On a fairly regular basis, plays that have been made into movies still feel like plays. It is partially the limited number of locations used, but it is much more the feel of the dialogue. A wiser person would put this better, but there is something in the rat-a-tat-tat nature of many exchanges in plays, alongside the increased use of soliloquys, that film simply doesn’t do as much. Consequently, even if you didn’t know that Netflix’s “The Boys in the Band” is based on a play, it wouldn’t take you long to work it out.
Of course—and quite importantly—”The Boys in the Band” is based on a play. Well, a play written by Mart Crowley which premiered in 1968 and the 1970 movie which followed it… and the 2018 revival of the play. This last is crucial because the cast for the new movie is the same as the cast of that revival, and boy is it some cast. Directed by Joe Mantello with a screenplay from Crowley and Ned Martel, this iteration of the story features Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington, Andrew Rannells, Matt Bomer, Brian Hutchison, Tuc Watkins, Charlie Carver, and Zachary Quinto. Each and every member of the group is pitch perfect and incredibly memorable. Not to skip to the end, but it is a heartbreakingly beautiful film and makes one wish that they had seen it performed live on Broadway.
Still taking place in 1968, the tale follows several gay men gathering for a birthday party at one of their apartments in New York City. As the evening progresses and the drinks flow, we learn more and more about each one, seeing their hopes and dreams and fears and failures brought to the fore in turn.
As a straight white man in 2020, I can only imagine (and not fully imagine) the struggle of a gay man in the city in the late 1960s, much less a gay African American or Latinx man (not to imply universality within those subsets). Anything I write about how tough it must have been and the point of it all has a very good chance of coming off as naïve at best and offensive at worst (such is not my intent and I hope that it is clear that should I make any missteps it is due to a lack of knowledge/understanding not a lack of desire for both).
I can tell you that each of the characters very much come across as a product of their experiences, good and bad, rather than individuals cut from whole cloth in order to serve a purpose within the story. “The Boys in the Band” allows one to see through the eyes of these men for a brief, fleeting moment. When they butt heads (which happens frequently), we can see and understand each of their positions. Even when they are not terribly humane, they are so very human.
If the film has a lead character, it is Parsons’s Michael – the apartment is Michael’s, the party has been planned by Michael, and the horrible game of telephone-an-old-friend which dominates the second-half of the movie is Michael’s. It is not his birthday, but he is the center of the affair. And, in a story full of characters in pain, his is the one at the core. I don’t know if it is the deepest or the most raw, but it is through Michael’s actions and instigations that much of the other pain is laid bare.
It is a brilliant performance by Parsons and while I say that, I reiterate that each and every actor here offers up something special. The breakdown Bernard (Washington) experiences is something not to be forgotten, nor is the back and forth between Hank (Watkins) and Larry (Rannells), nor the story told by Emory (de Jesus), nor any of the other moments in the story.
The two hours you spend watching “The Boys in the Band” will fly by, with Mantello’s direction giving each actor a spotlight and never undercutting the play’s dialogue in order to make the whole thing more filmic. And yet, despite it going so quickly, the characters are sure to remain with you long after. Do not let the fact that this is an update/remake allow you to believe that it is somehow not worth the time and effort. It may be (largely) confined to an apartment, but it is a big story with big feelings and emotional performances. It is a triumph and a joy and a heartbreak and it is no less a film for it feeling like a play. Maybe, somehow, that makes it more.
photo credit: Netflix