The Boys in the Band remains a undeniably important film, in the sense that it was one of the first mainstream American movies to tackle a story where homosexuality is a central element head on. For anybody who hasn’t seen The Celluloid Closet, Hollywood cinema hid gay characters or subject matter under various guises—innuendo or subtext etc., for decades. Things were already changing when Midnight Cowboy came out in 1969: while not explicitly a “gay” film, the relationship between the two protagonists, Joe Buck and “Ratso” Rizzo, is certainly homoerotic, and there is a scene where a young man pays Joe Buck to engage in oral sex in a movie theatre.
The Boys in the Band was based on a play that became a surprise Off-Broadway smash hit, naturally piquing interest to adapt it for the screen. However, the playwright, Mart Crowley, wanted to use the stage director and stick closely to the stage version. He eventually relented on the director, but the cast is the same as the play. William Friedkin was still an up-and-coming director at the time, and was hired mostly on the strength of his Harold Pinter adaptation, The Birthday Party.
The story is set during a birthday party for Harold (Leonard Frey), one of the men in the group. Michael (Kenneth Nelson) hosts the party at his house, but very soon an old “straight”(?) college friend, Alan (Peter White), turns out to be in town and needs to talk. Michael invites him over, but supposedly Alan isn’t aware of Michael’s sexuality.
It’s very much a story of two halves: the first is fairly farcical in tone, with this group of gay men being bitchy to one another but then having to “act straight” when Alan arrives. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly darker, both in subject matter and visually. It’s not Friedkin at his most visually rich, unlike his next three and probably best films (The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer), but that’s down to the limited locations besides an opening sequence in a gay bar and on the street, it’s set exclusively in the apartment.
Over the years, the play and the film have fallen in and out favour with gay audiences. It clearly plays up certain camp stereotypes (interestingly, the more overtly feminine man, Emory, is played by one of the few straight actors in the play/film, Cliff Gorman.) However, the play was on Broadway again last year with an all-star cast, so it’s not going away anytime soon. That’s surprising, because at the very least the film plays very much as a pre-AIDS period piece. I ended up seeing it during the Leeds Film Festival, where it attracted what seemed like a mostly young gay/female audience who didn’t get the references to the old movie starlets who became gay icons, but I got them as 28-year-old straight man (I’m just an old soul, I guess.) They did seem to be aghast whenever the single African–American man is the butt of, to be diplomatic, “politically incorrect” jabs.
It’s interesting to compare The Boys in the Band to Friedkin’s other gay-themed film, the serial killer thriller Cruising. Although it’s a better film, it was boycotted by gay activists at the time and was blamed for hate crimes. However, time has been kind to that film, and Cruising is now seen by many gay critics as this fascinating pre-AIDS artefact and a key piece of queer cinema. It’s also worth pointing out that William Friedkin is, as far as I know, 100% straight and has been married to the same woman Sherry Lansing for the last 27 years!
The Boys in the Band has some very witty dialogue, but for most of the cast, it was their only time to shine. They were typecast as “gay,” and almost the entire cast died during the ’80s and ’90s AIDS pandemic. So while it’s dated, it’s an important film for representation and for understanding Friedkin’s brilliant, though at times baffling, body of work.
The disc includes a commentary with Friedkin and the playwright, Mart Crowley. Mark Gatiss and his husband Ian Hallard are interviewed about the play and the film, because they starred in one of the more recent revivals of the play, and finally there is a three-part documentary about the stage roots of The Boys in the Band, the film and finally its legacy.