In 1970, William Friedkin adapted The Boys In The Band, Mart Crowley’s controversial but famous play about a circle of closeted gay friends celebrating a birthday party that turns into a night of uncomfortable revelations for the silver screen. Fifty years later, producer Ryan Murphy assembled an all-LGBTQ cast to bring the story to life once again, and the result is an intimate, heartbreaking film anchored by phenomenal performances from everyone involved, and capped off with a stark reminder about the uncertain times in which we currently live.
A private night of celebration amongst a group of gay friends a turns into a night full of tensions and bottled up secrets coming to the surface in the latest film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play.
In the ongoing push for more diversity in the film and television production industries, one of the most recognizable names in the niche of LGBTQ cinema has been producer Ryan Murphy. After first producing the show Popular for The WB network in 1999, Murphy would go on to produce smash hit television shows in a variety of genres for the Fox family of networks, from the musical series Glee and the horror anthology series American Horror Story to the dramas Nip/Tuck and Pose.
In 2017, Murphy signed a lucrative deal with Netflix to develop film and television projects for the streaming giant, but the first handful of said projects, the miniseries Hollywood and the first season of Ratched, have topped Netflix’s weekly top 10 most-streamed movies list upon their release, albeit to divided receptions from critics and audiences. The first narrative film Murphy’s produced under the Netflix banner should be the first to unify both a high streaming count and positive reactions. That film is The Boys In The Band, the second film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play, which sets itself apart from the 1970 film from William Friedkin through brief but dreamy use of flashbacks and powerful dialogue, while boasting tremendous performances from its openly gay ensemble cast.
Taking place in New York City circa-1968, well before the AIDS crisis and just months before the Stonewall riots, The Boys In The Band stars Jim Parsons as Michael, an alcoholic gay man putting together and hosting a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto), while venting about his hairline and getting older to his friend and occasional lover Donald (Matt Bomer). The night of the party rolls around with a handful of guests which include the effeminate Emory (Robin de Jesus), his African-American lover Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), incessant partyer Larry (Andrew Rannells), his new flame Hank (Tuc Watkins) and Western-themed escort Cowboy (Charlie Carter).
Everyone is having a wonderful time dancing and trading sarcastic barbs until a straight man from Michael’s past named Alan (Brian Hutchison) suddenly drops in wanting to talk to Michael privately, causing the party’s flamboyant, high-energy to crash into awkward small talk and hurtful insults; forcing the guests to confront the personification of their societal oppressor. From there, the party devolves into a night of hidden truths getting out in the open and secret feelings that are finally spoken among the circle of friends.
Like the 1970 film, the strongest elements of The Boys In The Band are the performances from its ensemble cast, all of whom director Joe Mantello lifted right from his recent revival of the Broadway play to the silver screen. Each actor has phenomenal chemistry with each other, and it’s easy to witness as they deliver each friendly jab and savage putdown with infectious charisma and incendiary power. After twelve seasons as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, Parsons takes a tremendous dramatic turn in his career as Michael, doing so by displaying impeccable range, whether it’s in scenes where he tells stories of times when he’s had, in his words, ‘Christ-was-I-drunk-last-night syndrome’, or struggling to hold back tears when he demands Alan not to call him by a private name.
The rest of the cast around Parsons pulls their weight as well, most notably de Jesus as Emory, who in a pivotal moment, recalls a past lover with affectionate longing that turns to heartbreaking sadness that’s subtly gradual thanks to the powerful nuances he brings to what should be his breakout performance. Meanwhile, as director, Mantello translates The Boys In The Band from stage to screen very well through solid storytelling. The soundtrack is full of high-energy hits from the time period for the cast to dance to, but the lyrics of Herb Alpert’s ballad “This Guy’s In Love With You” underscore the gang’s slow dance on the balcony while Alan watches from the far background, further conveying their inner need for emotional support and community as the larger, straight society shuns them.
Mantello also tells Crowley’s story visually through flashbacks that are sporadic and brief, but nevertheless dreamy and effective when the gang recalls past flings in the film’s second half. Meanwhile, a motif of mirrors serves as an intimate window into Michael’s own self-loathing, such as when his look in a makeup mirror while he prepares for the night ahead displays a man struggling to look at himself without crying.
In addition to being delivered with pitch-perfect timing by its cast, the dialogue of The Boys In The Band is beautifully written with imagery that paints a wistful if melancholy picture as the gang reflects on the past together in a game that risks the privacy of their sexuality. The script also makes authentic use of gay slang used within the LGBTQ community at the time, although, in the first act, a lot of it is delivered at such a fast pace and cadence, that it’s difficult for audiences outside the subculture to decipher what’s been said, save for moments where Emory takes the time to explain select phrases to another character, although those bits are few and far between.
Those open-minded will be quick to pick up on their slang as it goes along, however, and while The Boys In The Band does take a turn for the depressing in the second half, it’s always compelling thanks to the strength of the cast, and the truthful power of its screenplay. It’s been debated whether or not the story holds up over fifty years after its first performance off-Broadway, but at this moment in time where minorities of all types face oppression that’s more horrifying than ever, this critic would argue this adaptation makes the story more relevant than ever, because on its own, it serves as a stark reminder that there are as many people of all races, genders and sexes internally suffering like Michael right now as there were back then, and this film suggests that the one way to treat it is to find them and show them love and acceptance. The Boys In The Band is a revealing look at the private lives of LGBTQ men, an intimate window into a moment where homosexuals were closeted by the society of its time period, and an adaptation that’s worth your time and attention.