Starring Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver. Directed by Joe Mantello.
The Boys in the Band comes as part of Ryan Murphy’s megabucks deal with Netflix, it also gave us Hollywood and Ratched, and has done all the things one would expect from Murphy.
In this case, this is the second film iteration of the revolutionary 1968 play by Mart Crowley that dealt frankly with homosexuals in 1968 New York. The first film came in 1970 from director William Friedkin, using the original Off-Broadway cast, this version directed by Joe Mantello uses the 2018 fiftieth anniversary Broadway revival cast.
The film follows a night where Michael, a former alcoholic and lapsed Catholic hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold, an unexpected guest comes in the form of Michael’s old college friend Alan stops by and emotional wounds are opened.
The film should, straight away, be commended for having a cast of entirely out and proud actors, as well as an out and proud director in Mantello perhaps best known for moving television film The Normal Heart. The film is in a pre-AIDs world, where homophobia was the issue of the day but even so there is an element that the film is stuck in the past.
This might be a function of being a relic of its time, revolutionary in the sixties is not revolutionary in 2020, and while it’s interesting to see what was controversial then in the form of LGBT art, in a world where any given week on some HBO show there’s a chance of gay sex it loses some of its bite.
Mantello, along with cinematographer Bill Pope do their best to avoid the film feeling overly stagey, which sometimes works when the film becomes increasingly claustrophobic after a storm forces them off the balcony and inside where an insidious game gets played. The use of highly stylised memory also helps break up a series of monologues, and at times the dialogue feels like it was written for a play, lots of long verbose lines of dialogue, delivered well but at times clearly something for stage.
The setting of the 60s being kept helps the use of slurs as well, many of the characters referring to one another by homophobic words might sit uncomfortably with audiences now but is a reflection of the time, and a lot of it is done in a way that is quite witty. Even so the characters do fall into a sort of cliche – the normal one, the bitchy one, the flamboyant one, the slutty one, the virginal one, the closeted one, the Black one – but again this feels like maybe it comes from the time it was written. Especially given the cliche of a sex worker being unbelievably stupid.
The stage trappings of the writing and setting are mediated though by a raft of performances that really show that the academy needs an ensemble Oscar. Jim Parsons holds the film together with his increasingly emotional performance as Michael, whenever the film looks as if it’s going to fall off the rails, he brings it back by sheer force of his performance, and the support he’s provided is very good. In Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard the only Black member of the group, we get a performance of layers and emotional also, and at times a small meditation on not only homophobia but racism.
As such the film provides ample food for thought, and performances that showcase just what these actors can do, even if it falls down when it comes to truly throwing off the shackles of being stage play put on film, and by the end it does feel like you’ve spent time with a lot of quite unlikeable people. But, as a drama about a moment in time, it’s well made, and perfectly acted.