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Netflix Review: The Boys in the Band (2020)

January 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

I will never forget the first time that I watched the original film version of The Boys in the Band. Directed by William Friedkin, and adapted from the late Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play of the same name, the 1970 film details the lives of a group of gay men in New York City circa 1968, offering a still potent mix of wit, humour, anger and heartbreak.

Set at a birthday party made up of seven gay men, a suspected “closet queen” and a “midnight cowboy” callboy, Crowley’s Off-Broadway play was the first to focus exclusively on the lives of openly gay men. Friedkin’s film subsequently became one of the first movies to do so as well, making it a seminal piece within the canon of queer cinema.

Director Joe Mantello and producer Ryan Murphy remade the film for Netflix on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary in 2020, and the result is a remake that, while not quite as impactful as the original, is still very good in its own right. This is essentially a film version of the play’s 2018 Broadway revival, which was notable for having a cast made up entirely of openly gay actors, who all reprise their roles here. It’s a commendable casting choice that also helps the film stand apart from the original.

The story takes place over one night, and unfolds almost entirely at an apartment belonging to Michael (Jim Parsons). Michael is hosting a birthday party for self-described “pock-marked Jew fairy” Harold (Zachary Quinto), who is fashionably late, and the guests includes a variety of mutual friends. There’s Donald (Matt Bomer), the sometimes bed partner of Michael’s; Hank (Tuc Watkins), who is in the process of divorcing his wife and arrives with his new partner Larry (Andrew Rannells); Emory (Robin de Jesús), who is the most flamboyant of them; and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), the only Black man, making him further marginalized within the group.

Michael’s plans for a fun evening of food and dancing are upended when he gets a phone call from his old college roommate Alan McCarthy (Brian Hutchison), who announces that he is in New York on business. Alan breaks down crying on the phone and asks to see him, but Michael tells him it’s not a good idea for him to come to the party. Alan shows up anyways, leading to tensions within the group.

Alan claims to be straight, and is married to a woman, but his repression is apparent right from the moment he walks through the door. He’s visibly uncomfortable in the presence of gay men, and his sexuality becomes one of the great question marks of the story. The ninth guest is a pretty but not too bright hustler (Charlie Carver) that Emory brings as a birthday present for Harold, who observes the goings-on around him with a sort of simple bemusement.

The second half of the film focuses on a telephone game that Michael drunkenly forces the guests to play, in which every participant must call up someone they love and tell them how they really feel. It’s here that the interactions between the characters reach a boiling point, and the actors are really able to show their range. There are some amazing acting moments courtesy of de Jesús and Washington, in particular, who both offer a masterclass in allowing the emotion of a scene to play solely off of their faces, as their characters call up unrequited loves from their past.

Taking over for the late Kenneth Nelson, who starred in the original film, Parsons delivers the best performance that he has ever given in the role of Michael. As the story progresses, Michael becomes increasingly nasty and antagonistic towards those around him, and Parsons does a brilliant job of portraying his neurosis and insecurities. The character’s own self-hatred comes to the forefront as the film goes on, with his practising Catholicism and talk about psychoanalysis suggesting that he has internalized a message of being “intrinsically disordered.”

While the “self-hating homosexual” is seen by many to be a stereotype, and I do understand why it’s a characterization that continues to make viewers uncomfortable, I think Crowley tapped into something more real with the character than a lot of people would like to admit. I am fascinated by the way that Crowley’s script so frankly explores things like the closet and internalized homophobia. Michael dubs it “Christ, was I drunk last night syndrome,” a phenomenon of men sleeping with each other under the guise of inebriation, only to deny it the next day, something that very clearly still exists.

The way that Crowley wrote the character of Alan also remains fascinating, as he maintains a certain ambiguity to the question of whether or not he is actually gay. One of the most powerful parts of the story for me is the realization that you can’t force someone out of the closet, and some people aren’t ready to accept it and will continue to deny this part of themselves. Whether or not the pressure that Michael puts upon Alan to come out in the last act sends him spiralling even further into despair is one of the most interesting, lingering questions that the script leaves us with.

The material itself has been accused of being a dated byproduct of its time, but I actually think that Crowley’s text maintains much of its relevance, not least of which as a portrait of the confusion around being gay in the late 1960s. The gay and racial slurs that are used freely throughout do shock, especially in a film made nowadays. But without them, The Boys in the Band would lose some of its impact, not to mention its authenticity to the time period, as ugly as that may sometimes be.

I don’t know if Mantello, who also directed these actors in the Broadway production, really improves upon Friedkin’s film, but him and his cast certainly do justice to the material. Mantello also brings some of his own touches to it, including adding some brief, artsy flashbacks during the telephone game to give it a more cinematic flair, and also extending the ending to offer a few more scenes.

This is ultimately a good movie because the material itself is so good, and Mantello and Murphy have assembled a dream cast to once again bring it to life. The entire ensemble does excellent work in their respective roles, and there really isn’t a weak link among them. While I think I still prefer the original, primarily for its slightly grittier aesthetic and closer proximity to the time period that it depicts, The Boys in the Band is a solid remake that deserves to be seen in its own right.

The Boys in the Band is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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