To tell the truth, I have resisted watching The Boys in the Band my whole life, ever since catching a little bit of it on late night TV and getting scared off by Cliff Gorman’s Emory. What can I say? Didn’t we all run screaming from screaming queen stereotypes when we were first coming out?
Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is actually an amazing achievement, given the time it was released and how brutally honest it is emotionally. Set at a bare-your-soul birthday party for the MIA Harold (Leonard Frey), things get off to a rocky start when host Michael’s (Kenneth Nelson) straight, former college roommate Alan (Peter White) calls in tears, needing to talk to him. A somewhat self-loathing Catholic, Michael is terrified of Alan meeting his party guests, especially when the beyond-flamboyant Emory (Gorman) shows up along with a “cowboy” hustler (Robert La Tourneaux) as his present for the birthday boy. Butch lovers Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) show up fighting, as fellow partygoers Donald (Frederick Combs) and Bernard (Reuben Greene) look on.
It doesn’t take long before Alan catches on, although there seems to be some doubt as to how straight he is. A lot of soul-baring and nasty, vicious fighting takes place, which is why the film reminds me so much of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In both shows, a liquored-up host forces his guests to play wrenching parlor games, and both end up in about as shattered a state as the other.
With the distance of time having elapsed, it is possible to watch The Boys in the Band (now available on DVDfor the first time) without cringing at how messed up all of its gay characters seem. Now, I look at them and see the way that society at large (much like the Prop 102 folks) forced them into being ashamed, unfulfilled and generally nasty to each other.
Love 'em or hate 'em, The Boys in the Band were valid representatives of their time. And, even today, it’s hard to imagine a big studio bankrolling a film so insular and unapologetically gay. It’s worth getting to see where we came from, to help us get where we need to be.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.