In 1973, William Friedkin directed The Exorcist and frightened a generation, creating a horror movie classic. Three years earlier, before The French Connection launched Friedkin onto the A-list, he directed The Boys in the Band, an adaptation of an off-Broadway play about a group of gay men at a birthday party. The Boys in the Band is at least as much a horror movie as The Exorcist. Instead of demonic possession, the terror comes from the characters’ palpable hatred for themselves and each other, thinly disguised as friendship. The villain is homosexuality itself and society’s reaction to it, which slowly turn these men into delusional, self-pitying, hateful monsters.
I’m really struggling to figure out what Friedkin and screenwriter (and the original playwright) Mart Crowley wanted audiences to feel about these characters. The only two emotions I can muster up are pity and disgust. Based on the play’s astonishing success – over 1,000 performances off-Broadway starting in 1968 – I have to imagine that its original audience felt something approaching empathy. It must have offered recognition and catharsis for its (presumably) gay audience. Just by being represented on stage at all was novel in the late-1960s. Gay people invented theater (we had to, right?), but even the great gay playwrights of the mid-20th century (Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee) wrote in code and metaphor, afraid or just uninterested in portraying literal gay characters in their work.
In comes Crowley, who, if not Williams’s or Albee’s equal in terms of talent, at least had the courage to put queer characters onstage. The Boys in the Band takes place on Harold’s (Leonard Frey, as the oldest 32-year-old in history) birthday, and Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is throwing a party for him. One by one, we meet the characters: the bickering couple (Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice), the screaming queen (Cliff Gorman), the hot dumb guy (Robert La Tourneaux), the black guy (Reuben Greene), the “straight” guy who randomly shows up (Peter White), and the other guy (Frederick Combs).
The whole thing is as claustrophobic as Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, taking place entirely in Michael’s lavish (two stories and a patio!) Greenwich Village apartment. As the men filter in, they start drinking heavily and hurling insults at each other. I get that groups of friends have their own ways of talking, and this generation of gay men tended to ape the mannerisms and vocal tics of classic Hollywood female movie stars. But all the joy and irony of camp is completely missing, not to mention the wit. Most of the barbs fall flat. These men aren’t cutting, they’re just mean.
The second act of the play, and the last hour of the movie, is comprised completely of each character given the telephone, and Harold daring them to call “the one person they’ve ever loved” and speak to them. They get extra credit if they confess their love to their intended. Almost without exception, these calls are made to some childhood or teenage crush. These are gay men in their thirties, whose social circle consists entirely of other gay men in their thirties, and whose romantic interests – no, their great loves are with boys they wanted to sleep with when they were 15. Except for the one “couple” (Hank & Larry), who make George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like Lucy & Ricky Ricardo, none of these men have any romantic interest in each other. They still only want to fuck straight boys.
Are Crowley and Friedkin blaming the victims, saying that love could be right in front of these characters if they would just accept it? Or are they blaming a society that has traumatized and repressed homosexual love for so many years that there is no hope to have it expressed in any meaningful way. Either way, they paint a dark, tragic picture of gay life in which I struggle to see any hope or humor. There had to be less self-hating, more proactive gay people in New York City in the 1960s. The Stonewall Riots happened the summer before this movie was released. And maybe the audience at the off-Broadway version of The Boys in the Band saw these pathetic characters onstage and said, “This is not us! Society might hate us or ignore us or jail us but the least we can do is try to be compassionate towards each other.”
I’m grasping to try to find good things to say about the movie. I realize I come from the privileged place of being from a generation and a country where the right of marriage equality is practically an inevitability and LGBT people no longer have to hide their feelings from society at large. I came from the last generation of gay people for which coming out as a teenager was the exception rather than the rule. And I do remember being in the closet and how horrible that felt. So I’m trying to imagine feeling one hundred times more horrible than that, having no allies in my own family or community, and no hope for any loving reciprocated romantic relationship. And I’m still having a hard time sympathizing with these characters.
In the post-Stonewall era, it became very fashionable to hate The Boys in the Band and the whole closeted, sissified, Joan Crawford-worshipping gay cultural past. The 1970s were the era of the macho gays. Cowboy boots and leather jackets replaced silk scarves and carnations. The Boys in the Band represented a shameful past that the LGBT community was trying to liberate themselves from, through visibility and through sex. Then came AIDS and queer theory and Ellen and Will & Grace and Prop 8. (Am I skipping anything?) There has been enough distance to look at The Boys In The Band as a cultural artifact, a product of its time, and to grade it on a curve.
I’m not really able to do that – partly because its script is pretty bad, most of its performances two-dimensional, and its structure almost avant-garde in its amateurism. But somehow, it struck a nerve in me. I think it’s because I don’t want this to be our past. I want my gay heroes to be like Allen Ginsberg and Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol and George Cukor; whatever obstacles they faced because of their sexuality, they faced with creation and defiance and art. They might have hated and hidden their sexuality to some degree or another, but they tempered their destructive impulses with love and beauty and a curiosity about the world.
The men in The Boys in the Band don’t contribute anything to society. They’re not extraordinary in any way. They are mediocre people and because they are gay, they cannot simply be mediocre like the other 90% of the world. They have to be as vicious and pitiful and as repulsive as straight society thinks they are. And it saddens me that this is the most well-known gay cultural artifact from this time, and that this is the play that was made into a movie seen by a straight audience who had never seen openly gay characters onscreen before, and it reinforced every terrible thing the world taught them about gay men and how they live.
I can’t imagine how bad life would have been for people like the characters in The Boys in the Band. I will never know how bad it really was. I hope that if I were born in 1941 instead of 1981 I would have figured something out, in order to live with a sense of self-worth and happiness and peace. But I guess I’ll never know.
— Bryan Rucker