How does a 1968 off-Broadway production get remade for the silver screen in 2020? Mart Crowley’s surprisingly forward-thinking drama of gay male friends in New York City was revived on Broadway for its 50th anniversary in 2018. The cast of that version has reunited for an easily rewatchable Netflix remake. Poignant imagery coupled with stellar acting allows “The Boys in the Band” to shine in its shift from stage to screen.
“The Boys in the Band” is about a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto) in New York City. The party’s six attendees are all gay men. While this is not out of the ordinary in 2020, the film takes place in 1968, when LGBTQ rights were minimal, in the same city where the famous Stonewall riots would take place only one year later.. The film spans only one day, which contributes to the feeling of narrative continuity that viewers often experience in plays.
While the film begins by showing each character preparing for the party, it eventually centers on Michael (Jim Parsons), the party’s host. The party seems on track until Michael receives a call from his old supposedly straight roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchinson), who says he is in town. His presence instantly alarms Michael, and even after begrudgingly inviting Alan to the party, Michael is anxious, as he had never come out to Alan. Before Alan arrives, Michael forces his friends to “hide their gay features” and play the role of straight men, saying Alan is “not ready for it.”
To Michael’s displeasure, Alan is not the only unexpected guest to arrive. Emory, played by Tony Award-nominated Robin de Jésus, buys Michael a gift — a male escort nicknamed Cowboy in reference to the then-popular novel “Midnight Cowboy.”
Each character has their share of problems, which are only made worse by Alan’s homophobia and Michael’s eventual drunkenness. When Michael suggests a game in which participants have to call someone to confess their love, the night spirals out of control, leaving each character in a heap of emotions and the viewer emotionally drained.
The movie is by no means comfortable to watch. Due to each of their own insecurities, the characters constantly degrade one another. Each character’s dialogue speaks to the self-hatred forced upon the LGBTQ community in the 1960s and 1970s for merely being themselves. Any sense of identity could only be expressed behind closed doors, with alcohol quickly bringing these problems to the men’s consciousness. Michael portrays this reality the best with his explanation: “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” The film conveys this message through the imagery of a lively birthday party that quickly deteriorates into one of chaos and tears.
The film needed well-equipped actors to express the vulnerability written into their dialogue by Crowley, something this star-studded and openly gay cast certainly delivers. Their work as a cast on Broadway, which took place two years prior to the remake of the movie, is evident, as each actor seamlessly portrays his interactions with others in the group scenes. A sense of familiarity between each character and the audience exists, making the love and anger expressed feel overwhelmingly real.
Zachary Quinto’s Harold serves to anger Michael even further. Quinto does not speak much, but from his entry at the movie’s halfway point, his presence is strongly felt. Despite Harold’s confident and sarcastic quips, Quinto’s delicate acting and dialogue display his character’s inner layers, something only the audience is meant to see. Although Parsons and Quinto may be the standouts, every actor presents an alluring performance, including Broadway star Andrew Rannells and television actor Matt Bomer.
While the play only takes place in Michael’s apartment, director Joe Mantello employs creative license by choosing to show the characters before and after the party. Beautiful scenes of 1968 New York City, Michael in church or Bernard checking out a man on the subway provide even more depth to the story, a feature that exceeds the capacity of the Broadway stage.
One area where Mantello may have expressed too much liberty, however, is with the usage of flashbacks. Only appearing about three times throughout the film, this is still too much, as the flashbacks add little and in some instances take away from a scene’s vulnerability. The sequences appear randomly and bring viewers out of the film.
In spite of the film’s emotional high point — an uplifting two-minute dance number abruptly cut short that exists in contrast to the movie’s established tone — the film takes on a much darker tone overall and expertly reminds viewers of the hardships experienced by the LGBTQ community during the 1960s.
“The Boys in the Band” speaks to what the world was like and, unfortunately, the continued struggles that LGBTQ people must face today. Viewers today will find that we still have far to go in advancing equality, but the film’s enduring message about the lived experience of the LGBTQ community is as good a place as any to start.