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‘The Boys in the Band’: A Queer History Lesson With Plenty of Shade

The new movie adaptation, from director Joe Mantello and producer Ryan Murphy, is packed with openly gay Hollywood stars reprising their Broadway roles

Jim Parsons as Michael and Matt Bomer as Donald in 'The Boys in the Band'.

Scott Everett White/Netflix

The Boys in the Banddirected by Joe Mantello and produced by, among others, Ryan Murphy — isn’t always good, but it’s a good time. The project is a tough prospect, in some ways. The movie adapts Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play, an Upper East Side drama whose characters are entirely comprised of gay men, men whose desires and conflicts and forms of expression are inherently their own — whose lives and complications, fully on display here, had up until to that point usually been relegated to the background, if they were ever told at all.

That’s the explicit meaning by the title, in fact, which is, appropriately, a quote from an iconic Judy Garland movie: A Star is Born (1954). “You’re singing for yourself and the boys in the band,” as James Mason put it to Garland’s struggling starlet, and as Crowley’s play — loyally adapted here with glossiness and occasionally even some style — puts it to us now. It’s a winking, coded line in the first place, immediately recognizable, to the people who’ve known how to hear it, as a bit of truth about the actress herself. It is also, accordingly, complicated. The boys in the band, the lives those men lead, necessarily take a back seat to the star — in this case, a star who in many ways represented America’s most wholesome image of itself. But it’s Judy Garland we’re talking about: a gay icon who knew her true audience. Who knew that those boys weren’t mere shadows, but rather real people — people who’d sustained and been sustained by her, and do so still. 

It’s a poignant idea, and the new Boys in the Band, which is now streaming on Netflix, doesn’t lose sight of that poignancy. The movie is in some ways an update on William Friedkin’s 1970 movie adaptation of Crowley’s play, a production notable in movie history for the same reasons that the play was notable in 1968 — and equally vexed, to boot. Suffice it to say that 2020 isn’t 1968, and that Crowley’s original material has in many ways succumbed to its age. Its wrinkled outdatedness shows even still, even with an aware and alert production team doing what it can to smooth over some of the touchy edges — its uncomfortable handling of race, for example — with a bit of script-doctored Botox.

Mantello and Murphy’s new take proves an interesting effort nonetheless. It was previously a hit 2018 Broadway revival that won a Tony. The cast assembled there has been reassembled here. Brian Hutchison, Tuc Watkins, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, and Michael Benjamin Washington — quite a nice lineup — are the meat of the ensemble. Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons — playing Michael and Harold, respectively — are the leads. All of these men are openly gay and the pronounced lack of hetero talent on this cast list — in an era in which the industry still seems to prefer straight people playing queer to queer people playing themselves — feels like a political pronouncement. Gay men playing gay men in a bit of studio-brand pop entertainment: shouldn’t feel rare, shouldn’t be worthy of remark, yet here we are.

And here they are: Manhattan in 1968, drinking and making eyes, throwing shade, picking scabs, licking wounds. The setting is Michael’s worldly, well-ordered apartment. The occasion: Harold’s [redacted, as he’d likely prefer] birthday — a happy, or at least happy-ish, reason to throw a get-together. But one immediately senses the rifts. You throw a crew that’s this variegated, talkative, and emotionally stunted into a room with too much liquor and too many wells of insecurity tumbling about and you’re certain to have fun drama, at the very least. 

And that’s what this new Boys leans into at its best. Just look at all the differences between these men. The Boys in the Band has always felt like it was making up for lost time, which is to say, it has always seemed engineered, in crabs-in-a-bucket fashion, to do a little too much. For understandable reasons. Every man here is an archetype, and in the nature of archetypes, they feel representative of some broader whole. They range from bisexual and masculine, even married, to fully here and obviously queer. They’re poor and well-off, educated and not, sex workers and penguin-suit social compliers. Most of them are white; memorably, in this version, two characters — Emory (de Jesús) and Bernard (Washington) — are Latinx and Black, respectively. That doesn’t account for the totalizing range of everything a gay man can be, not even in the repressive 1960s, but you get the point: Crowley was hitting his marks, to varying success.

The same can be said of this movie. The straight-laced, straight-acting Hank (Watkins) and the freer and accordingly frustrated Larry (Rannells) are the movie’s odd couple, and in a way its thematic bridge between the men comfortable in their own skin and the ones who are in some ways still in the dark about themselves. Usefully, sexuality isn’t the only axis of this divide. Emory and Bernard couldn’t find the closet door if they tried, and bless them for that, but on the subjects of race and class and awkward triage of their multiple, marginal identities, their pain proves a bit more prominent. Harold’s self-esteem can be summed up in what we learn about his eating habits, to say nothing of the sourpuss expression on his face when he shows up at a birthday party in his honor. Michael, the host — and, really, the diva and tempest — turns tricks. But all it takes is the unexpected arrival of his old college roommate, the straight, married Alan (Hutchison), to set loose Michael’s old self-hatred. He grew up in the church, you see. And he hasn’t told Alan, yet, about the gay thing.

Alan has his own secrets, of course — you’ll never guess what. And on and on from there. Boys hits hardest when it trains its focus on the tensions between particular pairs of these men, and the histories — in some cases possibilities — being stirred up between them. There’s nothing like catching shade from someone who’s been sweeping up dirt over the years, and when you have so many characters confined to one place, for the most part one room, and so many criss-crossing avenues of relation, all that friction is sure to generate good heat. Unlike many stage-to-screen adaptations, it isn’t even really a problem that the movie makes little effort to do what Broadway can’t and get out a little. It is very much to the drama’s point that this collective of men can only behave like this, so freely, in a space of their own. And there’s something to be said for a pressure cooker. But the real pressures are beyond those walls, of course. At one point someone opens the door to the apartment and we get a glimpse of the world outside, or, rather, the people outside look in — and everything stops cold. 

Here and elsewhere, the strings are frequently showing, not always to the movie’s detriment. It would be difficult for a movie so situational and actor-forward not to feel a little contrived, its action a little harried with so much ground to cover. Certain emotional beats — among them, a few of Michael’s interactions with Alan — feel logical as writing but underwhelming as drama. The movie gets more interesting, by way of a shady, even cruel party game Michael designs — to prove a point, no doubt. It’s in part a mechanism to get us to hear from these men as individuals and, as crutches go, it’s effective.

But Michael’s inner life feels too easily sketched for choices like these to pull the punches the movie wants them to pull. It’s a petty move that he makes, to be sure, and pettiness doesn’t need to be complicated. Michael’s is, however. And Parsons doesn’t quite nail it. It always feels like an approximation of a good performance, like a photograph of the real thing. Everything about it is “right”: the physical vocabulary, the noted touches of wit and camp, and the plain-as-day self-loathing. But like the rest of the movie, Michael comes off less like a flesh-and-blood gay man living in 1968 than like, well, an actor wearing the costume. Everything’s right on the surface; but the soul of the man, of most of these men, evades the movie almost entirely. 

With a few exceptions, the actors — Washington chief among them — feel disconnected from history, even if history, the history of gay men and the social lives they’ve been able to lead in those shadows, are the source material’s main subject and the movie’s central purpose. As with so much of Murphy’s approach to queer history, it mostly feels like aimless dress-up — even when it’s fun. When a character does a Norma Desmond impression, what’s notable is the reference: It comes off like an easter egg, a show of queer credibility. What’s missing is the soul of that reference, the loving, lived-in, hard-earned history that makes it so natural: that makes it feel like a language that only these men and their ilk know how to speak. What’s missing is history. What’s missing is a sense that men like this really lived.

From Rolling Stone US