Producers: Ryan Murphy, David Stone, Joe Mantello, Ned Martel and Alexis Martin Woodall Director: Joe Mantello Screenplay: Matt Crowley and Ned Martel Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins Distributor: Netflix
When it first appeared in 1968, Matt Crowley’s play, about a group of pre-Stonewall New York gays getting together for a Greenwich Village birthday party, was considered groundbreaking. The subject of homosexuality was still pretty much taboo in public discourse; if treated at all on screen, it was as a source of shame or self-loathing (as witness, for example, its place in such political pieces as “Advise & Consent” or “The Best Man,” or the weird opaqueness with which it was treated in “The Sergeant” the same year, or even “Spartacus” nearly a decade earlier).
By contrast Crowley portrayed unabashedly gay characters in sympathetic tones. That’s not to say that notes of guilt, self-accusation and regret were absent; their revelation, in fact, was at the heart of the drama, and of the comedy that made it accessible to still-squeamish heterosexuals. Nor is it to deny that structurally the play is old-fashioned; the influence of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is especially evident, down to the use of games to serve as the catalyst for the second-act explosion.
But though hardly the equal of Edward Albee’s masterpiece, like it “The Boys in the Band” retains the ability to keep one engrossed despite its obvious manipulations. That’s especially true when accorded a performance as first-rate as this one from Netflix. It’s based on the fiftieth anniversary Broadway production of 2018, which was notable for featuring a cast of openly gay actors. All of them repeat their roles here.
It does not, however. Follow the “Hamilton” model in simply being a film of the stage version, however cleverly shot. Rather this is truly a filmization in which, though director Joe Mantello can’t entirely avoid the feel of staginess that even Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of “Woolf” couldn’t overcome, follows it in opening things up in several important ways.
One involves opening and closing montages that on the one hand introduce the characters before they come together at the party and then show them feeling the aftereffects of what they experienced during it. These are not exactly necessary, but they’re certainly not harmful. The same can be said of Bill Pope’s camerawork, which especially toward the start is pretty showy, zooming around the apartment to convince us that the action isn’t really static. It doesn’t.
More problematic by far is the decision to embellish the “memory monologues” that are a major part of the plot’s second act with flashbacks to some of the incidents the speakers are recalling. These overly artistic insertions are intrusive, interrupting the rhythm of the performances. Rather than enhancing the power of the words, they diminish it.
Even that decision, though, doesn’t seriously undermine the overall impact of the soiree that Michael (Jim Parsons), a hyper-nervous, emotionally fragile man brooding over his receding hairline, holds for his frenemy Harold (Zachary Quinto), a somewhat older, and supremely sarcastic, man obsessing over his looks. The guests include Donald (Matt Bomer), Michael’s troubled boyfriend, who has moved out of the city but returns weekly for sessions with his psychiatrist; Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a black librarian whose recollection of his childhood longing for a white boy is the monologue most affected by Mantello’s flashbacks; Emory (Robin de Jesús), whose flamboyance and cheeky sense of humor are unstoppable; Larry (Andrew Rannells), a photographer with a wandering eye; and his partner Hank (Tuc Watkins), a math teacher separated from his wife who resents what he sees as Larry’s lack of fidelity.
There are two interlopers. One is Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a dim-bulb male hustler whom Emory has hired for the night to serve as his birthday present for Harold, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s old roommate at Georgetown, who shows up unexpectedly, throwing Michael, who’s anxious to keep his sexual identity secret from him, into a frenzy. A Catholic guilty over his lifestyle, his inebriation leads him to challenge Alan’s ostentatiously conventional aversion to homosexuality—and to the cruel game that forces the partygoers to confront their true emotions, including his own.
“The Boys in the Band” employs an element that remains elusive to the end—Alan’s sexual orientation. He initially calls Michael weeping and begging to see him, which—given the fact that he admits to troubles with his wife—leads Michael to suspect his inclinations and accuse him of pining for a college friend he always idolized and, in fact, of having had sex with him. That’s secondary, though, to Harold’s compelling Michael to reflect on his own insecurities by the time the evening ends.
The cast do not exactly underplay these characters, which is understandable given the origin of the performances on stage. But Mantello minimizes the problem by largely eschewing the use of extreme close-ups, which was one of the flaws of William Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation. Parsons can be accused of exaggerating Michael’s mannerisms, but it’s obviously a committed turn, and Quinto’s bemused authority proves a fine counterbalance to it. All of the others are fine, with Bomer’s laid-back attitude particularly effective, though everyone gets an opportunity to shine at some point. And despite Pope’s tendency to resort to flourishes early on, the craft contributions—Judy Becker’s production design, Lou Eyrich’s costuming, and Adriaan van Zyl’s editing—are all excellent.
Even when Friedkin’s film was released in 1970 (and despite its flaws and the excellence of this one, it should not be ignored, not least for preserving the performances of the original Broadway cast), some were already criticizing Crowley’s play as somewhat passé in its depiction of gay life, but revivals—including the one on which this adaptation is based—have proven that it is more than a mere period piece. It still packs a considerable punch, especially when played by as committed an ensemble as it finds here.
This film also serves as a fine tribute to Crowley, who was able to see the revival before he died last March.