[Film Review] The Boys in the Band (1970)

The Boys in the Band poster

Title: The Boys in the Band
Year: 1970
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Mart Crowley
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Kenneth Nelson
Leonard Frey
Frederick Combs
Cliff Gorman
Laurence Luckinbill
Keith Prentice
Peter White
Reuben Greene
Robert La Tourneaux
Maud Adams
Rating: 7.8/10

The Boys in the Band 1970

A seminal off-broadway-turned-feature-film revolves around a group of gay men in NYC from playwright Mart Crowley, THE BOYS IN THE BAND is undisputedly a trailblazer of American queen cinema reckoning with its time, it is directed by the future Oscar-winning director William Friedkin. Also, extremely unusual for today’s climate, the filmmakers recruit all the play’s original cast, to reprise their roles in this film adaptation, despite that none of them are name actors, the truth is, it is a silver screen debut for most of them.

After a passing montage briefly introduces all of the nine characters before their ultimate convergence in the birthday party (on a trivial note, Friedkin’s previous directorial work is called THE BIRTHDAY PARTY in 1968, based on a Harold Pinter play), the setting almost exclusively locates inside an Upper East Side apartment of our protagonist Michael (Nelson), who is throwing a party to celebrate his friend Harold’s (Frey) 32-year-old b-day with close friends. Hours before the party, he receives a call from his college roommate Alan (White), who has just arrived in NYC from Georgetown and conspicuously emotionally disturbed, and wants to see him in person, triggered by what Alan intends to tell him (which the film slyly refuses to divulge), Michael invites him for a drink in his apartment, hopefully before other guests’ arrival (oops, it is my remiss to not mention that Michael and all his invitees are gay), because Alan is straight, or is he? Maybe Michael has concealed an ulterior motive which needs a vent desperately.

One sure thing is that the trajectory of the story will meander beyond Michael’s plan, guests are routinely arrived, save Harold, who favors a grand entrance just because the birthday boy must show up lastly to hog the spotlight, and it also buys him some time to burnish his bad facial conditions, after all, 32, is not a kind number to a barbed fairy like him. In Crowley’s incisive concoction, each of the characters has his token correspondence with certain stereotype of gay men: Donald (Combs), a simpatico blue-collar type and Bernard (Greene), a sentimental black bookworm; Emory (Gorman), the quintessential effeminate queen and his birthday gift to Harold, Cowboy Tex (La Tourneaux), a simple-minded rough trade jock; then, a couple, Larry (Prentice), a libertine who cannot endorse monogamy and his boyfriend-cum-roommate, Hank (Luckinbill), a closeted married schoolteacher, who is undergoing a divorce, also we have the heterosexual intruder Allen and Harold, the haughty narcissist, finally, what about Michael? A recovering alcoholic with a Roman Catholic upbringing, who is afflicted by an inimical self-hatred of being what he is, which will soon ejaculate venom onto those near him when tensions mount after Alan gatecrashes their flamboyant party.

The first half of the movie mostly dwells in the patio, where an exuberant stream of ceaseless banters and rejoinders tellingly contrives a unique phenomenon among the kind, apparent viciousness is actually an ironic expression of affection among the suppressed culture, it is refreshingly honest to represent such a taunting scenario (particularly through Emory’s unbearable campiness and Harold’s overbearing diva-stance) to perversely edify viewers that why equality matters, since it is all about to tolerate another human being even he/she ostensibly grates your temperament to the core, to accept his/her difference no matter how unpleasant that makes you feel, this is the only key to respect ourselves as a civilized species and therefore, there is a future for us.

After a rambunctious kerfuffle between Emery and Alan, and a sudden downpour forces everyone retreat inside the apartment, which also inaugurate the second half, where Michael abetted by alcohol, proposes a cruel telephone game, to call someone you have been in love with and tell them on the phone if you dare. There is a significant change of tone with Michael becoming increasingly embittered and presumptuous, jovial laughter is ebbing away, conflicts and confrontations emerge and subsequently evolve into psychological torture: nerves fray, wounds are exposed, misunderstandings are elucidated and hopes are dashed, the most egregious part is Michael’s wanton racist sniping aiming to the amiable Bernard, heavy-handed it may seem, it shows Friedkin and Crawley have no scruples about revealing the basest trait of our unwholesome nature to corroborate their standpoint, a stinging thing is that it is still a hot button today after 46 years, and the maddening truth is, none of these arguments and disputes have completely lost their relevance yet.

The ensemble does a commendable job (most of those gay actors would prematurely die of AIDS or AIDS related complications), Cliff Gorman is not gay in real life despite his Emory is incorrigible counter-heterosexual, an outstanding endeavor mixed with declamation and affectation. Leonard Frey, who would be granted an Oscar nomination one year later in Norman Jewison’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971), is a scene-stealer, his portrayal of Harold is something wondrous to witness, noticeably laps up in his sharp-tongued ripostes and snide commentaries, Harold is larger-than-life and also true-to-life on his own terms. Kenneth Nelson, too, is plum in his career-defining role, Michael is a much-layered mixed-bag of contradicting struggles, and under Friedkin’s tutelage, he pledges for utter commitment and comes through as mortifyingly convincing and defiantly self-revealing. The rest of the cast member has their own stint of time to hold the attention, but in a less showier manner. In all fairness, THE BOYS IN THE BAND weathers quite well through the corrosion of time, and instead of being enshrined as a progenitor of films tackle with a tabooed issue, it tells more about one’s true-self in its own dogged honesty on a par with other eminent works, such as Mike Nichols’ WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), that certainly gets a warranty for a much more diverse audience, if they are sentiently receptive enough.

Oscar 1970  The Boys in the Band

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