A group of thirty-something gay men gather to celebrate a birthday, but before long, tensions rise, secrets emerge and the insults begin to fly.
Based on the Broadway hit of the same name, playwright Mart Crowley adapted his own play for the big screen, bringing to the cinema his acerbic speeches and razor-sharp one-liners, realised by the original stage cast including Kenneth Nelson, Peter White and Leonard Frey.
The Boys in the Band is a film that feels at once a relic of its time and fresh and vibrant. It’s perhaps the feeling of stereotyping that may put off modern audiences, but part of stereotyping when it’s done well is the ability to understand and, in cases, relate to characters. This band of men are harsh, caring and jealous, just like anyone else can be, it’s just that they happen to be a band of gay men living their lives in New York.
Much of the film revolves around the group of friends as they celebrate Harold’s birthday whilst he becomes more and more aware that he’s not getting any younger. Meanwhile his friends explore what has kept them going over the years.
The interaction between the friends is the stuff of dramatic familiarity – the characters are a mix of free-spirited, tied down, successful, failing, hopeful and bitter, Crowley covers it all, littering his scenes with palpable reality. We are launched straight into their world as the friends assemble for the birthday party and we find ourselves having to piece together their relationships just as we see them fall apart. Collectively, the cast of characters does what all ensembles should do – form a cohesive unit as different as they are similar.
The film has been subject to controversial analysis over the years for its representation of homosexual men – was it accurate? Was it stereotypical? Was it something in between? It was also the first mainstream film to use the C-word… more than once. The ensemble has been damaged by their pasts and the reasons are, it seems, ones of life and love, as opposed to sexuality. The Boys in the Band avoids a whole “they’re in pain because they’re gay” approach and strides boldly down a part of “they’re in pain because they’re human.” They’re not victims, but they’ve clearly suffered.
Largely set an apartment, there are moments where it does feel like a stage play; lengthy monologues delivered to the audience and the exchanges that are a bit too observed and barbed. It’s a wonderful script, though, giving us a real insight into the characters and the world they inhabit and making good use of the few rooms that make up the living space. The sense of claustrophobia adds to the manic sense of cabin fever as the characters take stock of their lives.
Amongst the bitterness, the friends are brutally honest. The secrets of their past brought forward through party games and alcohol. They live lives of disappointment, no matter how happy they try to be, and their pain is a pain that they share, though you wouldn’t think it from the barbed comments they exchange.
The Boys in the Band is an early example of a catalogue of controversial work from William Friedkin that would include the likes of Cruising, Bug, Killer Joe and The Exorcist, whilst allowing him to appeal to the mainstream with The French Connection. Well respected over the decades, Friedkin may have flirted with the conventional, but did it in his own way.
It’s not a film with happy endings, where the characters realise that they love life and the world they inhabit. It’s a film that will leave you feeling bitter, jaded and perhaps a tad resentful. It is a remarkable drama with exceptional performances that deserves its history of re-evaluation as social norms change.
Initially released in 1970 at the cinemas, The Boys in the Band still resonates today and the special edition on BluRay includes features that explore the cultural significance of a play that celebrated its 50th anniversary.
With an insightful commentary that covers the passion project of the director and writer, a conversation that looks at the cultural impact and importance of the film and a multi-part retrospective of the play, its screen adaptation and a forty year look back, there’s plenty of material to keep film fanatics interested and it’s all as well executed as the film. Whether it’s Friedkin and Crowley reminiscing about the film making processes and the challenges of making this film or Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard discussing why the film remains a groundbreaking work, The Boys in the Band’s extras are as vital as the film that they accompany.
Dir: William Friedkin
Scr: Mart Crowley
Cast: Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Frey
Prd: Mart Crowley, Kenneth Utt, Dominick Dunne, Robert Jiras
DOP: Arthur J Ornitz
Runtime: 120 mins
The Boys in the Band is out on BluRay from 11th February 2019