Three years before The Exorcist, William Friedkin courted a very different kind of controversy with The Boys In The Band, an adaptation of Mart Crowley’s incendiary broadway show. Though of it’s time and creaky in places, the film pushed boundaries and still packs an emotional punch, and the struggle the main characters go through is sadly still relevant to contemporary audiences.
A group of gay friends gather at one of their apartments to hold a birthday party for one of their number. The host of the party, Michael, has had an old friend drop by the same evening. His friend is… uncomfortable around gay men to say the least. As the night gets increasingly uncomfortable, the party gradually descends into infighting, sniping and spiteful games, and unspoken grievances begin to surface.
The controversy surrounding The Boys In The Band went beyond the sensationalism of being the first film to use the C word. It was one of the first films to feature a predominantly gay cast, and to delve deeply into the gay lifestyle. The drama still feels potent, and crucially the characters all feel like real people. However it was divisive in the gay community upon it’s initial release, mainly due to the characterization of some of the characters as either self loathing or in denial about their sexuality. It’s true, the film is very bleak, with a palpably tragic ending, but it’s also a celebration of a unique type of friendship, and the early, fun scenes (including an impromptu dance!) are a testament to this.
While melodramatic in places, a lot of this is due to being a stage adaptation. The opening scene, following the characters before the party is unmistakably Friedkin. It establishes each of the characters clearly and distinctly, and it’s the most cinematic sequence in the film. Once the party is in full swing though, it’s unmistakably a film based on a play. There are a few directorial flourishes though, and when the mood darkens Friedkin adapts, and the film takes on an almost gothic feel. This is mostly successful, making the most of the limited set, and utilising a very cool soundtrack, but there are moments that still feel stagey, and the dialogue is often heavy handed and on the nose by today’s standards. The film has clearly had an influence on modern cinema though; I’d be very surprised if Pedro Almodovar hadn’t seen this film, for one.
The characters are largely fleshed out, realistic characters, apart from the flamboyant Emory (Cliff Gorman, virtually unrecognizable from his role as the Flavor Flav loving gangster in Ghost Dog) who gives the one slightly jarring performance in the film. He’s particularly shrill and mannered in a very dated way, and is the embodiment of a gay stereotype, but this is partly the point, and at least partially rectified in an emotional moment towards the end of the film, where his performance takes a subtler turn.
The rest of the cast are all impressive in the roles they developed on stage, especially Kenneth Nelson who has to do the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting as the tortured Michael. He gives an incredibly powerful performance, going from being relatively secure at the films beginning to bitter, insecure and spiteful at the end. His breakdown is raw and genuinely difficult to watch. Meanwhile Leonard Frey practically steals the film as the birthday boy, Harold. His big entrance is one of the most iconic and memorable moments in the film, thanks to the Friedkin’s directing and Frey’s spiky, laconic performance, which sees him increasingly detached from the action, functioning as a sort of acerbic greek chorus, making wry comments rather than getting directly involved in the drama.
The performances all take on a more depressing note when you realise that a lot of these promising young actors (including Frey and Nelson) had their careers tragically cut short by AIDS related illnesses, with only a few actually going on to have lasting acting careers.
The Boys In The Band is very much a product of it’s time, in both the mannerisms the dialogue and the story itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does make viewing some of the scenes a bit uncomfortable. It’s undeniably hokey and dated in places, but as a whole the film remains an important and powerful piece of cinema history.
This release by Second Sight is a great rendering of the film. The picture is clear and crisp in a uniquely Friedkin way, and there are some actually interesting special features. These consist of a typically insightful commentary by Friedkin and Crowley, an interview with Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard and three mini documentaries on the film, including interesting interviews with the surviving cast and Friedkin himself, whose contributions really make you appreciate the challenges behind adapting the play for film.