Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys in the Band” was a genuine provocation during its 1968 Off Broadway run. An account of a gay man’s birthday party in the West Village, crashed by a straight college buddy, it earned its writer disapprobation with respect to its ostensible display of self-hating homosexuals.
A counter argument to that notion may be summed up, in a sense, by the title of a 1971 Rosa von Praunheim film: “It’s Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society In Which He Lives.”
William Friedkin’s 1970 film version of Crowley’s play underscored this idea by focusing on the character of Harold, the birthday celebrant. Initially presented as a caustic super-cynic who could well end up the villain of the piece, he’s ultimately revealed as the only “boy” comfortable in his own skin. His ultimate contempt is for the closet that society has built for his friends, and their complacency about it.
This new film version, directed by Joe Mantello — who also oversaw the 2018 Broadway revival, whose star-studded cast, headed by Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto, is replicated here — is shot, metaphorically at least, through the prism of the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s, which came after the play’s first run, and of the AIDS crisis that came after that. The film aims to compel viewers to ask, how far have we come, really?
The aggressive retro stylings of its speedy opening montage bear the fingerprints of the television creator and producer Ryan Murphy, who served as a producer on this movie as part of his multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix. Those clothes (including neck scarves and cashmere cardigans)! That turntable! That Erma Franklin record! It’s a heady, evocative rush. Murphy’s showy touch, which tends to curdle when overdrawn, doesn’t entirely extend to the rest of the picture, which is zippy and soulful in equal measure.
Mantello does “open up” the play with impressionistic flashbacks, in which characters recall pivotal points of discovering their own sexuality. These don’t add much, but they’re not overly distracting either.
Mostly, his fluid camera swoops and swerves to capture the bitchy, hilarious, sometimes wounding banter between the party guests.
The ensemble is superb, and each member has at least one standout moment, but the movie rides on the shoulders of Parsons, as Michael, the host of the party. Behind his quicksilver wit is a near-desperate desire to people-please. But once confronted with the cowardice and dissembling of his straight college friend, Alan (Brian Hutchison), who seeks out Michael in distress and then baits and assaults one of the guests, Michael’s too-long-sublimated rage emerges.
Parsons, best known as Sheldon on the blockbuster sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” has remarkable control of Michael’s feyness, and it’s startling the way he melts it away to reveal an almost heartbreaking steeliness. Here, Harold is played by Quinto. In Friedkin’s picture, he was embodied by Leonard Frey, a superb actor who died of AIDS in 1988. Frey’s performance is one of the greatest pieces of acting in cinema. It’s no insult to Quinto to say he is merely excellent.
The Boys in the Band
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. Watch on Netflix.