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The Boys in the Band | Review

Walk-in Closets: Mantello Resurrects the Classic Queer Miasma of Fear & Loathing

Joe Mantello The Boys in the Band In the five decades since it first arrived off-Broadway, Matt Crowley’s seminal play The Boys in the Band remains one of the few creative achievements which reflects a sensibility of being both for and by gay American men. William Friedkin’s 1970 film adaptation, adapted by Crowley himself, assisted in its ascension into the zeitgeist, where it was initially celebrated and reviled. As Vito Russo wrote at length in his groundbreaking study on queer representation in cinema The Celluloid Closet, “it immediately became both a period piece and a reconfirmation of stereotypes.”

Resurrected on Broadway in 2018 in a production which featured all openly gay actors, many of whom return for a new film version directed by Joe Mantello (Love! Valour! Compassion!, 1997). If the original was a creation out of the subculture, directed by a heterosexual auteur (notably, Friedkin would dawn a new decade with another contentious queer offering with 1980’s Cruising), what then of this recuperation formatted more cohesively through a subculture which has reached not only a modicum of equality but assimilation into the mainstream (at least for the white cis gay men Crowley’s play by and large speaks to)? Is it not, as Russo contended in 1981, still a “bitter reflection?”

In 1968 New York City, Michael (Jim Parsons) is throwing a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto), inviting five of their mutual friends for the celebration. Donald (Matt Bomer), an anxiety-ridden friend with whom Michael might have secret affections for, arrives a day early. Add to the mix the ostentatious Emory (Robin de Jesus), troubled couple Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins), the quiet Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) and the party seems to be complete as they await the perennially late Harold. Merrymaking seems to be well under way when Michael’s old college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchison) makes an unexpected visit. But Alan is heterosexual, forcing Michael to quell the queerness for the comfort of his old acquaintance, whose visit is potentially suspicious, and who the host apparently has mixed feelings. As the liquor flows, the claws come out and a night of disastrous manipulations ensues.

As is the case with all remakes, especially when the original is considered a pervasive cornerstone of not only a period but a counterculture movement, The Boys in the Band cannot rightly be spoken of without acknowledgement of its original adaptation. If it no longer is merely a reconfirmation of stereotypes rather than a glimmering pu pu platter of ‘types’ of queerness defined within the context of 1968 American social mores, it’s still just as period as ever, even while dealing with issues and anxieties which still affect the LGBTQ+ community today.

If Mantello is able to conjure an intimacy amongst these eight men which Friedkin wasn’t capable of approaching in any regard (mostly thanks to flashbacks of physicality and our relaxed standards on male nudity, which allows for, in one instance, the burning fire of a desiring male gaze which speaks more volumes than the venomous manipulations exchanged in the dialogue), a contemporary problem instead exists with at least some elements of the casting. In other words, the faces and physiques somewhat provide a disconnect from 1968, especially since physical attraction and attributes are defining characteristics for these characters. Matt Bomer, for instance, doesn’t ever read as a product of 1968, though his character Donald remains one of the understated personas, more of a catalyzing wallflower for not just Michael, but a specter in the midst of Hank and Larry.

Jim Parsons is commanding and effectual as the self-loathing Michael, but despite his dramatic acrobats sometimes feels a bit shrill to the ear, if such an adjective can describe the affect of the drawling Southern Belle. A formidable standout is Robin de Jesus as the flamboyant Emory, as the character was for the similarly scene-stealing Cliff Gorman in the original—but the attractiveness of de Jesus also doesn’t gel with the palpable nastiness thrown at Emory, who beyond his effeminate demeanor (described as a “butterfly in heat”) is also somewhat of a tragic, pathetic sissy, the butt of many of the group jokes. In this capacity, de Jesus generates a resilience which softens some of these blows, though Crowley’s handful of passages delving into the racial intersections of the group, and the innate microaggressions of Michael and his mostly white posse, still commands empathy and catharsis when Emory asks Michael Benjamin Washington’s Bernard for forgiveness concerning the various racial epithets he had felt were appropriate.

Tuc Watkins and Andrew Rannells as the fraught couple Hank and Larry, characters whose shared emotional connection, abusive as it sometimes is, caused the most discomfort in the 1970 version (and thus, were mostly neglected in initial critiques) stand-out as the most timeless piece in this version. But what was once more arguably despairing feels like more of a dark comedy than ever.

If The Boys and the Band had the bad luck of being representative of all queer culture due to the extreme lack of representation fifty years ago, our contemporary distance shows how far we might have come but how tragically far we’ve yet to go with our own self-love and self-acceptance as a community. Though the cowboy birthday favor has as little do this time around as he did in 1970 sans providing an easy cutting board as the handsome stud they all desire and despise, Charlie Carver proves to be excellent casting, somewhat resembling Robert La Tourneux (who credited his presence in the Friedkin film as ruining his career in cinema). On the other hand, if there’s any major complaint to be had in this welcome re-working, it’s Zachary Quinto as the toxic epicenter of their pseudo-revelry, Harold. It’s the only performance which plays like a tired caricature from the original cast, and Quinto plays the malicious frenemy as if he’s donned the drag of Leonard Frey, whose unforgettable entrance in the original hardly registers in this version (Friedkin, for instance, always seemed to cast a roving eye on Harold, while Mantello often lets him blur into the background, carted out for his obligatory critiques from the sideline).

Shot by Bill Pope (Bound; The Matrix), the action of the film feels a bit more open than the original, allowed as we are more snippets beyond the confines of Michael’s apartment. Certainly, this is obligatory viewing, but The Boys in the Band cannot be divorced from the power of Friedkin’s original—though at least, the marriage is legal.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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