Synopsis: At a birthday party in 1968 New York, a surprise guest and a drunken game leave seven gay friends reckoning with unspoken feelings and buried truths.
Stars: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins
Director: Joe Mantello
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: It’s a curious thing to watch a movie that began life as a play starring it’s original cast that performed it onstage. It’s an even stranger experience to watch a movie that’s a remake of that earlier filmed version of a play…that also began life as a play…that also stars the original cast who appeared onstage. If you’re struggling to wrap your head around that, let me break it down for you. Mart Crowley originally wrote the landmark play The Boys in the Band in 1968 and it played off-Broadway for a healthy run of over 1,000 performances. When it came time for the play to make the leap to the silver screen, a pre-Oscar winning William Friedkin brought it to life with the entire original cast. In 2018, the play was revived, this time on Broadway with an all-star cast for a strictly limited run that became a smash summer hit. Produced by Ryan Murphy and directed by Joe Mantello, this entire cast was brought back for a filmed version now premiering on Netflix.
A landmark of gay culture both on stage and on screen, The Boys in the Band is an interesting time capsule to watch today because it captures a piece of history almost impossible to get back. Taking place in the pre-AIDS era, both the film and the play make no mention of the “gay cancer” that is felling the community or gathers its doom and gloom from the shadow of illness that countless projects would take advantage of once HIV enters the picture throughout the next decade. It would be almost unheard of to not mention AIDS or HIV at a certain point and to not have that factor at all into the mix here is both a startling reminder of a time before an entire generation of men were lost to the disease and a welcome relief to be able to watch a movie about gay men that isn’t going to end with a hospital bed or a graveside emotional breakthrough.
That’s not to say The Boys in the Band arrives in 2020 without some heavy emotional baggage of another sort, though, because the same themes of self-hate and acceptance it grappled with in 1968 are still front and center. Longtime Ryan Murphy collaborator Ned Martel has trimmed Crowley’s two-act play down (more on that later) to a more streamlined machine built for the attention and vocabulary of modern audiences and it’s mostly successful in maintaining Crowley’s message even if it loses key reference points that gay cards were earned off of. The resulting two hour film is both a faithful adaptation of a fifty year old work and a fresh look at the lives of gay men who struggled then with a number of the same personal issues that are still prevalent today.
As it opens, it feels like returning director Mantello is going to be opening up the film past its one location setting as we are introduced to “the boys” throughout New York City. Tightly wired Michael (Jim Parsons, Wish I Was Here) is preparing for the birthday party of his best frenemy Harold (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek) who is already doing his pre-party work in front of the mirror to hide his pock-marked face that becomes an easy target for some of his image obsessed friends. Larry (Andrew Rannells, The Intern) is on his way to meet lover Hank (Tuc Watkins) to pick up loud and proud Emory (Robin de Jesús)…if only that other guy he bumps into on the street wasn’t such a distraction, so he might be a little late. Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) might be seen to some as the token black friend of the group but as the ‘60s are drawing to a close he’s starting to see the ‘70s as a time of change for all. The three semi-outsiders to the group that night are Michael’s friend Donald (Matt Bomer, The Magnificent Seven) in town for the evening after being stood up, a gigolo Cowboy (Charlie Carver) meant to serve as Harold’s birthday gift from Emory, and Alan (Brian Hutchinson, Winter’s Tale) a college friend from Michael’s past that arrives unexpectedly needing his help for reasons that are unclear at the outset.
Fairly quickly, it becomes obvious there’s just no way around the material coming off like a stage show and while Judy Becker’s (American Hustle) expertly designed production is filmed handsomely by Bill Pope (2019’s Charlie’s Angels), it just all feels so bound to a different medium than film will allow. To be fair, that’s the same issue the original film had but while that might be the kiss of death for some projects, it winds up benefitting The Boys in the Band because this is material that feeds off of the intimacy that is generated from the stage. While Mantello makes some nice moves in finding brief moments (via flashbacks) to get out of the apartment, I was surprised at how alive the whole movie felt even though it was essentially locked in one space for the duration.
Looking at pictures from the 2018 revival, it appears the costume and set design have been tailored back to the original design from the 1968/1970 productions and I think that’s the right choice. The new production felt a little too luxe and, at least from the visuals, made it look campier than I think was intended. Now, the performances feel like they can come to the forefront and that gives the actors a chance to really show off some new sides to what we’ve seen them do so far. I’ve always been far on the opposing side of the fence on Parsons but admit that he won me over here with his take on a difficult role, one he is arguably very right for. Same goes for Quinto who almost, almost, manages to make you forget how good the original Harold Leonard Frey was in the role. Parsons and Quinto have a lot of verbal sparring that has to be delivered with razor sharp precision that can’t be fixed by mere editing and both play these scenes to the hilt – you can’t ever quite tell if they love to poke at each other with the friendly back and forth or if they actually derive some sick pleasure in cutting down their friend in a public forum.
The rest of the cast all get their moment in the spotlight, as is the way in these well-written, long lasting plays. There’s a reason this show is often done in community theaters (open-minded community theaters, that is) and it’s because each role has a showcase moment any actor worth their salt would love to sink their teeth into. Obviously, the showiest role is Emory and de Jesús recreates his Tony-nominated role with the same energy and heart that has gotten him good notices throughout his career. I also quite liked Washington’s Bernard who, in a harrowing sequence, walks us through a first love and is eventually pushed by Michael into being the first member of the group to play a game that exposes a number of raw nerves within the friends. The other actors all have their requisite turns to be the focus but more or less play on their existing strengths we’ve seen before.
As a fan of the play and the original 1970 film, I have to say that I enjoyed this remake (revival?) quite a lot and would recommend it with the request that you make sure you do your homework and compare it to Friedkin’s earlier film. A number of the trims make sense, I suppose, in terms of keeping the momentum moving forward and not simply re-doing The Boys in the Band as a museum piece. What they’ve excised isn’t a dealbreaker because what’s there still reminds us of the landmark achievement it remains and how far we’ve come since it first premiered.