The Boys In The Band ****
Starring: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins
Director: Joe Mantello
There was something truly remarkable about the original productions of The Boys In The Band. The play by Matt Crowley was first performed in 1968 and was still running off-Broadway on the same night that the Stonewall Riots began nearby. Then, in 1970, a film version was directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), marking a real landmark moment in cinema, depicting a group of gay friends on screen without sensationalism, judgement or exaggeration. For the very first time, gay men could see themselves on screen.
In 2018, to mark the play’s 50th anniversary, theatre director Joe Mantello assembled a cast of the most prominent out gay actors in Hollywood for a Tony-winning Broadway revival. Now, the exact same cast has reassembled for its on-screen incarnation, premiering on Netflix, courtesy of TV mogul Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Pose).
Michael (Parsons – The Big Bang Theory, The Normal Heart), a recovering alcoholic, is hosting a Birthday party for his bitter friend Harold (Quinto – Star Trek, Heroes). His friends are all coming, the adorably faithful Donald (Bomer – Magic Mike, The Normal Heart), promiscuous Larry (Rannells – Girls, The New Normal) and his masculine boyfriend Hank (Watkins – Desperate Housewives), flamboyant and acid-tongued Emory (de Jesús – Camp) and kind but damaged Bernard (Washington – 30 Rock). They dance, sing and celebrate, with rentboy Cowboy (Carver – Teen Wolf, Desperate Housewives) given to Harold as a present for the evening, but the mood is spoiled by the arrival of Alan (Hutchison - Bridge Of Spies), Michael’s college roommate who doesn’t know that he’s gay. As the group initially try to hide who they are, tempers fray and cracks appear in their friendships.
Aristotelian in its unities of time and space, this film adaptation has done little to embellish on its original script, which is so obviously written for the stage. We see short flashbacks and dialogue-free vignettes that illustrate the characters’ lives even further, but the film is otherwise doggedly respectful toward its source material. Glossy and vibrant, you can positively smell Murphy’s thumbprint on this production, but for all its reverence to its vintage, it remains gloriously relevant through its layered performances from some of the best leading men in the business.
Jim Parsons is pitch perfect as Michael, friendly and supportive sober, but acidic and cruel as soon as he loses resolve and his abstinence. His cruelty on his friends is what drives the second half of the film, but also raises its biggest question mark at the end. Above all else, this is a movie about gay shame, which debilitates most of its characters into behaving the way they do. “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much” weeps Michael at the film’s climax, echoing generations of gay men who lived lives more repressed than those alive today.
The threat of the discovery of their true identities is constant in the film, as they jump each time the door is knocked and the presence of a neighbour in a hallway is enough to scare them into silence. Alan might be a fish out of water, but in the “safe space” this group have made for themselves, he is an unwelcome invader. Even though we know how the world perceived gay men at the time, hearing him verbalise this stings extra-hard because these men are not so dissimilar to groups of gay friends today, 52 years on.
Zachary Quinto’s Harold is an especially unpleasant creature, but whose self-awareness rings true throughout the film. Bomer is adorably foppish, while Rannells is suitably sour and obnoxious. Carver is the perfect blend of vanity and endearing simplicity, but it is Washington’s painful but nostalgic self-examination that rings the truest, while de Jesús’ reimagining of Emory as something far more complex than just the archetypal catty queen makes for a refreshing new incarnation of the character.
The film’s flaw comes from the same flaw that belittles the play. The entire latter half revolves around a cruel party game, initiated by Michael, that feels like a crude narrative device aimed to make these men all have their moment to weep on-stage. It’s an ensemble drama that feels like emotion-by-numbers, rather than gradually revealing these characters’ secrets through something a little more organic. Their discomfort at Alan’s presence makes for a much more interesting storyline, but as he comes to actual blows with Emory, it comes off more soap opera than theatrical pedigree.
The acting fully redeems a flawed script, but it also looks absolutely gorgeous. Michael is genuinely complex and Parsons is mesmerising as our protagonist who crumbles beneath his internalised shame. As the party goes on it is revealed just how damaged each of them is and we’re ,taken on a cathartic journey past their joyously gay façade, through their deepest insecurities to an uncomfortably tentative denouement. Just as generations of gay men have been unable to overcome the damage done to them by society’s rejection, these characters cannot escape what has happened to them before, even in this supposedly safe space. Which is anything but.
OUT NOW ON NETFLIX.