Starring the 2018 Broadway revival cast, director Joe Mantello gives the 1968 gay classic new life.
In 2019, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. GLBTQ+ rights and acceptance have evolved a lot in the intervening years, with triumphs ranging from removing homosexuality’s status as a mental disorder from the DSM to gay marriage. But the lows have been devastating: the tragedies of the AIDS crisis and the queer-bashing that continues to this day. With so much change, can today’s queer community resonate with a story set in the pre-Stonewall Days? Hot off a Tony-winning 2018 revival on Broadway, the 2020 remake of Mart Crowley’s seminal queer play The Boys in the Band debuts on Netflix (courtesy, naturally, of producer Ryan Murphy) to introduce the 1968 play to a new generation of queer and cis-het people, starring the Broadway revival’s cast.
In 1968 New York City, seven gay friends gather in Michael’s (Jim Parsons) Upper East Side apartment to celebrate Harold’s (Zachary Quinto) birthday. The friends consist of campy Emory (Robin de Jesús), reserved Bernard (Michael Benjamin), depressed Donald (Matt Bomer), polyamorous Larry (Andrew Rannells), and masc4masc Hank (Tuc Watkins). The shindig is crashed by Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s college roommate, who comes to disclose some secret to Michael. As the night goes on, the fête shifts from jovial to vicious, ending with a game that lays hurts and heartaches bare.
The acting is superb, and the ease in which the actors inhabit their characters gives Crowley’s (who helped write the screenplay with Ned Martel) dialogue a snappy repartee. Since the film uses the Broadway cast, each actor embodies their character with the ease that comes from years of rehearsal and experience. Jim Parsons is his Jim Parsons-iest, with his characteristic neurotic asshole delivery. What sets Michael apart from Parsons’ more famous role of Sheldon, or even his role in Hollywood earlier this year, is that Michael is given more humanity to redeem those haughty quirks. Quinto, on the other hand, is the weakest link in the ensemble; he feels more affected and actor-y, which clashes with the more naturalistic direction of the other actors. The breakout star by far is de Jesús, who runs the gamut from broad comedy to heartfelt emotion.
Director Joe Mantello (who also directed the revival) effortlessly maintains the play’s sense of intimacy while keeping things visually engaging for its new cinematic milieu. The play takes place entirely in Michael’s apartment, and Mantello uses close-ups, angles, and tracking shots to give each room in the rather enviable flat its own feel. Especially during the “party game,” the use of flashbacks overlaid with monologues turns the stage version’s soliloquies into natural film scenes. Above all, Mantello lets Crowley’s dialogue take center stage, the visuals highlighting each actor’s delivery rather than overshadowing it. And the script is in turns witty and devastating, with enough humor to keep the more somber themes from feeling overbearingly sad.
2020’s version of The Boys in the Band is a good film, but did we need a remake? Despite my general dislike of the endless stream of remakes/reboots/revivals that flood our current media landscape, this seems like a story that actually could use one. The original play and movie were hardly mainstream in their time and were pretty much relegated to queer communities. Even in the modern age, William Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation isn’t available on streaming services (or even to rent on VOD), and revival performances of the play are limited to larger cities. Using Netflix as a platform allows a seminal piece of gay literature to be seen by a wider audience.
This leads to the second question: How will modern audiences take this movie? That’s a harder needle to thread. The play’s focus is very much on gay cis men, and the language reflects a different age (content warning: the film uses both the F-slur and N-slur). The stigma of being an out queer person has lessened since the ‘60s, and the self-loathing the characters feel may seem foreign to some queer people today.
There is some exploration on the intersection of race and sexuality, and the two characters of color, Bernard and Emory, are by far the most likable and least self-absorbed of the cast. Where the white characters bemoan the privilege their homosexuality robs them, Bernard and Emory make clear the multiple levels of discrimination society foists upon them. As the group becomes nastier and nastier to each other, it’s telling that the only person who apologizes for the hurt he’s caused is Emory; he and Bernard console each other at night’s end in a way none of the white characters do.
The stigma of being an out queer person has lessened since the ‘60s, and the self-loathing the characters feel may seem foreign to some queer people today.
Despite this story being very much of a different time, there are aspects that are timeless. The heart of The Boys in the Band is the way we lash out and hurt each other due to the pain from trauma we experienced. Sure, the way the men throw barbs at each other perpetuates the stereotype that gay men are all catty bitches. But Crowley positions this as one way gay men put each other down to build themselves up — to deflect the hurt we feel onto others. This feels as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago.
Early in Boys in the Band, Michael, Larry, Bernard, Donald, and Emory go out to Michaels’ patio to recreate a dance they performed at Fire Island. As the friends dance, it builds to an emotional crescendo of joy and friendship. This is queer life at its best: exuberance, camaraderie, happiness. When Alan comes into the apartment, the joy comes to a screeching halt, as Michael tries to “save face” in front of Alan. Society’s prejudice intrudes on the party, and fellowship morphs into fighting. Often, the internalization of oppression can be as damaging as external oppression.
The Boys in the Band is the rare remake that makes the world better off for its existence. Mantello adroitly navigates the challenge of adapting a stage play for the screen, with a cast that brings humor and pathos to its characters. Even fifty-plus years after its premiere on the world stage, The Boys in the Band remains a valuable glimpse into pre-Stonewall gay life.
The Boys in the Band comes to Netflix September 30th.