The Boys in the Band Blu-ray Review
New York City, the summer of 1968. It’s Harold’s (Leonard Frey) birthday and Michael (Kenneth Nelson) and his partner Donald (Frederick Combs) throw a party for him, with several of their gay friends. Also turning up is Alan (Peter White), a college friend of Michael’s, who is straight – or is he? As the evening wears on, revelations come to light, and a “truth game” makes events take a darker turn...
The opening scenes of The Boys in the Band are cut to a Harpers Bizarre cover of “Anything Goes” and pretty much sets us up for what we are about to see, if somehow we weren’t already aware of it. If a glimpse of stocking is something shocking, it might say, then get a load of this. This film, like the play it is based on, is an artefact of a time when things were changing, and what only a few years earlier could not be seen or heard on screen or stage now could. But while it does capture a time and a place, it still stands up to this day. While social details have certainly changed since then, variations of these characters and their dilemmas still exist.
Mart Crowley’s play, which premiered off-Broadway in 1968, is a landmark of 1960s American theatre. Homosexuality was not a subject often depicted in the theatre. In fact, a 1926 play, The Captive, prompted laws prohibiting the subject being depicted on the New York stage, a law which lasted until 1967. Having said that, plays such as Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour did still play on Broadway. In the UK, the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of theatre censorship lasted until 1968. In cinema, you can see homosexual characters and references in the Pre-Code area: Call Her Savage (1932) introduced audiences to the first on-screen gay bar. However, all that changed with the enforcement of the Production Code. The first film version of The Children’s Hour, These Three (1936) had to change the accusations of a lesbian relationship to one of heterosexual adultery. By the 1960s, cracks were beginning to appear in the Code. The Children’s Hour was filmed again in 1961, this time unexpurgated. In Britain, films such as Victim and A Taste of Honey began to tackle the subject. So, a play and film such as this, where all nine characters are gay or (possibly) bisexual men, found its moment. One person who saw it in London was Princess Margaret, with her then husband Lord Snowdon. At a dinner party shortly afterwards, she told her guests that she had enjoyed the play but reduced the gathering to silence when she went on to say that there was something she hadn’t quite got, as she didn’t understand what the line “You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman” meant…
Crowley had begun his career in Hollywood, and after meeting her became Natalie Wood’s assistant. As a writer, his career was at a low ebb, and while house-sitting he wrote The Boys in the Band. The play came quickly, and was no doubt highly cathartic. Crowley said that there was something of him in all nine characters, though they also reflected many of the people he knew. That said, the character of Michael was possibly the closest. If many of the nine now seem like gay stereotypes (the flaming queen, the self-loathing gay man, the cowboy stud, and so on), the answer is that people like that did and do exist, and for most people this was the first time they were seen on stage or screen. The film retains the 1968 setting, so this is a portrayal of gay male life before the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, which tended to find portrayals of themselves like those in this film overly negative, especially with lines like Michael’s “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” (The play returned to favour with a New York revival in 1996.) Even more with hindsight, this is a portrayal of gay male life before the AIDS pandemic, which claimed the lives of five of the cast here. More so in the play, with its interval between its two acts, the story is one of two halves, the first bitingly funny, the second darker and eventually very moving.
With the success of the play, offers to film it soon arrived. Crowley held out for a few things: that he wrote the script and produced it and that the stage cast and director (Robert Moore) were retained for the film. He was able to achieve all except the last, as Moore passed, not feeling he had enough film work experience. William Friedkin was recommended, and he had just finished another stage adaptation set mostly in one house, namely The Birthday Party, from Harold Pinter’s play. Friedkin designed his camerawork to reflect the changes in the action, with more movement near the start, to slower moves and static shots towards the end, including a probable lift from Persona in a shot with Michael and Harold at a particular truth-telling point. While Michael’s apartment was a soundstage, there is location work in New York. Maud Adams appears, briefly and uncredited, as a model in a fashion shoot.
In 1967, the Production Code and its Seal of Approval was replaced with a rating system, allowing more films aimed at adults to take advantage of increasing permissiveness. The Boys in the Band received a R rating, allowing under-17s to be accompanied, not the adults-only X rating, but it still pushed at a few boundaries. There’s nothing visually explicit – a scene of Michael and Donald passionately kissing was cut because Friedkin felt it didn’t work – but it certainly broke ground in its use of language, of the kind which would now be referred to as strong or very strong. It’s not quite the first film to feature the word “cunt” (which it does three times), as Paramount’s X-rated Tropic of Cancer was released a month earlier. In Britain, the then British Board of Film Censors had first passed “fuck” back in 1967 (in Ulysses and I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname) but “cunt” they didn’t yet find acceptable. They cut The Boys in the Band (a month before they raised the X-certificate age from sixteen to eighteen, but that might not have made a difference) and banned Tropic of Cancer and another Henry Miller adaptation, the Danish-made, Paris-shot, English-language Quiet Days in Clichy, outright. The first “cunt” passed by the BBFC was probably in Carnal Knowledge in 1971, unless you know different. The Boys in the Band is now a 15, uncut. Nowadays some of the racially discriminatory terms used towards Bernard might be approached more with caution by writers and filmmakers.
The Boys in the Band was released in 1970. Kenneth Nelson was nominated for a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer – Male, but the film was completely shut out from the Oscars. That wasn’t the case with the next film Friedkin made, which was The French Connection. The Boys in the Band has never been shown on terrestrial television in the UK, but has been seen on Sky and TCM (a hat-tip to Sheldon Hall for this information). None of Crowley’s other plays, including a 2009 sequel called The Men from the Boys, had the same impact. His later screen work was mostly on television and he was a producer on Hart to Hart in the early 1980s.
A new film version of The Boys in the Band, with an all-out-gay cast, launches on Netflix on September 30, and is reviewed by Alistair Ryder here.
Second Sight’s release of The Boys in the Band is a Blu-ray encoded for Region B.
The film was shot in colour 35mm, and the Blu-ray transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1. Arthur J. Ornitz’s cinematography doesn’t shoot or light the film as you might expect for a comedy, and the film has a darker, grainy, gritty look which was taking hold in films of the time, especially those from New York.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. This is a very dialogue-driven film and there is no music score, though there are non-diegetic songs on the soundtrack. The sound is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing and I spotted no errors in them.
The extras begin with a commentary. It’s introduced by Laurent Bouzereau, but is mostly devoted to Friedkin and Crowley, recorded separately and edited together, the latter making his first appearance at 78 minutes. Between them, they provide a very informative commentary,
Next up is an interview (23:21) with Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard, a real-life couple who acted together in a London revival of the play in 2016, playing Harold and Michael respectively. They talk about the play and its influence and continuing relevance.
Finally on this disc, Bouzereau provides a featurette made in 2008 divided into three acts: “The Play” (14:00), “The Film” (24:49) and “40 Years of The Boys in the Band” (5:32). Interviewees include Crowley, Friedkin, executive producer Dominick Dunne, Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, and two of the then three surviving cast members, Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White. Inevitably, there’s some overlap in Crowley and Friedkin’s contributions with their commentary, but there’s a lot of useful information here. The featurette ends with a dedication to the six cast members who had then passed away. Reuben Greene made just one more film, Mikey and Nicky in 1976, and tended to disassociate himself from the play and film. He died in 2012. Mart Crowley died on March 7, 2020 at the age of eighty-four.