Ryan Murphy’s reboot of The Boys in the Band is one of his strongest offerings since moving to Netflix, partly because it refrains from the more overt historical revisionism of some of his recent releases, and partly because he has a tight structure to work with – the 1968 play by Mart Crowley, and the 1970 film adaptation by William Friedkin. Crowley’s play, and Friedkin’s adaptation, both revolve around a group of gay men who are gathering for a birthday party, at the home of Michael, a wealthy New York urbanite played by Jim Parsons. Michael is throwing the party for his friend Harold, played by Zachary Quinto, who only arrives during the second half, allowing us to spend the first half getting to know this small cross-section of New York gay culture, played here by Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Robin de Jesus, Brian Hutchinson, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins, along with an escort, played by Charlie Carver, who’s hired for the occasion. Before the party starts, however, Michael receives a phone call from his married friend Alan, played by Hutchison, who seems on the verge of disclosing his homosexuality, before turning up to the party unexpected, and alternately scolding and sulking to shake off some of his closeted frustration.
The reboot follows exactly the same plot, and plays more like a homage to the original play and film than a radical transformation, although there are some subtle and powerful changes made to accommodate the present as well. Directed by Joe Mantello, the actors all follow Crowley’s original script, with a few additions by Ned Martel, but feel just as driven by Friedkin’s adaptation, since they mimic the appearance, delivery and body language of the original cast in quite an uncanny manner. Like the original cast, all the actors here are gay, so this often feels like a tribute to that cast, most of whom either died of AIDS, returned to or remained in the closet, or languished in semi-obscurity after the brief moment of visibility that Crowley and Friedkin provided. You sense that Murphy and Mantello made the cast watch the original film many times, if they hadn’t already, since Friedkin’s vision is embedded in their every look and gesture, reiterating it as one of the most underrated films in his own career, and the highlight of the first era of his career in the build up to The French Connection.
In fact, the first half here falls significantly short of Friedkin’s direction – especially Friedkin’s ability to bring theatrical adaptations to life with innovative and evocative film language. As a Netflix film, staginess is less conspicuous than it would be in a big-screen release, but even so Mantello doesn’t alternate between speech and silence as elegantly as the original, with much of the opening act playing like a patter song, so rapid-fire and barbed is the delivery. As a result, the opening party scenes don’t quite capture the gay sociability, and the sensuous proximity of bodies, as well as the original – at least not initially – nor does the 2020 film balance snarkiness with tenderness quite so effectively, although it is much funnier at times.
That all changes, though, when Alan arrives, since forty years later Mantello has much more latitude for a robust depiction of the kind of heterosexual fragility that Alan embodies. From his first teary call to Michael, to the moment when he arrives at the front door – in the midst of a dance scene – his dissonance is both more dramatic and more quotidian here, more abrasive but also mopier, set in a monotonous hangdog key that exudes a continual low-level resentment at gay pleasure, and the visibility of gay pleasure. Rather than giving this heterosexual crisis too much pathos, Mantello presents him as an unfortunate irritant that the party has to dodge and weave around in order to survive – an antisocial aberration that the homosexual world has to simply learn to accomodate, rather than the other way around. Alan himself is also much more abject and pathetic than in the original film, continually on the verge of tears, and largely divested of even the most residual hubris – the kind of fragile straight man that perhaps only a gay man – an older gay men – could play with such precision.
In the original film, Alan operated as the hinge between the first act, which celebrated gay sociability, and the second act, which mourned gay self-destructiveness. With Alan more punctured, however, this distinction doesn’t hold as strictly – and it’s here that the more abrasive first act starts to ramify, since it prevents the second act “descending” too far into tragedy. Just as the first act is snarkier than the original, so the second is more tender. As in Friedkin’s film, the transition takes place against a Bacharach montage, as a rain storm forces the party inside – the set is also remarkably similar to Friedkin’s film – but this time the song is “This Guy’s in Love With You,” sung by a man, rather than the more elegiac “Look of Love.”
Most of the second act revolves around a game in which each man has to phone the one man he loved, and declare his love, but even this is less cruel and caustic than in the original play and adaptation. In Mantello’s hands, this game becomes a way for the men to share their stories – anecdotes about the closest they ever came to real love. These stories are all accompanied by sensuous flashbacks that focus mainly on bodily contours, with faces and backgrounds blurred, beautifully capturing the bittersweet memories of half-formed and half-realised early gay crushes – and captivating all of the men despite themselves. Not all the stories are tragic either, since two of the men at the party are effectively married, and declare their love for one another, above and beyond their squabbles about their open relationship.
If the first half doesn’t resonate quite as deeply as Friedkin’s film, it’s only to make this second half even stronger and more tender than Friedkin’s vision – the kind of tenderness that could perhaps only arise from a gay director filming gay actors playing gay characters. While the whole cast are great, the highlight is a series of two-handers between Parsons and Quinto, since both have a nerdy energy – The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek – that works perfectly for the anarchic and offbeat gay energy on display here. Parsons, in particular, is doing some of the best work of his career at the moment, and seems to have found a new range since coming out – he was easily the highlight of Hollywood, Murphy’s most recent series, and he steals the show here, although Quinto’s version of Leonard Frey comes pretty close as well.
Parsons is also responsible for ensuring that the more liberated atmosphere of Mantello’s film never erases the particular historical trauma these men are experiencing either. After all, this still 1968, and Alan still has some licence – as he still would in the present – to puff himself up as the voice of heteronormative regulation. Brazenly insisting on normality even though he’s the odd man out, and presuming to judge a party that he himself crashed, he’s a perfect vision of the mopey homosocial excess of heterosexuality that can’t or won’t concede his continuity with the homosexual world. This figure is so familiar from the popular politics of the present that it feels especially oppressive to see him operating forty years in the past, especially in the brilliant climax and crisis, when he pretends to call his old boyfriend, and so affirm the visibility of the party, only to call his wife instead, and reiterate his closeting logic.
As in the original, this decimates the party, but now sends Michael into an even more dramatic breakdown, as if the historical weight of forty years of gay liberation had settled on his shoulders. In the high point of his oeuvre to date, Parson beautifully captures the continuous collapse and reconfiguration that comprises so much gay identity, trying several times to get his face back together before he too leaves the party, wandering the streets until he breaks into a run that takes him away from the camera’s last shot, towards a present he can’t fully conceptualise, and a present that still hasn’t completely arrived. While I quite like the blithe revisionism of Murphy’s late style, this ending provides a different kind of balance between past and present, as Murphy and Mantello reaffirm the enduring relevance of Crowley’s vision in such a manner that they don’t even have to revise, transform or adapt it.