The Boys in the Band review – fierce fun and games in the pre-Aids era | Film

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Hammy and stagey and campy it might be, but The Boys in the Band turns out to have a fiercely watchable soap-operatic intensity, a sustained attack of telenovela craziness, culminating in a full-on anxiety attack from its leading character. It’s based on the 1968 off-Broadway hit by Mart Crowley (who died in March this year) about a group of gay men in New York gathering for a birthday party in an era before Stonewall, before Aids, a time when metropolitan sophisticates sort of tolerated “swishiness” in the bohemian arts scene, and when Gore Vidal was saying, pour épater les bourgeois, that there were homosexual acts but no homosexual people.

The play was turned into a film directed by William Friedkin in 1970 and the title is taken from the line in A Star Is Born (1954), when James Mason tells Judy Garland: “You’re singing for yourself and the boys in the band.” Now there is a new version: sleeker and smoother than Friedkin’s, from actor turned director Joe Mantello, and produced for Netflix by Ryan Murphy, whose miniseries, Hollywood, featured Mantello in an acting role.

Jim Parsons plays Michael, a semi-employed writer and closet Catholic worried about money, God and his receding hairline. A former hookup called Donald (Matt Bomer) has come to help him throw a birthday party for a friend in Michael’s exotically bijou apartment (like somewhere Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly might live).

The festivities are in honour of ad-man Harold, an outrageously louche and dyspeptic performance from Zachary Quinto. Among the other guests, Hank (Tuc Watkins) is a straight-seeming guy who is leaving his wife and kids to be with Larry (Andrew Rannells), whose promiscuities are driving him crazy. Robin de Jesús is the uproariously queeny designer Emory and Michael Benjamin Washington is an African American student called Bernard.

From the very first, there is no relaxation among these people. They seem more like frenemies than friends and there’s a constant static crackle of brittle bitchiness in the air, particularly between Michael and Harold, who in theory should be the most intimate. The atmosphere is even tenser when Michael’s old college roommate phones him out of the blue in a state of near emotional breakdown. This is Alan (Brian Hutchinson), a supposedly happily married heterosexual and family man, who then shows up uninvited; he is disgusted by the open queeniness, but has other more complex emotions as well.

The look and feel of The Boys in the Band are different from, say, TV’s 1960s drama Mad Men, whose closet gay designer Salvatore famously leaves his wife and disappears into Central Park. The issues and themes have not been processed and repackaged in the same ironised, indirect way. We are basically getting something direct from 1968. We are drinking it neat, and, although it might seem dated, it is still challenging in 2020 to see a play or movie in which all the characters are gay. These men all gather together like suspects in an Agatha Christie mystery. But there is no mystery, not even, arguably, with Alan.

Let’s dance … from left, Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesús, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells.



Let’s dance … from left, Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesús, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells. Photograph: Scott Everett White/Netflix

The main event comes with a bizarre and emotionally sadistic game that Michael makes everyone play, when they are sufficiently drunk and overexcited. Each has to phone up the one person from their past with whom they first fell in love, and are still secretly in love. It sounds like a contrived and melodramatic premise for big speeches and flashbacks and that’s precisely what it is. And yet it delivers a punch, simply for being so vehement, so anguished and angered.

There are quite a few arch wisecracks. “That’s the pot calling the kettle beige,” drawls Harold, and a weary Michael at one stage confesses: “That’s one thing you can say for masturbation: you don’t have to look your best.”

The Boys in the Band appears to come from a more innocent, or at least more naive time, as yet politically unradicalised by Aids and the backlash of homophobia, when the issue was acceptance, a goal that seemed to be matter of gradually changing taste. But it’s still refreshing to watch something which is, after all, a film of ideas, a spectacle in which people speak to each other in extended paragraphs. It is all unexpectedly potent, particularly in the absurdity and petulance and pain that Parsons crams into his performance. It’s a strange, compelling dose of unhappiness.

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Source: The Guardian
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