We’ve been trapped inside our homes for over six months now thanks to COVID-19. Thus, I’ve been reduced to living vicariously through movies, which is why Netflix’s The Boys in the Band feel so welcome and exhilarating. Right now, nothing sounds more thrilling and wonderful than getting drunk with the rest of my gay friends at a birthday party that devolves into madness.
Mart Crowley’s 1968 play is dated by design, but by staying true to the original text, the latest iteration of The Boys in the Band resembles a period piece. The time, place and circumstances the characters are complaining about are different than ours. Yet, the friendship and frenemy dynamics within a gay group are timeless.
The set-up is simple. Michael (Jim Parsons), a nervous writer with a penchant for buying expensive clothes without the necessary funds, gathers his closest gay friends to his beautifully decorated abode to celebrate his friend Harold’s (Zachary Quinto) birthday. Parsons’ mannered performance immediately conjures up nightmares of his Hollywood performance. However, as the film goes on, he charts how Michael’s neuroses and self-hatred physically manifests, causing him to play a particularly cruel game with his party guests. Quinto, meanwhile, sinks his teeth into every line reading, always threatening to lean too far that it becomes camp. He understands that there’s an ego to Harold’s shame. His youth and beauty are the few things keeping him top of the heap within the New York gay community.
True to fashion, the vain, yet beguiling Harold keeps his friends waiting. This gives us plenty of time to learn more about this motley crew of misfits. Donald (Matt Bomer) has moved away from the city to the Hamptons and is struggling with his psychotherapy. “Roommates” Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins) are going through a rough patch as Larry desires a non-monogamous relationship. While many of the men repress their homosexuality, Emory (Robin de Jesus) lives loud and proud. His confidant is Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), whose gentile nature is struggling with his place in the world as a gay black man.
All of the actors do a lot with their roles. Robin de Jesus lights up every moment he’s on screen, showing the power it takes to live one’s life authentically. He even provides Harold the birthday gift of a “midnight cowboy” gigolo (Charlie Carver), encouraging his friends to enjoy their homosexuality. Both Watkins and Rannells have a believable chemistry that pays off in spades by the end. Washington also does a lot with Bernard, one of the more underwritten roles in the film. When we make it to the “party game” where each guest must call up the person they have loved, Bernard describes falling in love with a wealthy white man at a house he used to work at. Of all the characters, he’s the one we should have seen more. It only hints at what it was like to be a gay black man in the late 60s, and there definitely seems like there’s more to explore.
Director Joe Mantello, who also directed the revival on Broadway, expertly adapts the show for film, mainly by not getting in the way of the source material. The story is importantly confined to Michael’s Greenwich Village apartment, which is lush and incredibly well-adorned thanks to the incredible work by production designer Judy Becker. However, Mantello perfectly dramatizes what it means for something to be a “gay space.” These men all have to code themselves in certain ways while they are in the outside world, which we get glimpses of at the beginning of the film. Yet, when they enter Michael’s apartment they’re allowed to flounce about, dance and be merry. The entrance of Michael’s supposedly straight friend, Alan (Brian Hutchison), disrupts this small gay oasis for the men. The outside world has crept into their bright, gorgeous, gay space and with that, they must make adjustments to how they behave.
Another crucial element of film, compared to a play, is the role the camera plays in directing the audience’s attention. There’s something thrilling about watching the actors on stage inhabit every moment they’re in view of the audience. Mantello and cinematographer Bill Pope manage to recreate this live wire electricity in the first half of the film, as they frequently open up the frame so we can see what all of the actors are doing. In giving the actors more space to interact, we see added bits of tension between Larry and Hank. Pope’s camerawork also follows the men around the house as they set-up for the party. This only further highlights Becker’s detailed design work, but also invites us to catch the characters in unguarded moments. It’s fun to watch Emory flit around the apartment, while Michael frequently lets his agitation slip away from his guests as he waits for Harold’s arrival.
Directors are often over-eager to “open up” the play for film to prove to the audience why it was necessary to be adapted. Mantello employs flashbacks and other “film-y” techniques to differentiate it from the stage. However, these impulses often hurt, rather than help the film. The second half of the film, which involves each man recounting their one true love that got away, plods along as flashbacks creating major pacing problems. Actors delivering a great monologue must pause so we can be shown the exact actions the script describes. The very structure of the second half can already feel repetitive and static just by virtue of the set-up. The visual flourishes may be meant to break up potential monotone moments, but they instead add to it.
Even as the film moves from flouncy fun to drunken madness, it never loses its heart. Just as easily as these men can feel joy, they can also access their sorrow. They can rejoice in each other’s company and instantly deliver a blow so cutting that it leaves one utterly gutted. As bad as the behavior gets, no one leaves the party. They can’t.
At its thorniness and datedness, The Boys in the Band asks us to look at these gay men of the past and find ourselves. The parts we identify with may not be the sunniest, but it’s the unapologetic nature that makes it live on, even with the gay community evolving in the 52 years since the play was originally written.