Home Theatre: Who's afraid of the boys in the band?
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's The Boys in the Band, streaming on Netflix
When Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band, premiered Off-Broadway in 1968, it was pathbreaking in its open, honest portrayal of gay men. Crowley subsequently adapted his play into a feature film in 1970, featuring the same cast. 50 years on, the play was revived on Broadway in 2018 and again, adapted into a feature film featuring the Broadway cast for Netflix that began streaming recently. The change in venue from Off-Broadway to the more mainstream Broadway isn't the only notable difference that time has worked. The cast this time around is composed entirely of openly-gay actors — something unthinkable of back then.
Set in New York City in 1968, the story takes place primarily over the course of an evening in the apartment of Michael (Jim Parsons) where he's hosting a birthday party for Harold (Zachary Quinto). Like Michael and Harold, the guests are all gay men. There's much playful banter and ribbing, and some not-so-playful mockery as well. But it's all par for the course among the friends and everyone is having fun, more or less. Until, that is, Michael's old straight roommate from college, Alan (Brian Hutchison), invites himself to the party. Alan does not know that Michael is gay; at least not from Michael himself. His presence throws a pall over the proceedings.
Even before Alan arrives, Michael feels it necessary to prepare the group by warning them to behave in a way that wouldn't make his friend feel uncomfortable. He worries about how Alan would react when he sees the "freak show" that he's booked for dinner — meaning the gay, in every sense of the word, get-together. Michael's boyfriend Donald (Matt Bomer) asks him if he's ashamed of his friends. Donald isn't far off from the truth. Michael, if not exactly ashamed, isn't entirely at ease with his homosexuality, as Harold points out much later. He feels the need to conform to societal expectations of 'normal' behaviour.
This pressure to conform is felt by nearly everyone in the group. Even Emory (Robin de Jesús), the most flamboyant of them all, is a bit abashed by the displeased stare of a straight, older couple — Michael's neighbours — who happen to hear him jesting when the apartment's door is opened briefly. It's only behind closed doors that these gay men can truly be themselves, without any inhibitions. So, the sudden appearance of Alan (who calls and cancels at first, but shows up unannounced anyway) is itself a form of violence. The atmosphere immediately feels oppressive. To make matters worse, he ridicules Emory and uses a slur to refer to him when speaking to Michael in private. This begins to tip Michael over the edge. A little later, Alan ends up punching Emory. After this, Michael, who at first didn't want Alan there, forces him to stay. He wants him to stay and play a game. This game involves each person calling someone they believe they truly love and telling them so. It's around this point that things really take a turn for the acrid and The Boys in the Band starts feeling a lot like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — another play turned film about an evening get-together that goes awry.
As is often the case with films adapted from plays, there is something stilted and not quite natural about the dialogues. But the performances of the excellent cast make us overlook this. They draw us in and keep the film compelling from start to end. It's also nice to see the little cinematic touches director Joe Mantello (who directed the Broadway revival as well) has added to make this feel like more than just a play-turned-film. The slick cinematography and slicker soundtrack go a long way in this regard. This is essentially a chamber drama that happens almost entirely inside a single apartment. The only times we step outside — aside from the prologue that introduces us to the characters and the ending sequence — are for brief flashbacks during the course of the aforementioned game. But the film doesn't feel nearly as claustrophobic as you'd expect. And when it does, it's in service to the plot.
It's natural for this story to feel dated — it was written before the gay liberation movement happened. One way to look at this film would be as a historical document of the way things were, and to compare it with how far we've come. But then you realise, we haven't really come all that far. Minorities across the world are still forced to conform to the behaviour dictated by the majority. Increasingly, even the slightest expression of minority cultures is seen as a threat. So maybe, this film is less a historical document and more a reminder to not lose what little progress we've made. At the end of the film, Michael runs away from the camera — here's hoping that he is running towards a more inclusive future.