Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is staging a party tonight, at his apartment, for a group of his closest friends, and all because it is the birthday of their pal Harold (Leonard Frey). He thinks - or hopes - it will be a bit of fun, and when his boyfriend Donald (Frederick Combs) returns from work that afternoon, they discuss it lightly, musing over Michael's liking for chic clothes that he can barely afford, for instance. But then something happens to cast a pall over the upcoming evening: a telephone call from an old college acquaintance Michael has not seen in a while. He is Alan (Peter White), and he desperately wants someone to talk to, so can he head over there now?
The Boys in the Band is often seen as a kind of Year Zero for gay theatre, and indeed films, as it was the first one to take homosexual men seriously in America (Britain was ahead of them with efforts like Victim and The Leather Boys, earlier in the nineteen-sixties), to the extent that they were featured as lead characters. Not only that, but writer Mart Crowley was keen not to simply present a parade of stereotypes, so while he did not go out of his way to avoid them, he did serve up his cast with opportunities to portray three-dimensional people with personalities that would be understandable to straight and gay alike. However, not everyone liked what he concocted.
There was a long time when The Boys in the Band was considered, if anything, a mistake to be regretted for Crowley had supposedly replaced one misconception, that homosexual men were all swishy and camp, with another, that they hated each other and themselves for being outsiders in the wider world. Therefore they had built this fortress around themselves, losing their self-loathing in an atmosphere of forced jollity, waspish remarks and anonymous sex and lots of it, with plenty of identifying themselves with pop cultural icons who spoke to their sense of humour and pain. Crowley did not go as far as have Michael put a Judy Garland album on, but it was a close-run thing.
For many gay men, this was either a home truth they did not wish to admit to themselves, or they rejected it outright as a negative approach when they would have preferred more positivity. It was true that the plot, which largely takes place over a whole night of the party, began as a kind of comedy with jokey asides and barbs flying, whereupon when wet blanket Alan shows up it all takes a turn for the worse where all the guests start sniping at one another, but Crowley wasn't writing from a vacuum: he knew people like this, and he was putting across a version of the truth as he saw it while aware that he had to deliver the requisite drama. As a film, it resembled such claustrophobic, gay-friendly works like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or All About Eve, when the dialogue was the most important element.
That and the emotional violence: there was a streak of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in there as well, and that starred Elizabeth Taylor, another, then-newer gay icon than Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. This attachment to melodrama where the characters let it all hang out was very present in The Boys in the Band, and although not all the actors were gay here, there was a sense that it was the right production for its place and time, though it was revived frequently as it was increasingly acknowledged as a landmark. And besides, there were few opportunities for gay actors to really get their teeth into roles like this for some time afterwards; these were substantial characters to appreciate for a snapshot in time, the very late sixties, and as perhaps to agree that what Crowley depicted was not too far off the mark for many men back then, and even into the future. If it was all a bit much, too despairing, and the phone game too contrived, the dialogue crackled and here, the performers shone in the darkness. Sobering to note that of the five gay stars in this, all would be dead of AIDS by the early nineties.
[Second Sight's Blu-ray has a commentary from Friedkin and Crowley, featurettes on the play and film, and an interview with Mark Gatiss about appearing in a revival of the play, and what the film means to him (a gem of an extra).]
American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.