Film Criticism / Film History / Film Theory / Gay History / Gay Studies / Uncategorized

Visiting The Boys in the Band

At age twenty three, I was honestly not looking forward to seeing The Boys in the Band. I had been aware of the film since I’d come out in my early teens, through stills I had found in a worn copy of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet at my local University Library. I managed to see clips of the film in the documentary adaptation of Vito Russo’s book later on, and what I saw frightened me. The men of The Boys in the Band didn’t look good, the lisps and quips made my stomach churn. These, I thought, were people who hated themselves. That was something I didn’t want for myself, their pain was not my own.

Eventually I moved on from the University Library in my small town with its worn books in North Carolina, and moved to the big city the minute I turned eighteen, where I would see and be with others like me, instead of just reading about them. Ten years equipped me with bitter relationships, sex, nights in bars and in the end, coming to terms with my own sexuality. The last thing I, or anyone my age wanted to see, were a bunch of weepy, mourning fags in sweater vests and bell-bottoms piss and moan about how much they wished they were straight.

But points aside, I understood its importance, and I knew that I had to watch the film to gain an understanding of its cultural impact, as a product of a Hollywood that had never depicted gay characters in such a light, as a time piece nestled closely before and after the riots of Stonewall in 1969. Bottom line, seeing The Boys in the Band as a piece of Queer Cinema was inevitable. So I popped the DVD in, and I let out a sigh. And to tell you the truth? I was surprised.

The Boys in the Band started as an Off Broadway Play in New York opening April, 1968. Written by Mart Crowley after a rotten stint in Hollywood. What appeared from a note pad found while house-sitting one month, became a smash hit that ran over 1001 performances, and a slew of Hollywood bids in the process. What came, was a film produced by Crowley himself, his off-Broadway cast left intact, and a director in the controversial William Friedkin, not his first adaptation of a play, directing the film version of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party two years before. But while many call the film a watershed in American culture, The Boys in the Band has an uneasy legacy and a confusing history. True, this was indeed the first time Hollywood showed us gay characters that didn’t shuffle in and out like one of many stereotypes, or as Michael proclaims to his guests, ‘It isn’t like plays, where the faggot bumps himself off at the end of the story,’ but importance does not often lead to box office success or acclaim first hand. The reviews of the film version in 1970, were if anything, mixed. The gay press and audience that had flooded the stage production recoiled from the films release. Matthew Kennedy in his review of the DVD says it all when he explains years later, that  ‘In the ensuing post-Stonewall civil rights struggles, The Boys in the Band became crazy Aunt Betty locked in the attic when guests came over.’

But why exactly is this particular film the crazy character we all wish to hide in the attic? The criticisms that abound for the film have been absurd. Even today,  contemporary reviews are ever-cautious. But the pressure The Boys in the Band was given as a film in 1970, by both the outside press and the wheels of film publicity made The Boys in the Band seem to be the movie addressing homosexuality, as though the still relatively recent play were a dead sea scroll on what it meant to be gay. Russo recounts that it ‘became the most famous Hollywood film on the subject of male homosexuality. Viewed in the press and by the pulbic as “a serious study” of gay men…’ This, ultimately is the films downfall. To say The Boys in the Band is the ultimate film of being Homosexual in 1967 is to say Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the film about being an alcoholic and that A Streetcar Named Desire is the ultimate play about being Southern. Its subject matter is ultimately what has stained it, what caused Vito Russo to accuse Friedkin of making ‘a freak-show.’

 The Boys in the Band is something we like to pat ourselves on the back for, a reference point to how truly different we are from our counter parts forty years ago. How liberated we are, how lucky we are. We like to tell ourselves the alienation, guilt and fear all the characters have in the film and play are not our own anymore. But we are really, truly frightened by The Boys in the Band because of not how far we’ve come, but by how much more work there still is to do, that after 40 years, not much has changed for the men of 1967 besides the love beads. The queens of The Boys in the Band still quip with sting and burn. The film reminds us, that yes, unfortunately, there is still a massive majority that feels that homosexuality is a disease that must be cured. Many boys my age and younger will stay or drift from the heartland to the cities with stories to tell, and the feeling still that maybe, just maybe, they really are sick. The vicarious and fragile politics of the United States could pull us back into a Pre-Stonewall world. The Boys in the Band reminds us of the wave that comes through all history, through all our lives. It rises with velocity, and sometimes, it crashes, taking all it can in its wake. It was certainly a bitter surprise when I realized almost all of the cast died of AIDS related illness later on. To watch a group of men talk through their agony, realizing nearly all of them are dead today, is an eerie and disturbing experience especially for a gay viewer, making the films pain perhaps, even more stinging. But the nihilism of The Boys in the Band  is overestimated, even exaggerated by its critics. The optimism that shines through even its darkest scenes made me realize that this was not a call of tragedy, but a call to arms. This is a film not out of vogue with the Stonewall Riots that came before and after films life-span, but one that is woven immaculately into the Gay Rights Movements very fibers. The Boys in the Band does not ask for pity, it asks for honesty and change.

The Boys in the Band is by no means, a filmed play, an easy prat for any director to fall into with such a concise and tightly timed script the film has. Friedkin remembers first and foremost that this is a film, and through this, gives the script an imbued sensitivity that exceeds its stage predecessor. While many gay critics would like to call Friedkin a fool, a director  who has latched onto the elements of homosexuality as he did in 1980’s Cruising the same way he has zealously given ghoulish attention to Satan in The Exorcist, Friedkin gives The Boys in the Band a sensitivity that would be lost on a theatrical stage and credit must be given where credits due.

While the film takes place entirely in Michael’s swank NYC apartment and outdoor patio, how much the outside world presents itself into the film is startling. An old woman disapproves of a raging Donald walking down a street, a cab driver glares through his rear view mirror when three of the company ride in the back seat. Even a delivery boy looks up at Michael’s apartment door suspiciously once the party that has started. The duality of the outside world and the insular world of Michael’s apartment becomes one of the many dualities that dominate the world of The Boys in the Band. What is safe and what isn’t. Michael’s apartment is one imbued with soft whites and grays, even the outdoor patio is accentuated by soft pastel colors found in the effeminate Chinese lanterns that dangle from a pipeline. The outside world, even when its soundtrack is the Harpers Bizarre cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ is a harsh and busy New York City of the 1967, imbued with an accurate grit and bustle of any hostile big city like Friedkin would later use in The French Connection. The characters who busily bustle their way out of the crazed city to the safe, secure apartment are even aware of the duality of the two,  when Emory enters the party jokingly screaming ‘Everybody out, this is a raid!’

Whats safe and not safe, what is accepted and not accepted, or better yet, whats understood and not understood, are the questions that hover about The Boys in the Band like Carroll’s Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland.  Like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest or even our films cinematic counterpart, Mankeiwitz’s All About EveThe Boys in the Band is a world made up of manners and rules. While The Boys in the Band is given the reputation of being nothing but a bunch of faggots who bitch and dish, the subtext of said behavior and dialogue is lost in the process, and altogether trivialized by its critics for what these quips, insults truly are, a game of manners. While gay culture grows increasingly revolted by the rules and regulations that grow among so many various cultures and subcultures intertwined with Gay life, what one forgets is that wit and humor are ultimately how problems are solved throughout the film and play’s elaborate structure; questions are invariably asked, issues that abound throughout the tightening plot. What better way to present the game of manners with a smorgasbord of stereotypes? Its a party and  their all invited. The reformed straight and his boyfriend who can’t keep it in, the lispy faggot, the token black man, the neurotic Jew, the Southern Queen, the Quipper, the hustler, and the presumed closet case by the time dessert rolls around.

The paradigm shift of the film changes once Harold, the subject of the birthday party finally arrives, not surprisingly, late. His presence, even to a gay viewer, is a shocking, even disturbing one. With large sinister sunglasses, a pock marked face and electro-shock therapy hair, Playwright  Tony Kushner has likened him to ‘an extra terrestrial’ and is indeed, correct in this assessment. His relationship to all of the characters in the film is immediately put into question, especially when Michael gives Harold a present, a photograph with an epitaph Harold refuses to show to the other guests. Of all the insults thrown throughout the party, everyone understands that Harold’s quips and observations hold the most power. His mere presence becomes the electrical current that takes whatever tension abounds, making it unbearable. Harold’s otherworldly tendencies seem to control even nature, once a massive thunderstorm forces everyone to huddle inside, where the true game that centers around the play, begins.

Here, our stereotypes, or what Crowley calls ‘extensions’ of himself, are now trapped like Ghosts to a haunted house. The ‘telephone game’ as maliciously created by Michael is a game where each person calls the person they believe they have truly loved. Many have the option to leave, but like spectres, stay to their designated places. Here, a powerful transformation occurs, not one that is understood as morose queens pissing and moaning in self pity. For a plot to move, a change must happen, and Crowley’s change is misunderstood. The queens who had just done an old dance routine from the Fire Island Days reveal they are human beings who hurt like everyone else. Vito Russo disagrees, calling the shift in the film ‘Freudian stabs at overly protective mothers and absent fathers and lots of zippy fag humor that posed as philosophy.’ While Russo’s bitterness for The Boys in the Band is understandable, Russo could perhaps, not predict the relevancy of this proclaimed ‘period piece’ over forty years later, where gay stereotypes and non-existence still haunt Mainstream Hollywood. Where a group of gay men talking about their problems is over time, more utterly refreshing than it ever was for the past forty years.

The Faggy Queen, Emory is no longer just a fairy, he is someone who fell in love with a dentist. Bernard, our token black guy is a man with a painful past in the pre-civil rights south. Hank and Larry, a couple with problems in monogamy, begin to understand that the confines of heterosexual-like monogamy have made them forget that they truly love one another, and must make harder attempts to accept each other as sexual beings. The game tenses, and fills instantly with tears and regret. The only natural reaction is that Michael, the master of ceremonies is a cruel sadist in the bitter torments of white knuckled alcoholism. But what truly abounds is an attempt to understand. Everyone in the room stays and takes their rounds, scoring points bit by bit because they want to understand not only one another, but themselves. They are predestined by a current of change they cannot name, but only feel, and they know the lives they lead cannot be spend in hiding and denial. The only person who does not partake in the ceremonies, is Harold. For Harold, unlike any of them, understands good and well who he is, ‘A 32 year old, ugly pockmarked Jew Fairy’ and further warns Michael that he can play this game, better. Harold ends the cycle of rage with his iconic monologue:

You’re a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve got left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you’ll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die. 

One may think, this paints the picture a little black, as Michael sobs in horror at the words Harold has spoken as some black angel of truth, but Harold speaks against a majority. A majority that believes homosexuality can be ‘annihilated’, that it is a product of outside forces, not of what we are and who we are. No, Harold’s words as spoken in 1970 is a call to arms. Like a Greek chorus, Harold narrates the passing, empty shell of a night, that has evolved into another day. The party, is by all means over. Friedkin pans to our outside patio, a ruined birthday cake, paper and abandoned gifts abound in puddles of gray rain. The house, is filled with empty tumblers and nipped off bottles. The men have left the house changed. They know that life is different, for they know their lives will not abound in small, swishy apartments safe from raids and prying eyes. Their neuroses, truths and bitter secrets are no longer secrets, but truths they have shared among one another that each will keep forever. The film ends with with Michael, collapsing in Donald’s arms. ‘If we could just not hate ourselves so much.’ he sighs. ‘You used to be worse than you are now… With a little bit more work you can try to help yourself some more.’ Donald replies hopefully. The film ends with Michael, remembering his father dying in his arms, his last words being ‘I don’t understand any of it.’  Life is now not about understanding their homosexuality, but understanding who they are as people.

What did I learn, as the film ended and I was left in the dark of my living room, two cigarettes later and an abandoned can of coke from two hours ago on the coffee table? I felt I understood each characters pain in a way I never felt I would. The movie I had just seen was not the film I had heard about. For the first time watching years of gay cinema, I oddly felt that I belonged. I had earned the years of experience and pain these men talked about. I understood the pain of the past, and the need to move forward in the future, no matter what waves may change.

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