The fight for marriage equality is all but won as of 2015. Gay rights are now seen by the majority of the world for what they are, human rights. Gay is OK. But just a few short decades ago, the subject of homosexuality was taboo, and honest portrayals of gay people in theater and film simply did not exist. Until The Boys in the Band.
Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play was made into a film in 1970 and starred all the actors from its original 1968 stage production. Produced more than a year before the historic Stonewall riots, where a group of bar patrons banded together against police brutality and started the movement for equality, the play provided unprecedented visibility to the contemporary gay experience. Though leavened by its memorably caustic wit and humor, Crowley’s work revealed the loneliness and isolation of the gay lifestyle, and underlined the lack of emotional support available to gay men among members of their own “tribe.”
|A rare moment of camaraderie|
In the intervening years between Stonewall and the present day, the reputation of The Boys in the Band suffered a backlash by the gay community itself. Perhaps fearing that Crowley’s brutally honest storytelling would forever brand gay people as pathetic, promiscuous, unlovable freaks of nature, downright scary to the rest of society, many shunned this seminal work for its negative portrayal of gay life.
Beneath its razor-sharp wit and self-deprecating humor, The Boys in the Band is a searing and often heartbreaking exposé of urban gay life. When a group of friends converge for Harold’s birthday party at Michael’s downtown apartment, high drama ensues. With a nod to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Albee was among one of several “angels” who helped Crowley along the way), the centerpiece of the story is a terrifying party game in which the participants are dared to phone and reveal their feelings to the one person they have loved.
|Natalie Wood and Mart Crowley|
It was the play Mart Crowley was born to write. After failed forays into writing for film and television (authoring a campy TV pilot starring Bette Davis as an interior decorator!), Crowley had been working as a personal assistant to movie star Natalie Wood when he wrote the first draft of a groundbreaking and controversial new play. Championed by Wood and her second husband, attorney Richard Gregson (who came between her first and third marriages to RJ Wagner and is the father of actress Natasha Gregson Wagner), the play found its way into the right hands. Edward Albee helped arrange the play’s first workshop, which led to a successful Off-Broadway production that ran for more than 1,000 performances.
In a rare example of artistic integrity winning out over the financial concerns of the “business of show,” Crowley refused to sell his property to Hollywood unless the entire original Broadway cast reprised their roles. Incredibly, Crowley prevailed, and the film version has forever preserved the brilliant ensemble’s now iconic characterizations.
|Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Michael (Kenneth Nelson)|
Crowley later wrote a sequel, The Men from the Boys, became a writer and executive producer on Robert Wagner’s series Hart to Hart, and wrote the teleplay for There Must Be a Pony starring Elizabeth Taylor as a fading movie star attempting a comeback. But Boys in the Band is his masterpiece, and the 1970 film has captured it in perpetuity.
Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist), the only artistic collaborator not a part of the original stage production, brings a cinematic approach to what could have ended up as merely a filmed stage play. His opening sequence captures the energy of New York and offers brief, telling glimpses into the main character’s lives. Though the rest of the action takes place in one setting—various rooms and the terrace of Michael’s apartment—Friedkin’s artful choreography and blocking and masterful use of the camera help drive the story, following and tracking the actors’ movements, darting in and out of the action for two shots, three-shots and close-ups.
|Harold (Leonard Frey) and the Cowboy (Robert La Torneaux)|
Wisely, though, Friedkin creates an atmosphere that allows the actors to shine. The all-male cast (save for a fleeting glimpse of future Bond girl Maud Adams in an unbilled bit as one of fashion photographer Larry’s models) is uniformly astonishing, bringing to life just about every archetype in the gay pantheon.
Kenneth Nelson is unforgettable as the high-strung host Michael, who shops obsessively, frets about his thinning hair and becomes a frighteningly mean drunk when he falls off the wagon early in the proceedings. Leonard Frey is hilariously caustic as neurotic guest of honor Harold, who has issues of his own, struggling with weight, food, acne and being Jewish.
The question of monogamy versus promiscuity is explored through the relationship of schoolteacher Hank and photographer Larry, played memorably by Laurence Luckinbill (longtime husband of Lucie Arnaz) and Keith Prentice. Reuben Greene is quietly affecting as Bernard, who struggles valiantly with the double whammy of being gay and black in a world that is slow to accept either. Frederick Combs underplays admirably as Donald, Michael’s compassionate friend and confidante.
Peter White (familiar to longtime watchers of the ABC soap All My Children) perfectly captures the sexual ambiguity of Alan, the unexpected guest who serves as catalyst to Michael’s alcoholic breakdown. Robert La Tourneaux is charming and amusing as the guileless male escort who serves as Harold’s birthday present.
|Bernard (Reuben Greene), Emory (Cliff Gorman) and Hank (Laurence Luckinbill)|
|Michael and Donald (Frederick Combs)|
Cliff Gorman triumphs in the role of the flagrantly effeminate Emory, the outrageously campy queen who cooks up a storm and longs for domestic bliss but can’t find a man except in the dark caverns of the baths.
To some gay audiences of the time, the character of Emory was as cringe-worthy a stereotype as Uncle Tom and Stepin Fetchit have been to the black community, but through Emory, Crowley makes a strong statement about the gay world’s own caste-and-class system. If you appear to be masculine, the unwritten rule goes, you can sleep with men, as long as you blend in with the mainstream. Hide your fabulousness under a bushel if you want to maintain your dignity as a human being. Effeminacy is the self-hating gay world’s ugly little secret...and only in very recent years has gender-fluid self-expression become more socially acceptable. Today, in viewing Boys in the Band, Emory comes off the strongest and most courageous character in the film.
But the LGBT community, hyper-vigilant and hyper-aware of how they were being portrayed in films, theater and television, turned their back on Boys for many years. (Interestingly, 10 years later Friedkin directed the even more controversial film Cruising, similarly accused of using gay life to perpetuate negative stereotypes.) Indeed, mainstream entertainment of the past tended to portray gays as either victims or villains, rather than fully developed characters. But in light of the tremendous progress the equality movement has made, the years have been kinder to The Boys in the Band, and I hope it now can enjoy its rightful place in the history of gay film. It is after all, a moving story about people—and Mart Crowley’s complex characters are flawed, fascinating and endearingly human.
|Luckinbill, Greene, Frey, Prentice, Combs, Gorman, Nelson, White and La Torneaux|