The Boys in the Band Review
The original production of The Boys in the Band, which debuted off Broadway in 1968, was groundbreaking in bringing the interior lives of gay men to the mainstream for the first time. In later reassessments of the play, it was even claimed by some to have been a significant precursor to the Stonewall riots and gay rights movements, with those critics arguing that the shame and neuroses of the characters inspired a younger generation of gay men to protest, not wanting to settle for a future of self loathing from societal condescension.
The Boys in the Band has endured as a play, being revived several times on Broadway and in the West End over the years, although not without being repeatedly accused of being dated in its portrayal of internalised homophobia. But as it now exists as a period piece, a snapshot of ageing gay men a year before the first brick was thrown at Stonewall, it has only become more fascinating - one of the few pop culture artefacts of that era that speaks to how society treated gay men, at a time when such subject matter was considered to be obscene. Joe Mantello’s screen adaptation for Netflix, utilising the same cast as his 50th anniversary Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s work, doesn’t update the text in any meaningful way, but thanks to excellent performances from the whole ensemble, it doesn’t matter. This band know how to play a cover version well.
Set in 1968, the internally homophobic Michael (Jim Parsons) is hosting a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto), a friend for whom he seems to have no kind words. Just before guests start to arrive, he receives a call from his distraught college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison), who is in town from Washington. Eventually, after guests have arrived, Alan shows up unannounced, never specifying why he was in a traumatic state on the phone, with the night beginning to unravel when he takes a homophobic swing at one of Michael’s camper friends. By the time Harold shows up, characteristically late, friendships are at breaking point - and that’s before Michael suggests the group play a parlour game that takes advantage of their various emotional insecurities.
As with any screen adaptation of a stage play, it often feels restricted due to the limitations of its original medium. The hiring of cinematographer Bill Pope, best known for collaborations with the Wachowskis and Sam Raimi, is an odd but inspired choice - and it is clear that a project that takes place nearly entirely within one interior setting is out of his comfort zone. Of course, the criticism that a stage adaptation looks insufficiently cinematic is practically a moot point at this stage, but hiring an overqualified cinematographer (best known for science fiction and fantasy films) still does very little to elevate the overall visual aesthetic.
Luckily, that’s one of the few complaints to be had with this take on The Boys in the Band, which is an actor’s showcase first and foremost. And with a cast comprised entirely of gay actors, it also stands as a great platform for performers who are often afforded the same typecast roles in Hollywood, if offered any at all. Admittedly, Mantello has cast his ensemble to type in most places; Jim Parsons is once again playing a scheming neurotic, just as he did in his prior role in another Ryan Murphy Netflix production (Hollywood), while on the sidelines, Andrew Rannells’ Larry doesn’t feel a million miles away from the character he rose to fame playing on Girls. Of course, these archetypes are explored with more depth here, and the casting of actors often typecast in similar roles merely accentuates the lack of complicated gay characters in Hollywood productions.
Playwright Mart Crowley passed away earlier this year, with the film dedicated to his memory. Adapting his play for the screen once again, half a century after he did it for William Friedkin’s original adaptation, the film feels like a fitting swan song for his career. By revisiting his partially autobiographical play decades later, it now feels firmly like a period piece - a writer revisiting the missteps from his younger days for one last time, with the hindsight of subsequent generations embracing the concept of pride. What once felt prescient in his hands now feels like a relic of a different era, with very little in the original text changed in the intervening years.
The Boys in the Band is available on Netflix from September 30.