William Friedkin’s fourth film was another amazing theatrical adaptation – this time, of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play, The Boys in the Band, which deals with a cross-section of New York gay life at the end of the 1960s. The original Off-Broadway cast reprised their roles in the film, while Crowley also wrote the screenplay, which follows the play very closely. Kenneth Nelson plays Michael, a middle-aged gay man who is holding a birthday party at his apartment for his close friend Harold, played by Leonard Frey. However, Harold is one of the last characters we meet, since Friedkin and Crowley stagger the appearance of the other key players to set up his entrance. First, we’re introduced to Donald, Michael’s partner, played by Frederick Combs, and then Alan, an old friend of Michael’s, played by Peter White, who calls him in tears on the night of the party, and begs to come over after a fight with his wife. Alan is nominally the only straight character in the film, but his sexuality is also questioned after the second wave of characters arrive – two couples, and a hustler, Cowboy Tex, played by Robert La Tourneaux, who Michael has hired as an exotic birthday present for Harold. The first couple are Hank, a middle-aged man who has just left his wife of many years, played by Laurence Luckinbill, and Larry, his slightly younger lover, played by Keith Prentice. The second couple are Bernard, an African-American man played by Reuben Greene, and his lover, Emory, a Hispanic man played by Cliff Gorman, who also appears to double as a hustler on the side.
Only after we have met all these characters do Crowley and Friedkin introduce Harold, who makes a dramatic entrance about a third of the way through the play. In the process, both writer and director set out to avoid homogenizing gay identity, starting with the opening montage sequence, which may well be the first real spectrum of gay male life in mainstream American culture at this point, taking us from the makeup table, to the basketball court, to white-collar work, to blue-collar work. All of these characters exist on the cusp between homosexual and gay life – the cusp of gay liberation – but they all feel less stereotypical than many characters in modern film, since this all takes place decades before gay visibility was rigorously codified in the 1990s. While The Boys in the Band tries to avoid trafficking in stereotypes, it doesn’t demand acclaim for breaking stereotypes either, as might occur in a modern indie film, since the characters all live in a world where those stereotypes have not quite been formulated yet, at least in terms of openly gay depictions of masculinity in Hollywood cinema. Rather than conforming to or rejecting stereotypes, then, Crowley and Friedkin present us with a collection of characters who are themselves au fait with stereotypes – prescient that they sometimes resort to them, and are responsible for creating them, but always restless to conceive of something beyond them too: “What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland impression?” “A queen doing a Bette Davis impression.”
In other words, the men in this film are all poised between segregating from and assimilating with “mainstream” society, not unlike the apartment where the party takes place – part cozily furnished rooftop balcony, part lounge room with enormous glass ceiling to the outside world. These two porous spaces give the play and film its two acts, taking us through a cross-section of gay identities that often reminded me of the second season of American Crime Story, since for its time, this is a genuinely intersectional vision of gay life, at least during the first half. No doubt, the apartment is owned by Michael, a wealthy Chelsea type, but his gathering includes white folk, black folk, Hispanic folk, professional folk, working-class folk and middle-class folk. Some of his guests are flamboyant, some pass for straight, while some are polyamorous, and others yearn for the gay marriage movement that would take several more decades to arrive. It’s quite haunting to immerse yourself in this vision of pre-AIDS domesticity and collectivity, especially since half the cast would perish from AIDS by the early 90s, as Friedkin and Crowley weave a beautiful web of gay sociability – easy-going, generous, cruisey, forgiving, and always folding everything back into the reparative rapport of the group.
As with his adaptation of The Birthday Party, Friedkin complements the theatrical language of Crowley’s play with fluid and caressing direction, effectively turning his camera into another cruisey, curious and generous participant in the night as it unfolds. In his vision, and Crowley’s, queerness is simply a healthier and more generous mode of masculinity – a utopian prospect that is dramatically ruptured when Michael’s friend Alan rocks up at the party. A brilliant portrait of fragile heterosexuality, Alan rings Michael in tears, crashes the gathering, assures Michael that he doesn’t judge him or his friends, and then bashes one of his friends, before retreating upstairs to sulk. To their credit, the gay men are all resilient and comic in the face of this violence, refusing to buy into Alan’s pathos – and Friedkin’s camera follows suit, continuing to pointedly define itself against the reproachful heterosexual gazes that pepper the opening montage sequence, which was presumably Friedkin’s own personal addition to Crowley’s script. Right away, straight masculinity seems like an antiquated and antisocial form of masculine being, discordant and destructive in its need to disrupt the collective momentum and communion that Friedkin and Crowley have so lovingly established.
For a brief beat, it seems like the gay men will survive this interruption, especially when Alan heads upstairs. Michael even jokes that “it’s not always like it happens in plays – not all fags bump themselves off at the end of the story.” Soon after, the film reaches its cruisiest apex with an instrumental rendition of “The Look of Love,” as the senuous proximity between the men settles into a gorgeous collectivity, only to modulate into a sense of imminent danger as the storm breaks outside, destroying everything on the balcony, and forcing the men to take refuge in the lounge room, where the second half unfolds. At this point, The Boys in the Band shifts towards a more recognisable middle-class chamber drama, as Michael devises a “game” of the kind that have preoccupied playwrights ever since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Michael’s game, all of the men have to call a man they have loved over the phone, and confess their love to him, thereby comparing what they can say to each other with what they can say to people out in the mainstream world. At the time, the telephone was still the most instantaneous form of communication, so this sequence forms part of a broader pattern of gay texts measuring gay self-disclosure against the possibilities for technological mediation.
Yet what makes The Boys in the Band so unique is its recognition that technological mediation is always intersectional, and never reducible to one single identity position. Since the whole game is orchestrated by Michael, this is gay self-disclosure is oriented around a white, urbane, middle-class mode of homosexuality, meaning that Bernard, who is black, and Emory, who is Hispanic and disabled, can never hope to disclose themselves with the same fluidity as the other men in the apartment, meaning they can never “win” the game as Michael devises it. As if prescient of this fact, Michael forces Bernard and Emory to go first, humiliating them in a particularly pointed way in the process – Bernard for his blackness and his working-class background, Emory for his Hispanic background and his “sissiness,” which also feels like a cipher for his disability here, insofar as Michael sees excessive camp as a disability in itself. After glimpsing a genuine intersectionality in the first act, Michael now reasserts the need for middle-class white men to determine gay self-mediation and self-identification as a whole, in a damning portrait of the classism, racism and internalised homophobia of the NYC gay community at this time, at least as Crowley appears to have witnessed and experienced it.
No surprise, then, that the first person to win the game comes from the other couple – the white couple – and that he only “wins” it by calling his lover on Michael’s own number, from another phone in the house. Of course, this captures the inability of gay men generally to fully disclose themselves to the wider world at this point in time, as Michael’s fantasy of a phone call “out” to mainstream society is reduced to a parodic call between two phones in his own apartment. Yet by keeping the winning call entirely in his own apartment, Michael also reveals that his game is a zero-sum exercise that can only permit a certain coterie within his gay circle to speak to each other, while silencing the rest, precluding the group as a whole from speaking intersectionally to the world at large, or on behalf of the world at large. In other words, Michael effectively plays the role of director here, treating racism, classism, anti-semitism and internalised homophobia as the necessary collateral damage for crafting a properly regulated mainstream gay identity. This process intensifies when Alan comes back downstairs, since this effort to regulate gay identity is ultimately a response to Alan’s reproachful gaze, and Alan’s own assurance of self-mediation, which climaxes when he plays the game, and appears to have called a male ex-lover, only to be actually speaking to – and reconciling with – his wife.
For a moment, Alan seems to be using the telephone to make love to a man as naturally and effortlessly as he would make love to a woman, so his false disclosure leaves a collective grief and trauma in its wake, as Cowboy hides his head in his hands, and Harold “finishes” the game by reminding Michael that he will always be gay, no matter how eloquently or elegantly he passes for straight. At this point, Crowley and Friedkin present Michael’s need to regulate gay identity as a form of shame consciousness – a realisation that leads Michael to a total breakdown as the guests file out one by one: “If we could just not hate ourselves so much – that’s it, you know – if we could just learn not to hate ourselves so very much.” In this beautiful and agonising conclusion, Crowley and Friedkin are prescient how easily internalised homophobia can disrupt the intersectional project we almost see flower in the first half of the film, resulting in an exclusivist branch of gay life that has continued right down to the present moment. The result is not only Crowley’s greatest play, but the apex of Friedkin’s early career, much as Cruising is the apex of his 70s output, and still one of the best films in his career to date. Converging classical and New Hollywood naturalism on a remarkably matter-of-fact vision of gay life, Friedkin once again confirms himself as one of the most underrated directors of play scripts, in a gorgeous companion piece to The Birthday Party.