Fifty years ago this month, The Boys in the Band debuted in theaters. The movie was groundbreaking in depicting gay men and their lives at a time when it was taboo to do so. Other films alluded to homosexuality or danced around the subject. Boys put everything out in the open with three dimensional characters and plot lines. Warts and all. That’s what makes it so memorable.
Stage to screen
In 1968, Mart Crowley was struggling to establish his career as a writer. His friends encouraged him to develop a play, which ultimately became The Boys in the Band. The story focuses on nine gay men who have gathered together for a birthday celebration. At first the tone is fun and not-so-serious, but halfway through things take a turn. You wouldn’t want to be invited to this party. Boys debuted Off-Broadway and instantly became a hit, running for 1,001 performances. This led to a film adaptation written by Crowley and starring the original actors from the show. Robert Moore, the play’s director, was dropped because he had never directed for the screen. The production company instead hired a young pre-Exorcist William Friedkin and shooting began. The majority of filming took place on one stage in a NYC studio, maintaining the static feel of the play. That beautifully 1970s apartment set is one of my favorites from any movie.
Breaking down the boys
Even though it’s not his birthday, Michael (Kenneth Nelson) manages to take center stage. He’s deeply troubled about his life and that comes pouring out as the play goes on. The main reason for his drama is his sexuality. He drinks excessively and attacks others rather than deal with his issues. Nelson expertly plays Michael’s highs and lows, going from jovial to lethal in a second.
Harold (Leonard Frey), the birthday boy, is Michael’s best friend and sometimes his worst enemy. They love to trade barbs and tear each other down. They’re very similar except Harold does a better job of distracting from his insecurities and faults. His acidic wit hides a lot of pain.
Donald (Frederick Combs) is Michael’s ex-boyfriend, but they still care for each other. Like Michael, he’s not too happy with himself. Do you see a pattern? But he’s seeing a psychiatrist to deal with his problems. Ironically, he ends up being Michael’s shrink in a sense, but fails to save him from himself.
Alan (Peter White) crashes the party and changes the entire mood. Before arriving, he calls Michael, telling him that he desperately needs to talk in person. Michael believes his straight married friend is actually gay and on the verge of coming out. If Alan’s not willing to do so on his own, Michael will drag him out of the closet.
Flamboyant Emory (Cliff Gorman) is a textbook sissy, swishing and mincing through every scene. Some might argue that a character like this shouldn’t have been included in the play. But Crowley and Gorman give Emory depth beyond the superficial stereotype. I also think he’s the strongest one at the party. He’s unabashedly himself, refusing to change for anyone.
Bernard (Reuben Greene) acts as the one black friend in the group. It’s a little surprising that Crowley included a person of color when it could have easily been an all-white affair, reflecting the era. He’s not a token either. Bernard’s race does become a focal point, but he’s also a fully-formed character.
Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) are a couple, but they’re not in sync. Hank was once married to a woman and he’s eager to have that same sort of relationship. Larry is allergic to commitment and would rather play the field. Their differing points of view make for an interesting conversation about monogamy in the gay world.
Cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux), a hustler that Emory finds on the street, is Harold’s birthday present. We never learn much about him, including his real name. He’s mainly there to say stupid things for comic effect. But to La Tourneaux’s credit, it takes a good actor to play dumb so well.
In between the stage play and the release of the movie came a major event: Stonewall. The riots at a gay bar in NYC where members of the LGBT community fought back against injustice, kicked off the gay liberation movement. Gays felt empowered to break out of the closet and feel proud. So just like that, Boys became obsolete. A story about a bunch of self-hating gay men felt out of touch with what was going on in the world. Yes, it was great to have a film that focused primarily on gays, but the way they were portrayed was repellent to most in the community. When you’re seeking representation onscreen, something so seemingly negative can be disheartening. Nobody wants to be a miserable gay.
Over the years, the film has gained more good will, though. I think this is because new, younger audiences are seeing it. These are people who didn’t live through that time period and are somewhat detached from it. They can only imagine what pre-Stonewall life was like, so the film doesn’t feel as personal or hurtful. It’s just a movie now, whereas for gay men in 1970 it was a reality from which they wanted to escape. But I think it’s actually good to look back at a film like Boys and appreciate how far we’ve come. Also, artistically, it’s captivating and well-conceived.
In 2018, the play finally made it to Broadway. Ryan Murphy produced the revival that proudly featured a cast made up entirely of openly gay actors. The show was extremely successful and won Best Revival at the Tony Awards. Crowley accepted the honor and gave a tearful speech honoring the original cast of Boys. It was an incredible full circle moment. Unfortunately, Crowley died earlier this year. I’m glad he got the chance to receive that acclaim after so much criticism was leveled against his work in the past. He didn’t need the justification, but he deserved it. Later in 2020, another film adaptation, starring the same cast from the revival, will be coming to Netflix. I’m anxious to see this new chapter of Boys and revisit a great story.