Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Boys in the Band (1970)

The problem with a film like The Boys in the Band, William Friedkin's film adaptation of Mart Crowley's hit off-Broadway play about a birthday party of New York City gay men, is that it looks different depending not only on which political stance you take but what year you're looking at it from. It was gay men, after all, who lined up to see it; it was likewise gay activists who railed against it for years because it traffics in every stereotype known to 70's homosexuality: promiscuity, effeminacy, self-hatred, self-medication, and a tendency for every conversation to be about being gay. Revival in the 90's implies that it has been rehabilitated somewhat, but I actually picked it up because of its prominence in the book and documentary The Celluloid Closet which holds it up as an example of how not to portray homosexual characters.

The truth, for me, is a little more complicated. Crowley, a gay man, wrote this script based on his own experiences and dedicated it to two of his friends who inspired characters in the play. The main character, bitter drunk Michael, is admittedly based on him—a very unflattering self-portrait. So an argument can be made, and I think it's a valid one, that the stereotypes exist for a reason, and that what's wrong with The Boys in the Band is not that it's inaccurate in its portrayal of these gay men, but that in 1970 it was the only Hollywood portrayal, not to be remedied for some time, if it has been at all.

As a film, it betrays its roots on the stage in the dialogue and the fact the action mostly takes place in Michael's apartment. But Friedkin is clever enough in his directing that it doesn't look or feel like a play, just sounds like one. The acting is mostly enjoyable as well, and it's refreshing that all of the characters were played by the actors who created them in New York and don't look like movie stars. Some of the stereotypes are, in fact, uncomfortable to watch. But at the same time, they're a sort of historical document, even if they cannot and should not be taken to speak for the entire homosexual experience, in 1970 or any other time. While a great deal of the plot and conversation is about their homosexual experience, it's still a play about specific people with problems many can relate to. The kind of vitriolic self-hatred displayed in the film would be uncomfortable in any context. In the end, I think the The Boys in the Band is neither as bad as its detractors suggest nor amazing on its own merits. Absent its political baggage, it's a decent film, no more nor less. At this point, going on forty years later, it stands as entertaining but primarily of interest to those curious about the portrayal of homosexuality in cinema. In which context, it is indeed a landmark, of sorts, even if no other filmmakers seemed to want to follow it at the time.

And it's not nearly as offensive as Friedkin's 1980 film about gay culture, Cruising.

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