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In 1968, an Off-Broadway play about a birthday party attended by a group of homosexual men made theatrical history by becoming the first play to deal honestly with gay urban life. The party brings together a group of misfits that have become clichs -- the self-loathing alcoholic, the bitchy queen, the flamboyant sissy, the stud-for-hire - for an evening of truth-telling. The film version of The Boys in the Band (1970), starring the play's original cast, has also become a landmark in the history of gays in film. Like many historical artifacts, it now seems dated in its attitudes. But the film's significance is undoubted, and its wicked wit is still intact.
Considering his later focus on action films such as The French Connection (1971) and thrillers such as The Exorcist (1973), director William Friedkin might seem an odd choice to direct The Boys in the Band. But he was the choice of author-producer Mart Crowley, who had seen Friedkin's film version of Harold Pinter's play, The Birthday Party (1968). Crowley later told Friedkin biographer Nat Segaloff, "I thought, well, anybody who has this gift of imagery within such enormous confines of a play with so much verbiage, and can still make some film imagery and get some movement and action out of it, then this is it." Wisely, Friedkin avoided "opening up" the play, only using the opening credits sequence to establish the details of the characters' outside lives, but confining the action to the events at the party. He also worked closely with Crowley on shaping the screenplay from Crowley's play. It was Crowley, however, who insisted on using the play's original cast in the film. Friedkin would have preferred more freedom in casting, but worked with the actors during a three-week rehearsal period to explore what he called "the real possibilities" of their roles.
Friedkin also insisted in interviews that the film was "not about the gay world, but about human problems." That kind of qualification may have been necessary at the time, but just weeks before The Boys in the Band went before the cameras, an event happened that would change the world's perception of gays, and gay attitudes about themselves. In June of 1969, patrons of a New York gay bar called Stonewall resisted police raids, launching the gay liberation movement. The movement, more than anything, has turned The Boys in the Band, with its miserable gay men, into a period piece, albeit an entertaining one. Friedkin, in fact, would later become a target of protests by the gay community because of his film Cruising (1980), a lurid murder mystery set in the gay S & M club scene.
Another factor dating The Boys in the Band is that the film was made before the AIDS epidemic, so it does not address that issue. Sadly, several of the film's actors, including Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Keith Prentice, Frederick Combs and Robert La Tourneaux, would die from AIDS-related illnesses.
The Boys in the Band did score a very real breakthrough at the time it was released, earning an R rating from the MPAA. Just the year before, The Killing of Sister George (1968) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) had both gotten X ratings simply because there were homosexual characters in the films.
Mainstream critics in 1970 treated The Boys in the Band with respect, even when criticizing its glibness and staginess. "If the situation of the homosexual is ever to be understood by the public," Time magazine's critic wrote ponderously, "it will be because of the breakthrough made by this humane, moving picture." In the years since, the critical pendulum has swung back and forth on the film, from Vito Russo's pronouncement in his book about gay images in film, The Celluloid Closet (1980), that "The internalized guilt of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form", to the more recent Gary Morris' 1999 re-evaluation in Bright Lights Film Journal: Writing about a revival of the film in 1999, San Francisco Chronicle critic Edward Guthmann put it in perspective: "In the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that's a good thing."
Director: William Friedkin
Producer: Mart Crowley
Screenplay: Mart Crowley, based on his play
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Editor: Gerald B. Greenberg, Carl Lerner
Costume Design: W. Robert La Vine
Production Designer: John Robert Lloyd
Principal Cast: Kenneth Nelson (Michael), Frederick Combs (Donald), Leonard Frey (Harold), Cliff Gorman (Emory), Reuben Greene (Bernard), Robert La Tourneaux (Cowboy), Laurence Luckinbill (Hank), Keith Prentice (Larry), Peter White (Alan).
by Margarita Landazuri