The Boys in the Band (1970)

Dir. William Friedkin. Starring Kenneth Nelson, Cliff Gorman, Leonard Frey

Watching this movie, I wondered as much as anything else how it could possibly be remade. Some of this stuff would never work as drama; there’s almost a timeless quality to how much the second act is aggressively forced in ways that will always fall flat. (“You have to throw the thing you love most off a cliff to get this rock” is still the most hilarious example of this I’ve ever seen, but “You have to call the person you love most and tell them that for points” has to rate in the top ten.) But there’s such a difference in effect between a period piece and a piece from that period. I was a little disinterested in the Netflix remake of this film from last year; seeing the original adaptation from 1970 makes me really disinterested.

Inevitably something must be lost in translation across fifty years of enormous tumult and enormous change in the the LGBT community. So much of The Boys in the Band is about the way that self-regard and self-loathing are intertwined for this subset of a generation of gay men, that they’ve internalized the hatred of other people and aimed it like a loaded gun against themselves. How else to explain Michael (Nelson), who is throwing a birthday party for Harold (Frey) while simultaneously throwing a pity party for himself? (“It’s my pity party and I’ll act like a little shit if I want to” is for sure a novelty song waiting in the wings.) There’s a real sense of urgency, of a chrysalis being broken in this film that is much to its credit. In the present, that urgency is muted not because there isn’t so much more work to do, but because there have been changes in law and in society which would have seemed utterly implausible to the characters of the film. (The film itself is something of a period piece, a pre-Stonewall story released in a post-Stonewall world.) It’s not merely the conversations about passing or not passing which are from a different time, or the aggressive racism, or the gay stereotypes which feel antiquated now. It’s that you can look at this cast and break it into “presumably straight men who are either alive or died of leukemia” and “gay men who died of AIDS-related complications before the 21st Century.” Maybe the movie feels similar when it’s reflecting a recent past and when it’s reflecting a distant past, I dunno, but what surrounds the movie is fundamentally different. Zachary Quinto, who plays Harold in the ’20 film, is 43 now, about ten years older when Frey was when he played the part in 1970. Frey was 49 when he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. That information hangs over our understanding of both films even before we start watching them, and where it gives the ’20 film some costume drama vibes, it adds real, unknowing tragedy to the people in the ’70 version.

The Boys in the Band is more about types than it is about people. The self-hating gays, Michael and Harold. The “effeminate one,” Emory (Gorman). The one who has passed for straight, Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and his partner, Larry (Keith Prentice). Hank, who is divorcing his wife and leaving his two children for a more authentic life, can’t set down those notions of monogamy quite as easily as he can set down a wife. Larry, on the other hand, is a different sort of stereotype, the kind of guy who can’t pull himself out of the bathhouses. Maybe this is just straight monogamous me talking (and it may well be just that!) but I thought Hank and Larry had the most interesting argument in an entire movie’s worth of arguments. Boys in the Band gets frequent comparisons to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a comparison I find mystifying unless your entire valence for a movie is “Do people yell at each other?” Most of these arguments are not really about much at all. When people get mad at each other, the reasons why are basically mystifying unless you’re as drunk as the characters. Yet Hank and Larry’s argument is interesting because the two of them actually want something from one another. Hank wants to know if Larry is in it for real, and Larry wants to know if Hank will let him be himself. These are real concerns with real stakes in their relationship, especially given  that Hank has landed on Larry after leaving his wife, and their argument and ultimate reconciliation feels like the most essential part of the movie to me. Luckinbill is also giving, for my money, the best performance in the film, a kind of knowing playacting at being straight and then a kind of knowing playacting at the idea of passing at all. We see the former when Hank (what a butch name that is too, rhyming with such masculine buzzwords as “tank” and “shank” and “Mank”) is practically deputized to talk to Alan about families and sports. And then, in a room full of guys who are carnivorously interested in going from man to man, here’s Hank who is committed in actorly, demonstrative ways to a kind of imported ideal of heterosexual monogamy. Even when he’s declaring his love to another man, it’s done with the panache and drama of Glenn Ford or Joel McCrea.

More types. Bernard (Reuben Green) is Black. The movie never really gets into how that might make him different than his white friends, except to give Michael a reason to say some offensive stuff that lets us know how much he hates himself, I guess. (Something about “I am bad to other people because I hate myself” makes sense on a literal level, but taking it out on a fairly casual friend like Bernard rather than a lover like Frederick Combs’ Donald just fails to make sense to me. At a certain point, it’s just a Mississippi boy being racist.) Among the gay men of The Boys in the Band, the only one who struck me as being close to a person as opposed to an embodiment of some larger concept is Donald. Donald is not exactly well-adjusted—he’s got his own analyst, as they used to say, and any kind of association with Michael is clearly a red flag—but boy does he seem basically normal compared to the other guys.

Alan (Peter White), the film’s single potentially straight character, is his own stereotype. He’s the good upstanding straight citizen who has secretly been pining over a secret college boyfriend all these years. What makes him stand out is that there’s some kind of nuance in the character, or at least there’s not an answer given. If there’s meant to be a real answer to the “Is Alan in the closet?” question, then I suppose it would have to be yes. There’s certainly enough circumstantial evidence to prove it. But the film never seems all that interested in some kind of final answer for Alan, much to its credit. We do not come to terms with Alan, partly for dramatic reasons and partly because I don’t think the film finds it necessary. Maybe Alan is gay and hiding it from his wife and his boss and everyone he knows, but it’s more important that Michael can’t have him than it is that Alan is or isn’t a homosexual.

This is a movie where, with the possible exception of Hank and Larry, everyone is going to continue on exactly the track they’re on. (It’s easy to imagine, deep sigh, “life getting in the way” for Hank and Larry, but it’s nice to imagine that Hank can give Larry some leeway while Larry can still find ways to choose Hank.) If Alan was sleeping with an unseen friend named Justin during college, and if Michael knew about it, and if Michael has been harboring this aching love for Alan just as Emory has held onto his lifelong affection for a dentist named Delbert Botts, then all that signifies is that the hurt will continue. Alan will keep wanting Justin, Michael will keep wanting Alan, and the basically fatalistic trend of the movie continues on like a steam engine over a rickety trestle.

In The Boys in the Band, to be gay is very frequently to safeguard an ardent desire the same way that one safeguards one’s own social position. Passing for straight, which we understand Michael and Bernard have been able to do in a certain kind of environment, is still a sort of necessity. There’s an implied treasure in the way that someone like Michael can go into the world, pretend to be heterosexual in the right company, and still count the petals on a rose he holds in memory of Alan without revealing what kind of people he’s attracted to or which individual people those might be. (You could say something very similar about Alan and Justin, if you thought that was the direction the movie was headed.) There’s a lot of self-pity and raised arms and screaming and stuff in this story, especially towards the end, but in a lot of ways the film seems to understand how damaging it is to keep all those feelings in. The “call the person you love the most” game is not exactly a dramatic humdinger for most of its time on screen, but there’s some genuine power in the passive-aggression that Michael displays once the game drifts ever closer to Alan. It was bad before that, but it’s worse once he thinks he’s going to trap Alan. What he’s going to do after that is an entirely different question; does Michael think Alan will thank him for what would surely be a humiliating moment? Only someone as damaged as Michael could imagine that humiliation so deep could lead into romance with the hope of lasting more than a night.

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