Dir: Joe Mantello. Starring: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Tuc Watkins. 15 cert, 122 mins
It’s 1968, in New York City. Cigarette smoke is thick in the air; shirt collars are wide and alluring. Cramped apartments are packed with objets d’art. A small coterie, all gay men, have gathered for a birthday party. They drink. Things start off merry, then become less so. Each snide remark starts to feel a little more barbed. They drink some more. Before long, the atmosphere has turned bitter and uninhabitable, as buried resentments rise, ungainly, to the surface. No one will be able to leave this room without ripping out their most closely guarded secret and throwing it down for all to see.
These scenes belong to Mart Crowley’s play, The Boys in the Band, which now receives a glossy new film adaptation courtesy of star-producer Ryan Murphy and his $300m deal with Netflix. More precisely, it’s a translation of the 2018 Broadway revival, which Murphy also oversaw. Both have the same director, Joe Mantello, who also oversaw productions of Wicked and Assassins. It’s a fascinating choice of material. Written under the shadow of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the late Sixties, Crowley’s work was radical in its sense of intimacy. And yet, by the time a young William Friedkin came to direct a filmed version, in 1970, the Stonewall riots had taken place and the gay liberation movement had kicked off in earnest. The self-hatred that grips Crowley’s characters suddenly seemed distasteful and out of touch.
Today, The Boys in the Band serves more as a period piece – a stark reminder, too, of the psychological damage that oppression leaves in its wake. Michael (Jim Parsons) has been stretched thin by his dual struggles with personal identity and Catholic guilt; the birthday boy, Harold (Zachary Quinto), hides vulnerability behind an iron-clad wall of ironic detachment. Emory (Robin de Jesús) is unapologetically himself, though wounded. Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) is reserved, Donald (Matt Bomer) is just neurotic. Larry’s (Andrew Rannells) rejection of monogamy has left his straight-laced partner, Hank (Tuc Watkins), in knots. Two outsiders interrupt this gathering: Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a sex worker hired as Harold’s birthday surprise, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s old (and straight) college friend.
But, despite its origins, Mantello’s film still feels like another shiny, highly consumable product of what could be called “the Murphyverse” (the producer is also behind the likes of American Horror Story, Pose, and Ratched). It has all the common elements: jaw-dropping fashion, handsome cinematography, and a tendency towards sentimentality. Murphy has worked with much of the cast before. And while Mantello seems oddly dedicated to replicating the original set design of Freidkin’s film, he can’t quite summon up that film’s sense of claustrophobia, thanks partially to a habit of cutting to flashback whenever a monologue gets too long in the tooth. Here, the grit has been scraped away and replaced with pure melodrama.
There’s a pleasure, certainly, in how electrified these back-and-forths are, as the camera zips around the apartment like an invisible guest. These men talk love, religion, and ageing – Crowley (who passed away in March) and Ned Martel’s screenplay beautifully replicates the natural ebbs and flows of conversation, even as the mood starts to darken. The film features Mantello’s original Broadway cast, all openly gay actors – there are no straight men here trying to win cheap praise for some studied imitation of another’s experience. Neither are there any weak performances. Parsons’s quips – “that’s one thing you can say for masturbation: you don’t have to look your best” – are thrown out casually, like a jacket on a chair. Quinto’s words are pure velvet, unfurling in long, lugubrious sentences. The most tender acting comes from Washington, as he struggles to put words to a long-simmering love for a boy in his youth.
“Show me a happy homosexual,” Michael says, “and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” Today, the line feels ghoulish. But Crowley, back in 1968, was speaking from a place of both personal pain and quiet resilience – even all the glitz and glam of Mantello’s interpretation can’t wash those emotions away. The Boys in the Band still bears the lingering scars of past traumas.