“No camping!” snaps party host Michael (Kenneth Nelson) before admitting an old and presumably heterosexual college pal to the queeny festivities in The Boys in the Band, adapted from Mart Crowley’s 1968 stage landmark by the playwright and directed by future blockbuster-maker William Friedkin. The characterizations on display, steeped in assorted measures of vaudeville bitchery, self-hatred and guilt, acquired similarly verboten status. A political football in the subsequent four decades of queer cultural history, the film was essentially unprecedented in presenting a whole gaggle of gay archetypes—loudmouth nelly, divorcing dad, dumb and pretty hustler—in contrast to previous Hollywood movies (before and after the Production Code’s adoption) daring only to use token single homos for comic relief or as tragic victims, preferably of suicide. Viewed in the new century, with American voters having just freshly refuted the possibility that homophobia was creeping into extinction, Boys stirs the same ambivalent feelings expressed by queer critic Vito Russo in his book The Celluloid Closet (both “a freak show” and “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form”); the dishy wit and behavioral truths of its late-‘60s demimonde of sophisticated New York homos doesn’t dilute the unnerving shame and emotional warfare that explode in its scabrous second act.
After a title sequence that represents the major attempt to “open up” Crowley’s play (Manhattan location shots of the characters shopping, cruising and working, now superfluous but for a glimpse of the still-surviving Julius tavern), Michael, a furtively practicing Catholic and debt-ridden globetrotter who has newly sworn off booze, prepares his East Side duplex apartment and patio for a birthday party, aided by a coolly critical friend-with-benefits (Frederick Combs). The other thirtysomething guests soon follow: the indefatigable queen Emory (Cliff Gorman), “a butterfly in heat”; a coupled teacher and fashion photog (Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice) quarreling over monogamy; a genial black bookstore clerk (Reuben Greene) who absorbs Michael and Emory’s racial jokes with an inner grimace; and two outsiders, a young whore in cowboy drag (Robert La Tourneaux) hired for the honoree, and that WASPy college friend/lawyer in crisis (Peter White) who recoils from and then strikes out at the circle of alien “pansies.” Finally, stoned, pockmarked “Jew fairy” Harold (Leonard Frey, introduced with a grotesque trio of heels-to-‘fro, creature-feature close-ups) arrives at his fete just in time to provide a scathing play-by-play on internecine bloodletting that culminates in a brutal telephone truth game.
Friedkin shoots the theatrical action—largely verbal parrying and combat, with one physical assault—fluidly, fresh off adapting another stagey Birthday Party (Harold Pinter’s). The sizzle of the bon mot-tossing ensemble, intact from the stage original, is bracing and fuels the film’s momentum, along with Crowley’s lacerating dialogue, some of which has passed into knowing pop lexicons similar to those the party boys draw on in reflexively invoking Suddenly, Last Summer and Bette Davis (the lasagna-toting Emory’s “Hot stuff, comin’ through!” made it into The Simpsons‘s gay steel-mill episode). But comedy recedes in the long climactic sequence, where an off-the-wagon, vicious Michael forces his friends to “phone the one person you’ve truly loved,” buried grief is exhumed, and lingering jealousies and resentments stoke accusations and betrayals. Swellegant!
The film stood accused by Russo in 1981 of presenting “perfunctory, easily acceptable stereotypes” and “lots of zippy fag humor that posed as philosophy.” All of that, and the option of focusing on Michael’s sadism and hatefulness as emblematic of the Life, is still arguably evident. The non-swishy lovers played by Luckinbill and Prentice, who come to a tender, hopeful understanding amid the cruelty, are generally denied the attention critics grant the acid-tongued flamboyance of Michael, Harold and Emory; they’re the movie’s strongest channel to a socially accepting day yet to come. (If one imagines the characters’ bond enduring, they could be the subjects of contemporary media stories on decades-long same-sex partners marrying, however temporarily.)
Crowley’s is not a great play, owing a significant debt to the bitter gaming of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for its melodramatic act-two truth-telling. Shot in the year of Stonewall, Boys is indeed a time capsule of its era’s mores, but if Crowley’s limited palette of self-loathing and camp-drenched cattiness made it an instant “period piece” per Russo, the notion that it blames these men for their fears and lies (which sat well with moralists viewing it as a cautionary tale) seems a clear misreading. The partygoers are caught in the tragedy of the pre-liberation closet, a more crippling and unforgiving one than the closets that remain. Michael’s final wish—“If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much”—has been largely fulfilled. Not quite so very much.