Boys in the Band, The (1970): Friedkin Directs Mart Crawley Gay Drama (LGBTQ–Gay Cinema)

In 1970, a young, then unknown director, William Friedkin, made the first thematically explicit gay film to have come out of mainstream Hollywood, The Boys in the Band, based on Mart Crawley’s 1968 stage play.

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Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Official Poster

In the next two years, Friedkin would become the most famous director in America, a result of making back-to-back the 1971 Oscar-winning The French Connection and the 973 smash horror hit The Exorcist.

The film’s ensemble cast, all of whom had played the roles in the 1968 New York production, includes Kenneth Nelson as Michael, Peter White as Alan, Leonard Frey as Harold, Cliff Gorman as Emory.

Maud Adams makes a cameo appearance as a fashion model in a photo shoot in the opening scene.

The tale is set in an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan in the late 1960s. Michael (Nelson), a guilt-ridden alcoholic Catholic, is preparing a birthday party for his friend Harold (Leonard Frey).  His close friend Donald, who’s an under-achiever and has moved from the city, arrives to help Michael.

Things are thrown into chaos right away, when Alan, an old, straight college buddy of Michael’s, calls with an urgent need to see him, and Michael invites him to his home.

As soon as the guests are introduced, we realize that they are all types or stereotypes. Emory is an effeminate interior decorator, a sissy.  Hank, a previously married schoolteacher, and Larry, a fashion photographer, are a couple struggling with the issue of monogamy. Bernard is an amiable bookstore clerk.

When Alan calls again, he tells Michael that he isn’t coming after all, and the party continues. However, later on, Alan does appear unexpectedly, and his presence throws the gathering into turmoil.  As tensions mount, Alan assaults Emory and Harold finally makes his grand appearance.

The guests become more and more intoxicated, and a pouring rain forces the party to move indoors from the patio. This means it’s time for big, overheated melodramatic sequences: Intimate confessions and revelations of secret relationships and sexual affairs, past and present.

Michael proposes a game, in which each guest is asked to call the one person he truly believes he has loved. With each call, past scars and present anxieties are revealed. Michael’s plan to “out” Alan with the game appears to backfire when the latter calls his wife.

As the party ends and the guests depart, Michael collapses into Donald’s arms sobbing and hysterical.

Songs in the movie include “Anything Goes” performed by both Cole Porter and Harpers Bizarre during the opening credits, “Love Is like a Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas, and an instrumental version of “The Look of Love” by Burt Bacharach.

Critical reaction to the movie was mixed to positive. “Variety” thought that the film had “perverse interest.” “Time” magazine described it as a “humane, moving picture.” The Los Angeles Times praised it as “unquestionably a milestone,” but ironically refused to run its ads. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote: “Except for an inevitable monotony that comes from the use of so many close-ups in a confined space, Friedkin’s direction is clean and direct and effective.”

All of the performances are good, and Leonard Frey as Harold stands out. Crowley shows some talent for witty, nasty dialogue, but there’s something basically unpleasant, however, about a play that reflects love-hate, pathos, and self-loathing.

 

Though a period piece, I doubt whether “Boys in the Band” reflected the way many gay men felt about their sexuality and identity.  All of the characters, with no exception, represented stereotyped, and there’s hardly a single figure that’s positive or optimistic about his future as an openly gay man.

Even so, the movie has powerful moments, and it stings, even if it’s hard to accept the last scene, in which Michael describes, “when my father died in my arms, he said, ‘I don’t understand any of it.'”

The line that most gay viewers have remembered is Michael’s self-loathing feeling: “Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

Younger generations of gay viewers detest the play, perhaps not realizing that it was produced a whole year before Stonewall and the rising gay liberation movement.

Decades later, the movie (and play) unfold as a cultural-archeological item, a significant piece that belongs to another era.

Cast

Donald (Frederick Combs)

Hank (Laurence Luckinbill)

Larry (Hank, Keith Prentice)

Cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux)

Bernard (Reuben Greene).

Made on a budget of $5.5 million, The Boys in the Band recouped its expense but was not particularly popular at the box-office, earning about $7 million.

DVD

The DVD, which came out in November 2008, includes some special features, including interviews with director Friedkin, playwright-screenwriter Crowley, executive producer Dominick Dunne, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner, NS two of the surviving cast members, Peter White and Laurence Luckinbill.

There’s also a retrospective look at the off-Broadway 1968 play and the 1970 film.

Credits:

Production company: Cinema Center Films
Distributed by National General Pictures
Release date: March 17, 1970
Running time: 118 minutes

Budget: $5.5 million
Box office: $3.5 million (US rentals)