The Boys in the Band doesn’t work as a feature film as well as it does a stage play, but hopefully, it’s enough to introduce a new audience to a ground-breaking and still resonant story.
There’s such a storied history behind Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a Broadway production following its original Off-Broadway run and an adaptation by William Friedkin, that it’s almost insulting for Netflix to release it on a Wednesday with very little ceremony. But having watched the feature, which lifts the all-star openly gay stage cast, you can understand why – this version, directed by Joe Mantello and produced by Ryan Murphy, though blessedly not grubbied by his creative fingerprints, is inferior to the original, and makes several creative decisions that sap its enduring impact.
Those decisions are all in the execution; the material itself is as familiar as ever. In 1968 New York, Michael (Jim Parsons) is hosting a party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) and several of their friends, all of whom are gay men with their obligatory share of lingering resentments, personal anxieties, and potentially combustible quirks. Michael’s is that he’s swerving alcohol for reasons that’ll become clear. His first guest, Donald (Matt Bomer), continues to live somewhat aimlessly, coasting on absurd good looks that Michael, given his rapidly receding hairline, is hastily beginning to resent.
Quickly, more of the revelers begin to arrive, and at a glance, you can begin to suss out where some of the conflicts might arise. Emory (Robin de Jesús) is flamboyant almost to a fault, which will be a giveaway for a certain unexpected guest later. Larry (Andrew Rannells) is in a testy relationship with the married but soon to be divorced Hank (Tuc Watkins). Bernard is Black — I wince to produce that as a character trait, you understand, but this is the ‘60s, and you get the idea.
Anyway, that unexpected guest. His name is Alan (Brian Hutchison), and unlike the other attendees, he’s straight – or at least claims to be. In some sense, Alan’s reason for being at the party is treated as a kind of mystery that never gets a proper resolution; he calls Michael, his roommate at college, wanting to meet, but when Michael fobs him off – suspecting, it turns out accurately, that he wouldn’t get on with the other guests – he uncharacteristically bursts into tears. Michael’s worried and more than a little intrigued so invites him over. Alan reschedules and then turns up anyway, at the worst possible time, and quickly deciphers that everyone, including his supposedly straight college friend, is gay. Things go rapidly downhill from there.
The Boys in the Band, which is set almost entirely in Michael’s apartment, revels in the idea of new arrivals. Another is Charlie Carver as a dim-witted midnight cowboy hired as Harold’s birthday present, and the third is Harold himself, who arrives not unexpectedly but fashionably late enough to make an impact. Quinto plays him as the most interesting character in the room, by quite a margin. He arrives right in the middle of a conflict between Alan and Emory that has spilled over into physical violence, and he looks thrilled by the chaos and by the fact it has driven Michael back to the bottle. We subsequently learn that Harold’s tardiness is the result of deep-seated insecurities about his appearance, giving him something in common with Michael; some of their scenes together are among the film’s best, even if Parsons feels much too hemmed-in by his usual persona to match Quinto’s acting.
For a while, The Boys in the Band is funny, even after it becomes uncomfortable. The best gag is Alan’s moment of hysterical realization that everyone in the room beside him – though, as we can deduce, possibly including him – is a homosexual, during which he tries to seek solace in the straight-seeming Hank: “But he’s married!” he explains, breathlessly, as though this isn’t the ‘60s, and as though gay men didn’t have to remain closeted entirely because of people very much like Alan. But beyond this, the play, and indeed the film, spirals into a sadistic game where Michael challenges the attendees to call the person they love and confess their feelings to them. It’s here, in this almost masochistic demand for honesty, that all of the most heart-breaking and impactful moments of acting occur. For some reason, Mantello chooses to punctuate them with flashbacks and other deviations that lessen their sting.
This undermining of the centerpiece is a big part of why The Boys in the Band works as a stage play better than a feature film. There’s simultaneously too much staginess and yet not enough confidence in the material to sell itself without some cinematic flourishes. That awkward push and pull between content and form is harmful to a ground-breaking story that still has vital things on its mind about identity, self-acceptance, and mainstream culture’s relationship to both. If nothing else, at least Netflix can introduce a larger audience than ever to that story – hopefully, they’ll be compelled to seek out the better version of it.