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Netflix adds new dimensions to ‘Boys in the Band’

| Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

A half-century after its release, Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” plays on. Super-producer Ryan Murphy and director Joe Mantello bring their 50th-anniversary Broadway revival of the landmark play to Netflix, retaining all of its original poison and potency while adding a visual dynamism not present in either the stage productions or William Friedkin’s 1970 film adaptation.

Since its off-Broadway premiere in 1968, “The Boys in the Band” has seen its critical and public acclaim fluctuate. Initially a word-of-mouth success, it soon became viewed as a relic of a rougher, more problematic time before settling into its current status as a watershed moment in gay representation. Created with an entirely-out cast and above-the-line crew, the 2020 version of “Boys” at once looks back to the uncertainty of its conception and revels in the modern freedoms that allow a group of gay men to tell their chosen story on a scale that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Part of what drove conservative audiences away from “Boys” is the unadorned nastiness of its plot: Michael, a lapsed Catholic and failed teetotaler, invites a group of friends to his Upper East Side apartment for a birthday celebration. The coterie is made up of former lovers and permanent rivals, all arriving with a gift and their own baggage. Michael, as we’ll come to find out, is more interested in the latter. Tensions rise thanks to the intrusion of two unexpected guests: Cowboy, a beautiful hustler hired as entertainment, and Alan, Michael’s straight-laced (and straight-presenting) college roommate who shows up in a state of emotional distress and is only furthered disturbed by the open homosexuality of Michael’s friends.

As booze flows and punches fly, Michael devises a “game” of unflinching cruelty: Each man must call one person he has loved and admit to them how they feel. Each subsequent call unearths pain these men had buried away, reaching out to childhood crushes and unrequited loves only to relive the rejection of years past. At once, their trauma is personal and universal. The specifics of each man’s past may change, but the unique agony of a closeted man grasping out for a lifeline carries through every story. 

That it is a gay man inflicting this torment on each member of the group isn’t lost on Crowley and Mantello. For a generation raised on “Queer Eye” and RuPaul, “Boys” may seem so ugly as to be alien. Hollywood audiences are used to seeing gay characters either in oppressed pain or flamboyant joy — as genuinely great as each movie is, films like “Brokeback Mountain” or “The Birdcage” aren’t exactly revolutionary. Conversely, those same Hollywood audiences aren’t so used to seeing pain doled out to one gay man from another, to say nothing of the mirth which with Michael hurts his ostensible friends.

Rather than shy away from the acid coursing through the script, Mantello embraces it, emphasizing each heartbreak as it comes. Michael’s apartment, where most of the play takes place, is initially presented as a safe space before revealing itself to be just as inhospitable as the world outside of it. Prior to their arrival, each man is shown going about his day-to-day life: playing squash, riding the subway and working 9-to-5 jobs. Here, we see how they choose to “pass” as straight (or, for a few characters, choose not to) prior to showing up to a place where they think they can be themselves. Michael’s apartment is no haven, however; even the film’s few moments of true glee end up having the wind knocked out of them. An early dance routine to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave”  is the closest the movie comes to being comfortable in its own skin, with everyone in the apartment cutting loose for a brief, blissful interlude before crashing back into the fear and embarrassment that drives the film. 

Much like Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” an obvious influence on Crowley, “Boys” positions its set as a stage where the characters perform for each other just as much as the actors perform for the audience. Every phone call leads into a filmed flashback to the encounters that inspired it. These addendum scenes are the closest the film comes to visual poetry, conveying the pain and the potency of a stolen glance or a forgotten tryst.

Nearly every performer finds space to shine here; real-life couple Tuc Watkins and Andrew Rannells alternate between being loving and caustic as a bickering pair of lovers debating the merits of monogamy, while, as the only two people of color on-screen, Michael Benjamin Washington and Robin de Jesus form a tense rapport. As birthday guest Harold, Zachary Quinto leans too far into the remove that made him a perfect Spock; one gets the sense that Quinto mistakenly believes you have to fall asleep if you want to come across as dreamy. This is Michael’s show, however, and longtime sitcom vet Jim Parsons embraces a role that may earn him an Oscar nom. The “Big Bang Theory” star is nothing short of phenomenal, vitriolic and commanding without losing sight of the intense self-hatred that forms the bedrock of Michael’s personality. Michael is worlds away from the network role that made Parsons famous — if he came to this party, Sheldon Cooper would get about one “Bazinga” in before being defenestrated. His late-film trip to a midnight Mass is a high point for actor and movie alike; ever the lapsed Catholic, Michael’s last-ditch attempt to atone for all the pain he caused gives Parsons the opportunity to silently judge himself, doing more with a furrowed brow and clasped hands than most actors can do with a full script. 

“Boys in the Band” is a vicious, seething laceration of a film. It doesn’t just rip off the band-aid — it rips it off and then pours salt into the wound. The pain at the heart of the play hasn’t dulled in the interlude since its writing; if anything, it’s grown more intense, with the audience’s creeping realization that some (if not most) of these characters would be dead 20 years later from a virus ravaging their community. Indeed, the director and half the cast of the original 1968 production died of AIDS or of complications from HIV; rather than cast a pall over the film, however, the promise of the mourning to come only strengthens the bond between the men at its heart, however tenuous their connections may be. The ugliness of “Boys” doesn’t hamper the incredibly human heart at its core, but instead forces the audience to confront our own prejudices and how we treat those we love the most. “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much …“ Michael trails off at the end of the film. Crowley left that thought unfinished in his original script; with their definitive adaptation, Mantello and Murphy have finally created the painful, essential closing that the line demands. 

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