‘The Boys in the Band’ is essential LGBTQ+ viewing

Wednesday, October 14, 2020 - 11:32am

NOSELL

Netflix

Indie as well as mainstream films featuring LGBTQ+ characters and plotlines are becoming more and more common, set in a variety of times and places for a larger breadth of stories. One of Netflix’s latest, “The Boys in the Band,” brings a new spin on a classic play that is essential in the history of LGBTQ+ representation.

“The Boys in the Band” has been through many iterations before this film. Written by playwright Mart Crowley, it began as an Off-Broadway play in 1968, shocking audiences with its blunt portrayal of gay men, and was adapted into a 1970 film with the play’s original cast. To celebrate the play’s 50th anniversary in 2018, Crowley’s script was revived on Broadway for four months by director Joe Mantello (“Hollywood”), leading to a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. And now, “The Boys in the Band” has been given another film adaptation featuring the same nine actors as the revival, all openly gay.

The story revolves around nine men at a birthday party in 1968 New York. These men all know each other in some way or another, but the connections are difficult to decipher at first — former roommates, current lovers or friends-of-a-friend. Most, if not all, are gay men who use the space as a sanctuary where they can be safe from outside judgement; they call each other names and slurs, but there’s clearly a lot of affection between them.

Yet this is 1968, before the Stonewall riots, when gay culture was thriving but deeply hidden. All throughout the film, there are stark tensions between this little safe haven of gay camaraderie and the heteronormative world outside. The festivities get thrown into true disarray, however, when Michael (Jim Parsons, “The Big Bang Theory”), the host, learns that his former college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchinson, “Lisey’s Story”), an assumed straight man, is coming to the apartment.

Though turning plays into films is not always successful, the transition is well done in this case, aided by producer Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”). The film format allows for the inclusion of introductory sequences for context on each character or flashbacks for important memories. Additionally, there are a number of incredible directing choices and camera angles, like the use of mirrors or a particularly poignant shot through a rain-streaked window; for example, the dramatic arrival of Harold (Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek Beyond,”), the birthday boy, is made all the better by the creative shot of his shoes grinding a cigarette into the ground.

All of the exchanges are excellent, too, a credit to the snappy dialogue in Crowley’s script and the vibrant chemistry between the actors. The film navigates gracefully through difficult topics — homophobia, self-loathing, perseverance and deep unrequited love. “The Boys in the Band” doesn’t have a clear “plot” beyond interactions between characters, so it feels occasionally slow. Crowley’s script also leaves the audience with an unsatisfactory ending, with questions unasked and unanswered. Still, the characters are the heart of the script — the pain, the love, the drama. 

Importantly, the “Boys” in this film are not rendered one-dimensional, as many films have caricaturized gay men in the past. Instead, they are incredibly complex. Moments of flamboyance are clearly played for humor, not to contribute to stereotypes. The nine men are all crucially different — Michael is self-loathing, Harold is dramatic, Donald (Matt Bomer, “Magic Mike XXL”) is questioning, Larry (Andrew Rannells, “A Simple Favor”) is non-monogamous, Emory (Robin de Jesús, “Camp”) is effeminate, Hank (Tuc Watkins, “One Life to Live”) is straitlaced, Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington, “Ratched”) is conflicted — but they are all deeply connected by what they have in common.

The most important part of “The Boys in Band,” however, is what it represents: What does it say about us that an entirely openly gay cast is still surprising? Hollywood and Broadway have no shortage of gay actors, and yet it still seems rare that we see LGBTQ+ actors playing LGBTQ+ characters. The entertainment industry has finally begun to normalize the notion that characters of color should be played by actors of color — the fact that it took so long is a whole other conversation — but I think that normalizing LGBTQ+ actors playing LGBTQ+ roles should be prioritized as well. 

In some ways, this is what “The Boys in the Band” does best: With each iteration, it can teach its audience a new lesson. In 1968, it was about revealing an entire world and culture that was beneath the surface of public awareness. Now, in 2020, “The Boys in the Band” teaches us what has changed in 50 years — and what hasn’t.

 

Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.