Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band has had a rollercoaster history, full of ups and downs. The 1968 off-Broadway play was a huge hit, running for over 1,000 performances. It marked the first time that gay lives had been unabashedly presented, warts and all, on stage. The 1970 film version, directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) and out today on DVDfor the first time, only played major cities upon its release but was generally well received.
With the explosion of the sexual revolution and gay liberation movement in the 1970’s, however, The Boys in the Band fell into disfavor. Despite Crowley’s deliciously quotable dialogue (Connie Casserole, anyone?), both play and film were deemed dated, negative and even counter-productive in their depiction of eight gay men and one straight man gathered for a friend’s birthday, where they struggle with such typical issues as friendship, love, commitment, family, coming out and self-acceptance. This sometimes condemnatory change in public perception has no doubt been a factor holding up the movie’s release on DVD.
Having seen the new DVD, I think it is most helpful to viewers to think of The Boys in the Band as a unique and important time capsule. Yes, the characters come off as excessively self-loathing by today’s standards. Thank God, though, that many of us can look back and say so from the more accepted and integrated (if still imperfect) position that the GLBT community finds itself in today partly thanks to such revealing, envelope-pushing works as The Boys in the Band.
The film’s script and cast were almost completely carried over from the original stage production. Leonard Frey’s remains the standout performance as the bitchy but wise “birthday boy,” Harold. There are several documentaries recounting the stage-to-screen journey on the DVD, as well as enlightening commentary by Friedkin and Crowley as well as Dominick Dunne (who was one of the film’s producers) and Angels in America’s Tony Kushner. The documentaries conclude with a sad rundown of the numerous cast members who are now deceased, many as a result of AIDS.
If you’re a gay man who has never seen The Boys in the Band, the DVD is a must-see. If you’ve seen it before and didn’t have a positive reaction to it (like me), it’s worth seeing again primarily as an indicator of how far we’ve come.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.