Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Boys are Back in Vogue?

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.  

Kenneth Nelson

Leonard Frey

Peter White
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.  

Cliff Gorman
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


William said...

Gotta say this -- God, I hope "the boys" are NOT back in vogue.

I mean, "show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse!"??

I've seen the film more than once over the years, and while I think it's very well-acted, that's about all I think of it. [Ok, there's some good dialogue in the play: "one thing you have to say for masturbation -- you don't have to look your best," for instance.] Years ago I had a one-night-stand with one of the actors in the film [it wasn't anyone openly gay and you'd be very surprised who it was, but I ain't telling] and even he felt the film was dated at the time of its release.

Just generalizing -- nothing personal meant here, please be assured of that -- but I've always thought that how you felt about "Boys in the Band" depended on self-worth. Let's face it, an Out and Proud gay man is much less likely to enjoy or get behind the movie as one who has issues, for whatever reasons, with one's homosexuality. I'm not saying this to be offensive, nor am I saying that this applies to you or anyone in particular, but I just can't see any other conclusion.

I came out at a slightly later period than the film, but I saw much support among gay men -- especially later during the AIDS crisis -- as well as many loving, long-term couples decades before there was gay marriage. I swear this isn't just political correctness; "The Boys in the Band" simply did not seem like "truth" to me -- not at all. Stereotypes and cliches, yes; truth, no. I guess all I can say is that my reality/experience is very different from yours. The gay men I met were not like the gay men in the movie, not in terms of attitude.

Were there some recognizable types in the film? Yes, although Emory (despite the actor's good performance) was way, way over the top. I'm sorry -- I've met some "queens" in my day, but nobody quite like Emory!

Even back in those days there were many gay men who simply were not full of self-hatred. Sure, they existed, but even if they were in the majority in those days -- and even that's debatable -- they seem like dinosaurs today. There have always been and always will be gay men who are full of self-hatred, but they are far outnumbered today by the Out and Proud, especially when you're talking about the younger generation. Gay Pride has made a big, big difference in attitudes.

It's good that the diversity of gay men can be celebrated, although I have to admit that the whole "queeny" stereotype seems not only overdone but rather dated in these days of, say, the bear community. (I tend to think that drag is rather passe as well.) We're at last learning that gay men come in all shapes and sizes, and most gay men don't fit the stereotype, although those that do should not be put down for it [as long as they also recognize that same diversity]. We have to remember that gay men have had to struggle for decades to be taken seriously as MEN.

My biggest complain about the movie isn't so much the lack of "truth" about the various types, but the whole completely and distinctly negative and horribly dated attitude about homosexuality itself.

[Do you get the feeling I really don't like this movie?]

Anyway, I thought that, as usual, you put together a very interesting and obviously thought-provoking essay. I think we should agree to disagree and just respect each other's differences.

In the meantime, don't get me started on "Cruising," LOL!

angelman66 said...

Hi William - don't hold back, tell me how you really feel! LOL, seriously though, I appreciate your very visceral response. It is shared by many in our community, to be sure. Perhaps the title of my post is NOT accurate, after all...

I actually have met quite a few Emorys in my day...these were guys who were bullied and bashed because of their effeminacy...I thought Crowley captured/handled this quite well in the play. And as for closeted and self-hating gay people, I have met many of them as well, not just in the past but up to the present day. And I can personally relate to many of the issues raised regarding self esteem, looks and aging, monogamy, etc. Maybe that's why it resonates with me.

I do agree that in a post-drag, post-cliche world, Boys in the Band is a period piece, but a historical record of how things were for some people at one time...and your point is well taken that ignorant folks who make broad generalizations about "who we are" as gay people will point to a piece like this in an attempt to dehumanize us. I truly do understand your point.

Why do I love it? It's wittily written, hits me emotionally in a few personal ways, and was for me the first time I had ever seen homosexuality openly discussed on film. And I do think the actors are uniformly terrific in their roles.

I won't ask you WHICH actor you knew in the biblical sense...but I would not be surprised about any of them. As someone who worked in the theater for many years, I learned long ago that sexuality and labels do not apply to artists; I actually believe all actors (and maybe most humans) have bisexual tendencies...maybe they need to, in order to do their work of capturing the human condition...

William, as always, I appreciate your comments and your viewpoint. And no, I am not a fan of Cruising either, so you won't see that reviewed here on my blog. We can totally agree on that!


angelman66 said...

And William, in light of your thought-provoking comments, I have added a question mark to the title of this blogpost! Thanks again. Chat soon!

William said...

Thanks for the "?" on the title of the post!

I think most of the actors in the movie were gay in real life with, I believe, one or two exceptions. I don't know if all actors are bisexual [in reality, at least, as opposed to behavior] but it's certainly a fascinating theory! [I'm not always politically correct when it comes to that subject, thinking the whole business of bisexuality can be confused and overdone, but as usual I digress.] I suppose Charles Bronson could have had a boyfriend on the side if Charles Laughton had a wife, though I don't think even Elsa herself thought he was anything but gay, LOL!

Funny how I just hate "Boys" but can tolerate "The Children's Hour" despite it also having dated aspects. Perhaps because there are other things going on in the movie aside from homosexuality [which may be how you feel about "Boys," but it does seem to focus almost exclusively on gay stuff]. I didn't like "The Sergeant" but it didn't bother me half as much as "Boys." Maybe because "Boys" seems to encapsulate everything that's negative about gay people and there's hardly any relief.

Anyway, as you can tell I never have any opinions! Seriously thanks for reading and thanks for writing. Your posts are always well done! Bill

angelman66 said...

Cheers, Bill, I love that we both share a passion for movies! I also like The Children's Hour, for the great chemistry between MacLaine and Hepburn, but not for the dishonest, sanitized script...and I must check out The Sergeant. Thanks!

Ken Anderson said...

What a great conversation about a still-controversial film!
I saw "Boys in the Band" at The Castro Theater in SF when I was still an adolescent (14 or 15) and even then the film seemed like a mixed bag.

I tend to love movies built around heated personal confrontations, but "Boys in the Band" embarrassed me.
It was nice seeing gay character given visibility in the film, but it has always struck me like a well-intentioned straight person's view of gays (even though it was written by a gay man).
Like movies whites make about African-Americans that are supposed to by sympathetic, but reduce real people to safe, comforting stereotypes (most often the selfless saint, or simplistic, childlike victim of society). "The Boys in the Band" seems to want to say, "You shouldn't hate gays....they hate themselves enough. Their lot in life is a sad, pitiable one on the fringes of normality. They are more to be pitied then censured."
A point of view< I might add, that could have worked were there even the slightest bit of affection shown towards the characters by the director.
Robert Altman (to me) often gets away with seemingly ridiculous characters like Shelley Duvall in "3 Women" or the delusional waitress in "Nashville" because I always get a feeling there is a small bit of affection he has for their sad but valiant attempts to hold onto their humanity.
I never get a feeling Friedkin actually likes any of the characters. He may feel sorry for them, and expresses a "trip to the circus" interest and curiosity in exploring their lives...but the movie fails not because of the stereotypes (they're not THAT stereotypical), but because of no real feeling for these people.

So, it's never been a favorite of mine, but it's always been a film I enjoyed talking to people about.

I'm always surprised when I hear gays express that self-loathing is less in gay culture today. It's better disguised, but it's still there. I spent my adult years in the dance world, where you'd think homosexuality was more a less a non-issue, but the amount of closeted gays, "professional bisexuals" (guys like Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Herbert Ross) and out and out delusional gays is startlingly high.
Self-acceptance is still an issue, and that makes the failings of "The Boys in the band" all the more troublesome, because it really had an opportunity to be something.

Have you ever seen the film "Some of My Best friends Are?" from 1971?
It's streaming on Amazon, and although it has it's faults, I think it is a more compassionate depiction of gay life, yet it still doesn't shy away from the hard truths.

Thanks for shedding light on this film, and your relatively positive response to it was a refreshing perspective to read. Representation in cinema is always such a hot-button topic, but without anyone's opinion being more "right" than another, I love hearing how a film like this strikes different people. Even after so many years!
Great post and wonderful commentary! Thanks, Chris!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - thanks so much for visiting, and your observations! I agree that the main theme of Boys is self-loathing and doubt about it. I love when Michael says, "If only we didn't hate ourselves quite so much," and you know it is really Mart Crowley himself talking there. But I feel the same is true of other great works of stage and screen. I feel Virginia Woolf is about exactly the same thing, and A Streetcar Named Desire too.

Now, I am not putting Boys in the Band on that level exactly, for some of the reasons you mention--the characters are "types" which means stereotypes, though the actors breathe beautiful life into them; and there is not the moment of transformation/transmutation that leaves an audience feeling uplifted or expanded (though I do believe that it opened a door and was a cultural catalyst).

I agree with you that Friedkin is a dispassionate director...on ALL his films; The Exorcist is particularly cold and clinical, wouldn't you agree? But it gives a voyeuristic bent to every film he makes...we are peeping in where we shouldn't be...and that is appealing to me.

Again, I was really surprised that this film can elicit such strong reactions after all these years. To me, that suggests there is a real potency to it...a bitter pill, perhaps, but from my viewpoint this was a fascinating starting point to a movement and a struggle that is still far from settled--which is why I put the question mark on my post title...

Looking forward to checking out Some of My Best Friends Are on Amazon; I'm eager to see it!

Ken, I am so delighted and honored that you stopped by to comment. It feels we are all sitting in each other's living rooms, having cocktails after one of us screens their favorite films. God bless the Internet where we can enjoy these virtual salons!