A month out from the highest-stakes election of our lifetimes and with no end in sight to an ongoing global pandemic, now seems like a good time to ask ourselves (with apologies to the late Mart Crowley for the paraphrase), “Who are we?”, “Who were we?”, and “Who do we hope to be?”
LGBTQ+ viewers have a chance to do exactly that, thanks to a hotly anticipated Netflix offering that revisits a cultural touchstone from our past.
Reasserting once more its position as a heavy-hitter in the effort to bring LGBTQ stories to mainstream screens, the streaming giant’s Ryan Murphy-produced remake/reinterpretation of “The Boys in the Band” is guaranteed buzz by pedigree alone. Slick and star-studded, it brings the aforementioned Mr. Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play – by way of director Joe Mantello’s Tony-winning 2018 Broadway production, with cast intact – from stage to screen with an eye toward conveying the historical context in which this once-maligned slice-of-gay-life drama was written and takes place. For those who need a recap, “Boys” takes place in the apartment of Michael, a young-ish gay man in New York, as he throws a birthday party for his friend Harold. As the guests gather and the alcohol flows, their witty banter begins to turn bitter, with secrets, resentments, and fears bubbling to the surface – along with the deep self-loathing that comes from living as a gay man in a world that hates gay men simply for daring to exist.
In 1968, it was a bold but bleak expression of queerness, coming on the cusp of a historical breakthrough that would happen a year later at Stonewall. In 2020, it’s still pretty bleak, depicting a subculture full of damaged men tormented by a culturally induced dysfunction for which most of them still had no language to describe, but which we can now easily recognize as internalized homophobia. Borrowing from the then-and-still-influential palette of dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee (both gay men, incidentally), its acidic humor and near-tragic psychodrama emerge from the memories and experiences shared by nine such men over the course of their evening, revealing the trauma that dominates all of their lives just beneath the brittle psychic armor with which they both shield and conceal themselves.
Inevitably, as the march toward Equality progressed through the 1970s and ‘80s, the characters of Crowley’s gay opus came to be seen as inconvenient, at best, and insulting, at worst. Derided as stereotypes reflecting straight expectations of normalcy, they were viewed by many within the movement as dated relics best swept aside and relegated to the dustbin of history, along with the play they inhabited. Looking back, it’s perhaps easy to see why. Forged in the middle of the fire, it’s a piece devoid of sentimentality, a kitchen sink slice of realism that lays bare the ugliness of its characters’ attitudes and behaviors and leaves it up to the audience to see through the unpleasant surfaces they present. Viewed today, despite the critical reassessment that allowed it to reclaim its rightful place as an important piece of LGBTQ+ history and ultimately led to Mantello’s hit remount, it’s still an undeniably harsh trip down a memory lane that most of us would rather forget.
Thanks to historical hindsight, though, the new film manages to find the perspective necessary to make it not only possible to give “Boys” another look, but to make it worth the effort. Driven by Mantello’s sensitive direction, the script reveals layers of subtext that may have been previously obscured for many viewers. Mantello steers his gifted dream cast with an eye toward illuminating the lines between cause and effect that make these characters tick, and while purists may quibble over efforts to cast a rosier tint over the play’s message, his spot-on instincts walk the delicate line between apologist gloss and humanistic compassion without significant missteps.
In this vision of the play, for instance, it’s possible to recognize the deep hurt that is behind Michael’s devolution into viciousness; a man for whom anxiety is such a constant companion that he’s given it a nickname (“Ix”) and who clings to the cold comfort of his Catholic faith in the hope of being redeemed for the sin of simply being who he is, it’s hard to lose sympathy for him – even at his cruelest – when the pain that fuels both these things and more is laid so bare before us. In the same way, the other problematic behaviors on display throughout – almost all of which can now be understood as symptoms of a disease in which those within a community stigmatized for its “otherness” turn against themselves and each other because they are powerless to strike back against their oppressors – evoke our empathy more than our distaste.
The talent of the players bolsters this effect immeasurably. Jim Parsons may be a bit of an acquired taste, for some, but the quirks of his persona and delivery fit like a glove on Michael, whose efforts to conceal his pain only reveal it at a level beyond words. Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins (as Larry and Hank) cut through the passive-aggressive vagueness of their characters to make them instantly recognizable and understandable as a couple grappling with the difficulties of an open relationship; Matt Bomer (Donald) once more proves he has much more to offer than his beauty, as does Charlie Carver as the fresh-off-meat-rack hustler hired as a birthday present. The authenticity of Robin de Jesus and Michael Benjamin Washington (Emory and Bernard) breathes thrilling life into roles that have sometimes been criticized for “tokenism,” and even the somewhat thankless character of Alan comes off honorably through Brian Hutchinson’s performance. It’s Zachary Quinto, though, as “ugly, pockmarked, Jew fairy” Harold, who claims his place as the “heart” of the piece; in his magisterial performance, he manages to find not just the hard-earned wisdom of Harold, but also the kindness that lies beneath his surgically precise knack for finding the weaknesses of whichever sparring partner he happens to be up against at the time.
With Ryan Murphy as the force behind the new film, it should go without saying that it’s a matter of taste. Like all of Murphy’s productions, it is heavy on the style and glitz; the costuming and scenic designs have that too-perfect aptness to them that often undermines the authenticity of big-budget period pieces, and there’s the predictable but questionable inclusion of “flashbacks” and full-frontal nudity that make for a more visually stimulating experience but seem gratuitous in a piece that is otherwise so true to its theatrical origins. These are all fair points.
In the end, however, these surface trappings are irrelevant to the strength and dignity of the play; that, in the hands of Mantello and his talented cast, are preserved in full. Their efforts remind us that these characters are not stereotypes, but archetypes, emblematic representations arising from a life lived in permanent fight-or-flight mode – and it’s sobering to recognize that, even 50 years later, we can all look at our circle of friends and recognize each and every one of them.
That alone makes it clear that “Boys” has still not outlived the importance of the message it carries.