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December 5, 2008
It’s a period piece, and a good one
‘Boys in the Band’ has lost some of its taboo, but still has the power to sting
He who laughs last, laughs best. Or the longest, depending on which version of the proverb you remember.
That is most certainly true of the film version of The Boys in the Band, vilified by early gay liberation groups for its unflattering portrayal of seven queens having a birthday party.
Almost 40 years after the film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s successful stage play was released, it is finally out on DVD, a long-delayed artifact of a bygone age when films told stories with genuine emotion.
Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is throwing a birthday party for his friend Harold (Leonard Frey). He’s invited all of what were then the stereotypes of the gay male community: the sissy interior decorator Emory; the black bookstore clerk Bernard; Michael’s pseudo-boyfriend Donald, and ultra-respectable Larry and his wanton lover Hank.
Adding to the drama of the evening are Emory’s gift to Harold, a hustler dressed as a “midnight cowboy” who is so stupid he shows up to the party well before midnight, but is so pretty that nobody cares. Michael’s college roommate Alan may be a closet case, or he may bring down Michael’s psychological house of cards.
Playwright Mart Crowley once noted that, while he was sure there were happy homosexuals, there were none in his 1968 play, which he adapted for the screen. That unhappiness was part of the film’s controversy.
Activists always want their groups to be portrayed as the happy, whole, hale and hearty heroes. One never wishes to see oneself as fragile, flawed or fallible. Catholics cannot abide jokes about the pope, Latinos would prefer to not be portrayed as knife-wielding muggers or illegal menial laborers. We want to be the brilliant stars in our own stories.
However, Leo Tolstoy points out in Anna Karenina that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Had all the men on Queer as Folk not been whiny, annoying sluts, nobody would have watched the American version.
Similarly, watching the breakdowns in Boys in the Band are what give it spice, in an emotionally-draining, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf sort of way.
Crowley himself brings up that comparison in the DVD’s special features documentary on the play. He took it to a literary agent, who said she could never let it out of the office with her agency’s letterhead on the cover.
Crowley pointed out that a well-known producer had just taken up Woolf, and if he would put that on, he would have no qualms about Boys in the Band.
The playwright’s comment about unhappy homosexuals was used for years to decry Boys as an outlet for his internalized homophobia, an accusation that is as unfair as the statement itself is untrue.
Certainly, during the course of the play, everyone is unhappy at one point or another. The possible exception is Harold himself, who is so monumentally stoned and intensely intelligent that the whole affair seems an intellectual pursuit more than a reason for emotional response.
Bernard becomes maudlin, but throughout much of the film enjoys himself immensely. Emory has his ups and downs, but by the end is his usual self.
Larry and Hank actually seem to emerge from the fray stronger and more secure in their love for each other than in any other point in the film.
What really makes the film such a classic is Crowley’s razor wit. There is no reason why this film should be quoted any less than Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and All About Eve put together, except perhaps for the bad rap it got from activists in the 1970s.
Michael’s witticisms are amusing, but Harold’s lines are uproarious, like his comment that hiding his pot in an oregano jar led accidentally getting his mother stoned every time he made her a salad.
“But I think she liked it. No matter what meal she comes over for, even if it was breakfast, she says, ‘Let’s have a salad,’ ” he notes.
Michael is the only one who seems to be truly unhappy overall. Again, Harold has the mot juste.
“You're a sad and pathetic man. You're a homosexual and you don't want to be, but there's nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you've go left to live,” Harold tells him in an intense, yet seemingly dispassionate, tone. “You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you'll always be homosexual as well. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die.”
At the end, however, the status quo of the mysterious relationship between Harold and Michael is restored. While stepping through the emotional rubble Michael has left in his wake, Harold turns and says, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
The long-delayed DVD release seems to be part of an ongoing project of putting out all of William Friedkin’s films, one at a time. A few years ago, it was the ultimate director’s cut of The Exorcist. A year or two ago, it was Cruising, the disturbing gay murder mystery also decried by activists. Now, thankfully, it’s Harold and Michael’s turn.
A documentary featuring interviews with producer Dominick Dunne, Crowley, Friedkin, the two still-living cast members and iconic playwright Tony Kushner covers the three “acts” of the history of Boys in the Band, the play, the film, and its legacy, 40 years later. There is also an audio commentary by Friedkin, who truly created a masterpiece of gay cinema, bringing Crowley’s brilliant writing to almost surreal life.
Were one to rate the film, newly remastered, on a scale of one to ten, it would certainly earn a “Buy it now!”
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