I wonder if any play has ever been adapted to film with better intentions than Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968) was for Netflix by director Joe Mantello and über producer Ryan Murphy.
The chief creatives and the entire cast are gay and, as demonstrated in interviews since their take on the controversial classic became a Broadway smash in 2018 — as well as during a press-only Zoom Q&A two nights ago — possess clear-eyed appreciation for both the source material and its recently deceased author, with whom the men became close in the last years of his life.
And yet, while this newest Boys isn't exactly a stain on the play's legacy, it is a surprising and clear swing and miss.
Of course, the play was filmed once before, in 1970 by decidedly not gay William Friedkin who nonetheless managed to more or less perfectly capture the play's unapologetically anal-warts-and-all approach to gay life at the end of the '60s — far enough into the sexual revolution to allow some freedoms, still waiting for Stonewall. His effort was aided by his an almost all-gay cast (two were straight), all of whom had originated their roles off-Broadway; it was gay-positive casting, but only because nobody else would have taken the parts at the time.
That film stands up today because while it comes fraught with dated beliefs and assumptions, they are all organic to the era, the voice is unimpeachably gay and the performances are grounded in reality. Or, as someone said — she's sincere, so she's here. (Oh, gosh, even Follies was a few years away when The Boys in the Band was dreamed up by Crowley, a man before his time who was certainly punished for it for years.)
The 2018 Broadway production was a marvel, so what to make of this 2020 film, which cruises hard but fails to connect?
Worst things first, the setting is not right. In the first film, Michael's NYC apartment is enviable, but not posh. This tracks. In the 2018 Broadway show, Michael's lair was impeccably appointed, which made even more sense, considering the central character's desire to front, and the abuse he lavishes on his credit card. In Mantello's movie, Michael's New York apartment looks exactly like a WeHo house — and a dirty one at that. Yes, there's still a Vicuna sweater on the floor, but the mirror of the medicine cabinet is filthy. Michael would have the vapors before inviting queens over to that dump.
Less superficially, the film aches with the canned nostalgia that sinks or threatens to sink all of Ryan Murphy's obsessive period pieces. Not a thing looks convincingly 1968, and yet everything looks like it's trying to look convincingly 1968. Look at my expensively crafted, on-point hairstyle! Look at my expensively sourced vintage shirt! See how I have expensively recreated parts of the original film's opening montage! Run, charge, run, buy, borrow, make, spend, run, squander, bed, run, run, run, waste, waste, waste. The effort shows, instead of working.
Aside from style elements, Netflix's The Boys in the Band seems to have offered the actors chances to preserve their performances, but the medium of film has also led to a big gamble — will what they did onstage play on film as is, or should they modulate? If they make changes, do their performances suffer, or do they soar?
I had the feeling, while watching, that Mantello intentionally slowed everything down, nursing the drama and pathos to treat the original play's (and the updated approach's) themes with seriousness. This failed for me, like a dry reading of a screwball comedy. The Boys in the Band is a wicked comedy with painfully true observations and criticisms around every corner, not a drama with one-liners.
The actors' filmed performances mostly suffer in comparison with their stage performances, with the notable exception of Zachary Quinto, who is even better as Harold, the bitter birthday boy whose cold war with host Michael (Jim Parsons) is the icy-hot core of the piece. Harold is a viper for the ages, and Quinto's deliveries of Crowley's iconic lines would do the original Hally, the late Leonard Frey, proud. His use of his birthday gift — a twenty-dollar (midnight) Cowboy (adorably effective Charlie Carver) — to express his point of view is sublime.
Sadly, Parsons' Michael is mysteriously devoid of the required depth, and is missing the second-nature camp that Kenneth Nelson brought to the role. Everything is forced until his breakdown, when things suddenly, and belatedly, come together beautifully.
I thought Matt Bomer's Donald had a whole new three-dimensional quality onstage compared to the original movie, but it's gone here, and Bomer looks blank. He also looks like Monty Clift, and not like a guy who would be making $45 a week.
Rannells is still terrific as sex-positive, relationship-not-so-positive Larry; his updating of this part is the most arresting and savviest of the batch, and along with Quinto, comes closest to owning a part owned for 50 years by someone else.
Robin de Jesús, who has the unenviable task of making screaming-queen Emory not only more grounded but also an Afro-Latino man with racial issues, pulls it off somewhat unevenly, though in scenes with Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard (the Black friend who is too often treated as a guy who's supposed to feel grateful he's invited up into the others' second-class citizenry), both actors shine, giving this new adaptation its only remarkable thematic makeover.
Tuc Watkins as Hank, Larry's put-upon partner, and Brian Hutchison as Alan, Michael's possibly closeted old pal, recede, especially Hutchison, which is a shame, because I've always felt their shared relationship with normalcy to be one of the play's juiciest nuts to crack.
Though a big disappointment, this Boys in the Band does represent progress. An entirely gay company presented an entirely gay film, and in 2020 — unlike in 1970, when the first film was equally loved and loathed for being a breakthrough and yet exposing the fact that being gay isn't always being happy — it doesn't even matter much that it isn't very good.
The Boys in the Band is streaming on Netflix from September 30.