I found Netflix’s new film version of this landmark 1968 gay play nearly unwatchable, even though it features the same starry nine-member cast (Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer et al), creative team (director Joe Mantello, producer Ryan Murphy) and venomous quips (by the late playwright Mart Crowley) as the 2018 Broadway production, which I found fabulous.
How can this be? Having been lucky enough to see “The Boys in the Band” on Broadway, I know what the movie is missing. If the Netflix film was clearly put together pre-pandemic – there is not a trace of Zooming or social distancing – we’ve all been forced to take a crash course over the past six months on the difference between what works on stage and what works on screen.
The movie, like the play, takes place almost entirely in the duplex Manhattan apartment of Michael (Parsons) as he throws a 32nd birthday party for Harold (Quinto) that turns vicious thanks to a surprise guest and a drunken party game.
But the director has “opened up” the play for the first five minutes and the last five minutes, and a few odd and awkward dreamlike flashbacks in-between. The film (whose two hour running time is at least ten minutes longer than the Broadway production) begins with an extreme close-up of Harold, lighting a joint and putting on the song “Hold On I’m Coming” by the 60s R&B duo Sam and Dave on his turntable. Then, as the song plays on the soundtrack, we are introduced to each of the characters in motion right before they arrive at the party: Matt Bomer as Donald speeding over the bridge in a little white sports car; Michael shopping; Charlie Carver as Cowboy, the 22-year-old hustler, lounging in front of a porno store; Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard leaving the library where he apparently works and then riding a crowded subway while he ogles a handsome commuter, which annoys an older woman, who gives him a disapproving look; Andrew Rannells as Larry cruising on the streets of Greenwich Village and bringing a conquest to Julius’, the oldest gay bar in the Village, until he’s spotted by his lover Hank (Tuc Watkins), and the couple go into a cab, where they pick up their friend Emory (Robin De Jesus) who has gotten nothing but dirty looks from passersby as he goes about his various chores. The montage swiftly and unsubtly establishes the time, the place and much of what we ever learn about most of the stereotypical characters.
Opening up in this way winds up emphasizing by contrast the stagey nature of much of the characters’ interactions that follows. Several of the characters express themselves in a self-consciously theatrical way, which works better in the larger scale of theatrical setting rather than in close-up. This was driven home by the scene where they start dancing in a chorus line. It is edited in the film in such a way that we’re forced to focus on the steps – a close-up of a swivel hip, then of synchronized feet – rather than of their (and our) enjoyment of what they’re doing.
If the script works at all anymore, it’s in part because the group has found a refuge in their own world – claustrophobic, sure, but sealed from the larger world, which is understood to be inhospitable. This is what makes the sudden unexpected visit of Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s straight roommate from college, feel like such an invasion in the play. In the opened-up movie, Alan’s homophobia just verbalizes all the dirty looks we’ve already seen from the film’s extras. It comes off as overdone and outdated. The by-the-numbers ignorance that spews out of Alan’s mouth makes an audience in 2020 aware of a playwright writing to instruct an audience in 1968. “The Boys in the Band” is not just set in 1968; it’s an artifact from 1968.
That might be clearest in the self-deprecating language.
“If there’s one thing I’m not ready for, it’s … screaming queens singing “Happy Birthday,” Michael says to Donald before the guests arrive. “They’re the same old tired fairies you’ve seen around since the day one…,”
“Are you calling me a screaming queen or a tired fairy?” Donald asks.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Michael replies, “six tired, screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer.”
The profligate use of self-loathing epithets is hardly toned down in the film despite the mass distribution. But the context has changed for me.
As I wrote in my review of the Broadway production, the theater audience can enjoy these characters without (much) cringing because of their palpable – indeed, enviable — camaraderie. And the camaraderie has much to do with two well-publicized facts – 1. that all nine actors who were portraying them are themselves openly gay (as was the director and the producers), and 2. that they were mostly A-list screen stars: Parsons from The Big Bang Theory, Quinto from Star Trek, Bomer from White Collar, etc. It’s these good-looking, successful, popular out gay actors themselves — not just the characters — who seemed to be enjoying each other’s company and, in a way, basking in their liberation, in the realization of how far things have come.
That double-awareness, of actor and character, somehow vanishes when the screen stars are performing on screen, a more literal medium. Now they’re just the characters, and so the viewer is no longer as shielded from the underlying sadness and ugliness and artificiality of the story.