“The Boys in the Band”
Not a Musical
One of the classics of gay cinema is “The Boys in the Band” and why it has not been released on DVD is a question no one can answer. I suppose we will have to sit and wait. In the meantime you may be lucky enough to find “Boys” on VHS. If you do you will be in for a viewing experience. I often wonder if there had been no movie called “The Boys in the Band”, would there even be a genre called gay cinema today. The movie certainly forced a lot of doors to open in the echelons of movie power.
When the movie was made in 1970, homosexuality was whispered about and many stayed in the closet. This was a full decade and a half before the AIDS epidemic was killing us and long before we were able to openly proclaim who we were. I watch the movie every once in a while to remind me just how far we have come and to think about where we are going. “Boys in the Band” was an aggressive turning point in gay history and gay awareness. It was not an easy pill to swallow because it made us look at ourselves and see things that we did not like. Looking at it now, we see how dated it is but the overall power of it cannot be ignored. In fact, “Boys” came to life in New York a year before the Stonewall riots as a play on the off-Broadway stage. Because of the riots the next year, the possibility of a movie of it became a reality.
The plot is simple. A festive New York chic birthday party in which eight gay men are guests turns bitter and mean when a ninth man (married but sexually questionable) intrudes by accident on the gathering. What is important about the film is that gay men were portrayed as thinking individuals with feelings and not caricatures nor stereotypes set up to provide a laugh or a sneer. We get the whole gamut of gay life when we are presented with the good, the bad and the ugly.
Kenneth Nelson is Michael, the host of the party. He is filled with rage ad self-hatred. He shoulders the scorn of society for what he is. He lives a lie the moment he leaves his apartment and he punishes himself when he is inside of it. It is somewhat easy to identify with his anger.
Donald is portrayed by Frederick Combs. He is Michael’s dear friend and exactly his opposite. He solves his own problems with a smoke of grass, pills and as little hostility as possible. He knows he is a failure but he prefers retreat to confrontation. He is a pacifist with no drive and no direction. All Donald seems to care about is getting through each day with as little pain as possible.
Keith Prentice as Larry and Laurence Luckinbill as Hank are the handsome couple. Larry feels the tightness of the relationship while Hank prefers a monogamous situation with a nice quiet home life. This was the first look for many to see what a mature gay relationship looks like and despite their problems the two men try to make their relationship work while dealing with the pressures that surround it. One man desires a night of promiscuous sex while the other deals with the guilt he feels over leaving his wife and children for a man.
Ruben Greene is Bernard who is centered but bitter. He has nothing good to say about the gay lifestyle. Emory played by Cliff Gorman is the swishy stereotypical queen who is camp personified and has a quip for every occasion. Then there is the birthday boy, Harold (Leonard Frey), am inspired cynic, the self-named “pock marked Jewish fairy” and he is bold and flamboyant with a quick wit, thick skin and razor sharp tongue. In actuality he is torn apart by his own I insecurities. His birthday present is a cowboy, played by Robert LaTourneaux, a guy who plays dumb and uses the muscles of his body instead of the muscle of his brain to get by. Finally there is Peter White who plays Alan, Michael’s married friend who unbeknownst to himself, sets off the fireworks. He is uncertain and the guessing game of his sexuality is the intrigue of the plot.
No one gets off easily in this situation. Heartaches are exposed and the whole business is extremely depressing but the dialog is potent and even poetic. When it is over, you feel exhausted and while it is successful as a bitter commentary, it is also very, very funny. It is honest and its intention is good.
Personally, I can watch this film time and tem again. Some people find that it makes them uncomfortable. Even though it was made in 1970 the characters and situations are universal and timeless. All of us know someone like one or more of the guys in the movie. It is an alternately frank and hilarious landmark film that still stands strong more than thirty years after it was made. It is potent and it is a worthy emblem of gay pride. It may look dated and it is indeed characteristic of the time period in which it was made yet the characters are hardly obsolete. These people, with their bitter memories, exist today both inside and outside of the gay community. This is what gives us our diversity. The film must be respected for being amazingly daring when it came out. It was the first to show us as average men with basically normal lives. The dialog with its sexual frankness broke new ground and the screenwriter Mort Crowley deserves all kinds of awards for being the first to present us as we are with no apology.
The themes of love, truth, self-loathing, friendships and relationships speak to all audiences, gay, straight or what have you. All of this is dealt with in a literate script crafted with wit and humor. “The Boys in the Band” is one of my all time favorites. I have no answer to why that is true as it is probably a combination of many things. The movie helped me to come to terms with who I am and even if it doesn’t answer why I am who I am; it certainly contributed to all of us insofar as being accurately represented.