose at the easily shockable, and the reimagined and overlapping lyrics both help avoid the dated specificity of Porter's original [nobody remembered Anna Sten (1908-1993) in 1970, let alone now!], also giving the intro a chance to luxuriate as we lay eyes on all nine of the men who will take up the next two hours of our time.
And then there's Maud (Images by Matthew Rettenmund)
During this sequence, we get a pretty good handle on the broadly drawn characters just from a glance: sporty Donald (Frederick Combs, 1935-1992) is carefree, running errands; interior decorator Emory (Cliff Gorman, 1936-2002) minces with his poodle while cruising hustlers, including Cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux, 1940-1986); macho Hank (Laurence Luckinbill, b. 1934) shoots some hoops; fashion photographer Larry (Keith Prentice, 1940-1992) shoots something else — a stunning model (Maud Adams, b. 1945); uptight Alan (Peter White, b. 1937) departs a commuter flight in full business drag; Michael (Kenneth Nelson, 1930-1993) indulges in retail therapy and buys all the fixings for a killer party; Bernard (Reuben Greene, b. 1938) is the perfect clerk at Doubleday, but a loyal enough pal to slip Donald some contraband books.
Immediately thereafter, we're thrust into Julius, a bar established in the 1850s that became a haunt for gay men by the late 1950s, and that in 1966 was the site of a protest action that challenged the right of the bar's owners to deny service to people they knew to be gay. From 1966 on, it became a gay bar (it's still operating as such today), and for the scenes in The Boys in the Band, it is awash with very normal-looking gay patrons — no types, no pretense, the scenes clearly filmed during actual business hours, or at least using real patrons. A pantomine reveals that Larry is social while Hank, who tries to drag him home, reads as threatened of that diffuse focus. This is our first hint that the men are a couple.
For a talky picture, it takes nine minutes for dialogue, which arrives as Michael gets home and misses a call:
Hello? Hello?! Hello?!! Merde.
The affected French says a lot, if not it all, but the large Marlene Dietrich concert poster in the background — Dietrich's Teutonic visage glares down at the proceedings in many other scenes — says the rest.
Further establishing the film's POV within a gay circle as opposed to from somewhere outside it, a brief scene shows Donald libidinously overtipping a comely blond mechanic, who seems pleased by the attention. How many films before had shown a guy appreciating being appreciated by another guy? Isn't it supposed to be an insult to be lusted after by a queer?
After some banter with Michael over the phone (“You're early — hurry up!”), Donald arrives at Michael's well-appointed NYC duplex (modeled after one owned by Crowley's pal Tammy Grimes, 1934-2016) and the men kibbitz in the john, preparing for what we find out is a birthday party for Harold. And prep is needed, as Michael moans:
If there's anything I'm not ready for it's five screaming queens singing “Happy Birthday.”
He also refers to his guests as:
The same old tired fairies you've seen around since the Day One.
Michael is on edge, but attempting to project supreme confidence, willingly showing Donald how thin his hair is getting while teasing it into place so as to mask its retreat. He calls it “a masterpiece of deception,” and the theme of reality and illusion is strong throughout the film, as is the tension between the traditionally masculine and the traditionally feminine, most obviously in the form of projecting heterosexuality when polite society requires it and being one's own gay self when nobody who cares is watching.
Kenneth Nelson as Michael. Nelson, a North Carolina native, was the eldest of the Boys. He did TV very early on, playing Ranger Colt on Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949), making his Broadway debut in Seventeen in 1951. He was part of the original cast of The Fantasticks, which became the world's longest-running musical, and starred in Stop the World — I Want to Get Off on the West End (1962). After more work on Broadway, he moved to London and worked there extensively on the stage. On TV, he appeared in the acclaimed BBC series Edge of Darkness and went on to have roles in the camp classics The Lonely Lady (1983), Lace (1984) and Lace II (1985), and in the horror flicks Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990). Nelson died of AIDS in 1993. (Image via Cinema Center Films)
Michael underscores these themes at every turn, here by joking that his hairspray for men isn't called hairspray on the label. “Butch assurance,” Donald snarks, but Michael — and all gay men — are privy to this coding; he says it's still hairspray, “no matter if they call it Balls.”
Michael's grasp on fake vs. real is further demonstrated by his obsession with old movies [a trait he shared with the playwright, who was the best friend of Natalie Wood, 1938-1981, who, along with husbands Richard Gregson (b. 1930) and Robert Wagner (b. 1930) provided material support for him as he prepared the play and beyond]. Michael's always quoting from them (the movie's title was arguably lifted from A Star Is Born, 1954), and here does a manic Judy Garland impression, asking and answering:
What's more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation? A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation.
Donald is witheringly unimpressed:
I can understand people having an affinity for the stage, but movies are such garbage — who can take them seriously?
Little gay boys from Mississippi like Michael can, that's who, and the audience of this movie should, that's who.
These two are not boyfriends (though we find out quickly they were onetime tricks during their college years), but their friendship bond is tight; Donald is even being given a place for his “Saturday-night douche kit” so that he can stay over in the city when need be. As catty as things are about to get, the film is filled with multiple two-man allegiances.
It doesn't matter that Michael calls Donald a “cunt” — making the movie one of the first American films to use the epithet —because it's clear these two are close enough to withstand playful insults, with or without the cedilla.
The men are close enough that Donald has no shyness getting naked to shower in front of Michael, and is also naked emotionally, revealing he's blue because therapy has led him to a bummer of a realization:
It’s just that today I finally realized I was raised to be a failure — I was groomed for it.
This dysfunction was baked into all gay people before a certain time; some overcame it, and the characters in The Boys in the Band, for the most part, did not. Michael, by film's end, will be seen as so embittered as to be nearly unlovable. In fact, his position at the film's center is probably a major reason gay activists loathed it for so long. Crowley noted:
All the negative things in the play are represented by Michael, and because he’s the leading character, it was his message that a very square American public wanted to receive.
Perception is everything, so politically aware gay viewers may have been reacting to their feeling that Michael was being presented as the hero, and their fear that those square Americans would buy into him as representative of gay men being a legion of “card-carrying cunts.”
What's so snappy about being head-over-heels in debt? ... Well, I’m here to tell you that the only place in all those miles, the only place I’ve ever been happy was on the goddamned plane. Run, charge, run, borrow, make, spend … run … waste, waste, waste.
After his speech, Donald, in a robe, gives Michael a warm hug from behind. Their union is sweet, not sexy. If only the party could have been called off. Instead, Michael's college friend Alan from D.C. calls him, in tears, and begs to stop by. On the spot, Michael says okay, hoping against hope the very proper Alan won't have to interact with the “freak show” he has invited to his home.
Frederick Combs (Donald) was 34 when the film was shot. He had extensive theater credits, among them his Broadway debut in A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Lady of the Camellias directed by Franco Zeffirelli (b. 1925). He went on to write plays, including The Children's Mass (1973), and direct, including Harvey Fierstein's (b. 1954) International Stud, part of Torch Song Trilogy (1982). He died of AIDS in 1992. (Image via Cinema Center Films)
As the other guest arrive (where's Harold???), we see more explicitly that Hank is straight-acting, the type of guy Michael assumes will understand the directive to butch it up for Alan, while Larry enjoys camping it up a bit.
But nobody is as camp as Emory, who arrives practically on wings, holding his cherished tray of lasagna that he's prepared. Announcing himself as Connie Casserole — his first of many impromptu gender jokes — his loud entrance almost overshadows the distinct impression that Donald and Larry have met before. It's clear the two have tricked, and this supposition will simmer under the proceedings for the rest of the night.
The men begin drinking and exchanging one-liners, leading to Michael describing the Christ-I-was-drunk-last-night syndrome, describing the pre-coming-out phase when gay men get drunk in order to allow themselves to let go and have sex. The next morning, they pretend anything that happened wasn't real, didn't count.
Bernard arrives and is promptly called the “Queen of Spades” by Emory, the first of many racist remarks by the queeniest of the men. “Why don't you have a piece of watermelon and hush up?” he snaps when Bernard teases Emory for his lisp, but Bernard never flinches, though he does get a little revenge by indiscreetly revealing that Emory's predilection for promiscuous sex in the baths got him arrested. Bernard seems to be welcomed as an equal by everyone else — except for Michael, whose true colors don't emerge until much later.
In what feels like Michael dodging a bullet, Alan calls back, begging off after all. Though he ominously says he could shoot myself for acting so stupid on the phone earlier, Michael ignores his obvious distress and joins his guests for a dance to “Heat Wave” (1963) by Martha and the Vandellas, a throwback to their past summers on Fire Island. Lost in the song, Michael doesn't notice when Hank answers the buzzing door — letting Alan in. The tuxedoed interloper has changed his mind again.
Emory is flaming out in spite of Michael's previous stern warnings, while Hank seems to be the person Alan clings to as the only macho dude in sight. His attentions to Hank can easily be read as attraction, and his character is now firmly established as a married man who may be struggling to come to terms with being gay — why else call in tears, why else turn to Michael with whatever his problem is, why else notice that Hank has an athletic body?
During a private talk with Michael, Alan — so remote Michael has said he wouldn't show emotion in a plane crash — lashes out, branding Emory a “butterfly in heat” and a “goddamned little pansy.” Michael isn't playing along, perhaps emboldened by being on his home turf, surrounded by like-minded people. For once, Alan, Mr. Establishment, is in the minority, and while he hems and haws, seeming to be about to come out to Michael, Michael becomes aggressive, not letting any turn of phrase go, not letting Alan forget that he had insisted on coming over to discuss something personal. It's clear Michael has never been this direct with Alan — but has always wanted to be.
“Unnatural natural beauty” Robert La Tourneaux as Cowboy. He claimed he lost out on the starring role in Love Story (1970) due to his decision to take part in The Boys in the Band, telling The New York Post: “I was too closely identified with homosexuality. Charles Laughton [1899-1962] played every kind of part but never a homosexual. People knew he was gay, but his public image never betrayed his private reality. So he was safe. I wasn’t safe.” Having made his Broadway debut in 1967's Ilya Darling, he had very few pro credits post-Boys. By 1978, he was posing nude for Mandate, and later for a book of nudes shot by Zeus. He did a live, nude show at the Ramrod in NYC, and — in a case of life imitating Mart — he became a hustler, outing Christopher Walken (b. 1943) as one of his boyfriends. He was the first of the cast to die and the first of the cast to die of AIDS, in 1986, following a protracted legal battle with a landlord who begrudged him a live-in caregiver. Co-star Cliff Gorman and his wife took care of La Tourneaux until he passed away. (Image via Cinema Center Films)
At this inopportune moment, Harold's present arrives — tricked out to resemble Joe Buck from the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy (1927-1993), which was made into a film that came out one year before the movie version of Boys. Screwing up what he's been paid (20 bucks!) to do, Cowboy plants a kiss on Michael, not the still-absent Harold, and then endures a litany of choice verbal abuse from his employer, Emory, such as when Cowboy tries to beg off on putting in a late night:
Cowboy: I lost my grip doing my chin-ups and I fell on my heels and twisted my back.
Emory: You shouldn't wear heels when you do chin-ups.
The party is so blatantly gay at this point, poor, scared Alan can't even pretend. He attempts to excuse himself, but Emory can't resist making an insinuation that Alan has a hot date with a guy:
Emory: I have such a problem with pronouns.
Alan: How many Ses are there in the word pronouns?
Emory: How'd you like to kiss my ass? That's got two or more Ses in it.
Alan: How'd you like to blow me?
Emory: Whatsa matter? Your wife got lockjaw?
Calling him a faggot, Alan wails on Emory, bloodying the big-mouth and sending the party into chaos. It is Bernard — relentlessly teased for being black by Emory — who provides Emory with TLC, establishing that they, like Michael and Donald, and like Larry and Hank, are another of the film's duets.
In the wake of this shocking incident, Harold, whose presence has been felt until now, but whose face has never been seen, appears at the door, hopelessly late for his own birthday party, yet right on time. Donald opens the door, revealing Harold, decked out in a suit and tie and shades, holding a lighted cigarette. Frey plays him as a black hole — he says nothing, letting the audience project onto him a strong, silent image to match his absence so far.
Instead, Harold surprises by bursting into a fey cackle after being smooched by Cowboy and reading the clever card attached to his wrist. His laugh breaks the tension and yet calls to mind the Wicked Witch of the West. Interestingly, though Michael has gone to so much trouble for Harold, he seems to hate him on sight, scolding him for being late and arriving high. “You're late!” he accuses, but Harold responds with one of the cinema's greatest-ever comebacks:
What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked, Jew fairy, and if it takes me a 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, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?
Harold tells Emory of Cowboy, “Well, I suppose he has an interesting face and body, but it turns me right off that he can’t talk intelligently about art … Mary, she’s gorgeous.” (Image via Cinema Center Films)
On a roll, his first words to a recovering Emory are:
Your lips are turning blue — you look like you've been rimming a snowman.
What film not by and for gays would refer to rimming and expect audiences to get the joke?
Just as powerfully, Harold spies a distraught Alan and can't help saying, drawing out each phrase:
Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?
Alan is too traumatized to react, but Harold doesn't mind, as distracted as he is by his birthday present's skin-deep beauty (Michael is distracted by it, too, enviously so), and by his barely restrained verbal tug-of-war with Michael. Tellingly, as Harold opens his non-breathing gifts, the one from Michael — never shown to the other guests or to the camera — is a framed photo of Michael with an inscription. Harold is visibly touched by the offering and thanks Michael warmly. As much as the two men enjoy tearing each other apart, there is still an understanding between them that they are sick sisters of some sort, and that the connection isn't merely skin-deep.
During an effective visual interlude, the men who smoked grass chill out as slow music plays, but only until a rainstorm assaults Michael's patio that he has so carefully outfitted for this party — there goes the crab.
The disastrous downpour seems to mark the moment when Michael, who has teetered between being an ostentious host and a needling troll, snaps. Spying Alan, Michael physically blocks his confused old pal from leaving, informing him he has no choice but to stay for a party game. Even hard-hearted Harold suggests he let Alan go, but Michael has other plans.
Reuben Greene as Bernard. During the run of the play, he won the role of a doctor on the CBS soap Where the Heart Is (1969) and later appeared in Elaine May's (b. 1932) Mikey and Nicky (1976), but the rest of his work was in commercials and in the theater. He spent two years on Broadway as part of a repertory company in School for Scandal, War and Peace, You Can't Take It with You, and Pantagleize; appeared Off-Broadway in Please Don't Cry and Say No with Janet League (with whom he apparently lived for many years); directed Off-Broadway productions; and toured with shows. In 1996, when he was living in Queens, New York, Green told The New York Daily News of The Boys in the Band, “I think there was too much emphasis on the self-destructiveness of some of the characters. To me, the play is more about the cry for truth and inclusion. The other day, I told Mart that I'm still waiting to see the definitive production of this play.” Greene's whereabouts were considered unknown by 2010, but while I thought I had read he was alive and well, I can't find more info. He would be turning 80 this year. (Image via Cinema Center Films)
Harold asks if Michael wants to play Truth or Murder. In reality, the game Michael has devised has elements of both: Each man will be expected to call the one person they've ever really loved and tell them so. They get a point for calling, two points if the person they're calling for answers (one if it's someone else), two points if they identify themselves and a bonus of five points if they profess their love. If nobody answers, Michael says, “You're screwed.” Donald wisely points out, “You're screweed if you make the call.” Even more wisely, Harold simply observes, “Hateful.”
Laurence Luckinbill as Hank. Now 83, Luckinbill is the most accomplished actor (and producer and director) of the original cast, touring with acclaimed one-man shows about historical figures and playing Spock's half-brother in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). Before Boys, he debuted on Broadway in A Man for All Seasons (1961) and had already begun to amass his extensive TV credits, appearing on the soap The Secret Storm (1967-1968). He was a regular on the series The Delphi Bureau (1972-1973), narrated the 13-hour miniseries Space (1985) and popped up on Murder, She Wrote four times (1985-1994). Luckinbill, who is the uncle of Lana Wachowski (1965) and Lilly Wachowski (1967), has been married to Lucie Arnaz (b. 1951) since 1980. I was lucky enough to meet him at a show he was producing, and he couldn't have been more gracious when I brought up Boys, a project of which he is clearly still very proud. In fact, he'd been told he would destroy his career if he took the part, but wound up terming it, “Best decision I ever made in my life.” (Image via City Center Films)
When Alan pathetically attempts to get Hank to leave with him, Michael relishes the opportunity to inform Alan that Hank and Larry are lovers. Alan sputters that Hank is married so can't be gay, causing the party to erupt in laughter. Michael continues his passive-aggressive cross-examination of Alan, seething:
Don't you just love that quaint little idea? If a man is married, he's automatically heterosexual. Alan, Hank swings both ways — but with a decided preference.
Against his better judgment, Bernard makes the first call, reaching out to Peter, the son of the woman his mother worked for all her life as a laundress. At first, Emory is egging him on, even taunting Bernard by saying he knew Peter back when he was just a “pickaninny.” Bernard tells the group he and Peter had a fling (another example of Christ-I-was-drunk-last-night syndrome), and that Peter is now divorcing his third wife. He calls, dialing the number from memory. He nearly chickens out, but is bullied into pushing on by Michael, getting Peter's mom on the line. When he IDs himself as Francine's “boy,” Emory interjects, “Son, not boy.” The rules are clearly different for outsiders.
The call is stillborn — Peter is out on a date. Hanging up, Bernard is haunted that he made the call. Game-wise, he ends up with just two points. He'll lose the game, but lost a lot more just by deciding to play.
In perhaps the most transfixing sequence in the film, Emory recounts the story of his love for Delbert Botts, D.D.S. He fell for Delbert when he was in the fifth grade and Delbert was a senior, later making visits to Delbert's office when Botts became a dentist. At the end of high school, tortured and lovesick, he had asked Delbert to be his friend, even buying him a gold-plated cigarette lighter. Though Delbert had reacted positively, he also apparently told everyone, leading to Emory being taunted at school for his “funny secret.”
Cliff Gorman as Emory, who says,“I've known what I was since I was 4 years old.” And yet as convincing nellie as Gorman's Emory is, Gorman himself was straight. Gorman won an Obie for Emory, and a Tony in 1972 for playing Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) in Lenny, a play made into a film for which Dustin Hoffman (b. 1937) was Oscar-nominated in the same role. He received a second Tony nomination for Chapter Two in 1977. Gorman had a respectable film career, appearing in such movies as An Unmarried Woman (1978), All That Jazz (1979) and Hoffa (1992). He also worked extensively on TV, memorably as a nutso stalker in Class of '63 (1973). He died of leukemia in 2002. (Image via Cinema Center Films)
When Bernard tries to warn Emory not to make the call in order to preserve his dignity, Michael snaps at him, reminding Bernard that he allows Emory to degrade him (racially) constantly. We finally get some pay-off on that white elephant in the room when Bernard explains:
He can do it, Michael. I can do it. You can't do it ... I don't like it from him, I don't like it from me. I do it to myself and I let him do it! I let him do it because it's the only thing that to him makes him my equal!
Frustrated by Bernard making perfect sense, Michael doubles down, acting out a grotesque racist joke that nearly buys him a beat-down. An anti-Semitic jab at Harold comes soon after.
Alas, Emory follows through. The line is busy at first, but he refuses to forfeit, calling and getting Delbert himself. Thrilled to hear his dream lover's voice, Emory can't bring himself to say who he is or why he's calling. Delbert hangs up, leaving Emory with three points.
Up next are Hank and Larry. Movingly, the bickering boyfriends have an explicit discussion about how monogamy isn't always ideal in a gay relationship. One senses this is not the last time the men will spar over fidelity, but Hank scores seven points by calling the answering service he shares with Larry, telling the operator to pass along the message that he loves his roommate.
This incenses Alan, perhaps because he sees himself in Hank, who — more compassionately than Michael — informs Alan that he left his wife and kids for Larry, and he doesn't care who knows that he loves the guy. This sickens Alan, and it sets Larry off on a long speech about the benefits of gay promiscuity, even discussing how the couple have tried three-ways as a compromise, something Larry doesn't enjoy. This rejection of groups is mirrored by the film's dynamics — so many of the relationships are solid one-on-one; it's the group setting that's poison.
Keith Prentice as Larry. The Ohio native was a model and actor with another cult classic on his résumé aside from Boys — he appeared in the last episodes of TV's Dark Shadows (1971) as Morgan Collins. A trained theater actor, he had many plays under his belt, working with Elaine Stritch (1925-2014), Mary Martin (1913-1990) and others [seen at right in a 1965 production of Camelot with Betty Ann Carlton (no b./d. info)], at the time he took on the role of Larry, the gay man in a relationship who's always wanton more. Hard to imagine, but handsome Prentice played Harold in early workshops of Boys. He later snagged a small role in Friedkin's Cruising (1980), another controversial gay-themed project — and one I would argue was far more deserving of the outrage it engendered. He founded Theatre Under the Stars back home in Ohio in 1983, dying of AIDS in 1992. (Image via Cinema Center Films)
All Larry wants is for the men to respect each other's freedom, something to which Hank agrees to try. This leads to someting Michael has not planned — Larry calls Hank within the apartment, identifies himself, and says, “For what it's worth, I love you.” What it's worth is 10 points, Mary.
Michael has barely tolerated Harold's frequent barbs throughout the proceedings, resorting to another slur when he pipes up yet again. Michael has also lampooned Harold for his appearance, pointing out that Harold's bad skin is due to taking tweezers to his own face. When “king of the pig people” Michael warns Harold, Harold replies, with a venom the silver screen has rarely seen:
Are you now? You're warning me? Me? I'm Harold. I'm the one person you don't warn, Michael, because you and I are a match. And we tread very softly with each other because we both play each other's game too well. I know this game you're playing, I know it very well and I play it very well. You play it very well, too, but you know what? I'm the only one who's better at it than you are. I can beat you at it, so don't push me. I'm warning you.
In the aftermath, Michael goads Alan into making a call. Michael fully expects Alan to have no choice but to call their old college friend Justin, a man who later came out as gay and who confided in Michael that he'd had an affair with Alan in their school days. According to Justin, Alan had then cut him off completely, another casualty of Christ-I-was-drunk syndrome. Michael is partly redeemed here — we see more clearly that his viciousness is caused by, perhaps a response to, homophobic society.
Peter White as Alan — he was so convincingly patrician, it's hard to believe he was in his early thirties at the time Boys was shot. The Yale Drama grad went on to have a prolific career on TV in mainly guest-starring roles, but he had recurring roles on The Colbys (1985-1986) — which would've made Alan proud! —Dallas (1984-1991), Sisters (1991-1996), and played Linc Tyler on All My Children infrequently for nearly 30 years (1976-2005). Film roles include Dave (1993), Mr. Wrong (1996), Mother (1997), Armageddon (1998) and Thirteen Days (2000). He was one of only two cast members who particpated in the doc Making the Boys (2011), saying he never regretted it playing Alan, later marveling, “I was just stunned at the play.” This in spite of the fact that he confirmed, “We all, for the most part, lost our agents for taking roles in the play.” Now 80, his most recent credit appears to be the film Punching Henry (2016). (Image via Cinema Center Films)
Alan staunchly denies the story that he had sex with a man, instead claiming Justin had made a pass at him, causing Alan to have to dump him. Michael is frothy-mouthed in self-righteous rage over how devastated Justin had been.
But Alan confounds Michael, instead getting 10 points for — dishonestly? — calling his own wife and professing his love to her. This twist is meant to leave the audience wondering if Michael had been operating on bad information for years, or whether Alan — panicked by the evening's proceedings — has been scared back into the closet for good. I would argue the latter considering the many inexplicable reactions and comments he's made throughout the course of the party. The film, however, presents Michael as seriously doubting whether Justin had told him the truth.
Is Alan comparable to Emory's lasagna, described by Cowboy as being “like spaghetti and meatballs all sort of flattened out”? Or is he a different dish from all the spaghetti-and-meatballs servings at the party altogether?
Alan leaves without a word, obviously dropping Michael forever in the same way he dropped Justin previously — regardless of the true reason.
Only Cowboy, Donald, Michael and Harold have not played the phone game so far, Michael because, as Harold has pointed out, he's never loved anyone. Harold declares it's his turn, but he forgoes the phone, instead saying directly to a rapidly deteriorating Michael:
You're a sad and pathetic man. You're a homosexual and you don't wanta be. But there's nothing you can do to change it, not all your prayers to your God, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you've got left to live. You may very well 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.
Harold packs up his unenthusiastic gift after an unreciprocated hug from Emory and leaves, thanking Michael for the laughs. In a transcendant moment that encapsulates what this film is about, he pauses to add, “Call you tomorrow.” That there truly is a shred of affection between these two men after such an eviscerating speech is another example of how these gay men are three-dimensional, and how Harold — a bitchy queen — is nothing at all like the empty, occasionally offensive bitchy queens in dozens of other Hollywood creations.
Emory and Bernard exit, too, and Larry and Hank are upstairs making love (Friedkin shot a scene showing them passionately kissing, but left it on the cutting-room floor), leaving Michael to have one of the ultimate ugly cries, shouting that he won't make it, clearly understanding he has humiliated himself in front of all his friends, revealed himself to be a viper.
Michael makes allusions to suicide (after having earlier self-righteously declared that “not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story”) before the Valium Donald gave him kicks in. “I'm sorry,” he chokes out, and it is up to the audience to decide whether we can forgive him.
In a moment of clarity, Michael says:
If we could just not hate ourselves so much. That's it, you know? If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.
That's the context of The Boys in the Band, an era when gay men were raised to be failures (as Donald said early on) in the area of self-love. At the dawn of the Stonewall Era, Michael, an extreme example of a self-loathing gay man, is saying he understands who he is and why, and — importantly — that he hopes to change.
Donald says something the play will likely say to today's gay audiences:
Inconceivable as it may be, you used to be worse than you are now. Maybe with a lot more work, you'll be able to help yourself some more ... if you try, huh?
That might have provided a perfect ending, but Michael's gallows-humor line, which many critics have used to peg the film as encouraging self-loathing rather than being about it, pokes a hole in the hopefulness, and still skewers today:
Who was it who always used to say, “You show me a happy homosexual, and I'll show you a gay corpse”?
After this exorcising declaration, Michael and Donald return to semi-normal, and Michael — the anti-Scarlett O'Hara— surveying the ruins of the party on his rain-drenched terrace, declares:
Tomorrow is gonna be an “ick-packed day.”
The term ick has been established as his word for recovering from harsh reality, whether an alcohol hangover or this, an emotional hangover.
Will Michael recover? It's perhaps not encouraging that he's decided to hit a midnight mass since “that great insurance policy, the Church,” is clearly a big part of the guilt (“Gilda Guilt!”) that curdles into viciousness for him.
We aren't supposed to know for sure if there is hope for Michael; there are no tidy endings here, especially regarding any of the men's journeys of self-acceptance.