Time for an anomaly in the “Best Movies Ever?” canon: I’m not saying I completely adore the 1970 gay ensemble curio The Boys in the Band, but I am saying it’s essential. It’s also bizarre, provocative, embarrassing, really senseless, and sometimes totally funny. Since its release, the movie has been so discussed, ballyhooed, and reviled that you can never what quite tell what its official reputation is. It’s a movie that’s more often referenced than seen (at least nowadays, unless you caught the “making of” documentary that came out last year), and the thing is, you should really see it. Because I’m willing to bet there’s a large percentage of gay dudes today who can’t even imagine what being gay in the New York of the late ’60s looked or sounded like. Even if this movie’s pat, often self-loathing characters don’t pierce the heart of that reality, it’s nice to have a cinematic lens (albeit a cloudy one) to that era. It’s also nice to have a 40-year-old movie where gay dudes turn to each other and snap, “You’ve had worse things in your mouth.” Immortally powerful lines like that should be in the Bible, but they’re not, so we have The Boys in the Band to sanctify homo-tastic pithiness. You have to love that.
Previous “Best Movie Ever?” nominees like E.T., Stand By Me, and hell, even Scream outrank The Boys in the Band in terms of powerful storytelling. Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin helmed the movie, but he’s working with a few too many unsatisfying storylines (and a couple of OK ones) to forge a perfect movie. That said, there are at least five doubloons of awesomeness to mine here. I count ’em up below.
1. Did I mention that it’s funny?
The story goes like this: A purple-sweatered recovering alcoholic named Michael (Kenneth Nelson) hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold (Leonard Frey) in an Upper East Side apartment in the late ’60s. Michael invites four other gay guys and begrudgingly allows his old college roommate Alan (Peter White), a purported heterosexual, to drop by after he calls and says he needs to see Michael desperately. The party shifts from lively and blithe to bleak and monologue-heavy over the course of the film, and because the action is mostly contained to the apartment’s living room, it feels a whole lot like a play. No surprise, The Boys in the Band is an adaptation of a same-named off-Broadway production, and the cast of the movie is the same. Fancy.
But before screamy psychodrama takes over the plot, these homos lob a ton of hilarious insults at each other. Birthday boy and monotone quip thug Harold’s barbs range from the ribald (“Your lips are turning blue. You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman.”) to the damning (“What I am, Michael, is a 32 year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s god damned business but my own. And how are you this evening?”) Yow! My favorite line is Michael’s, after he calls his friend Donald (Frederick Combs) “stunning,” and clarifies, “You look like sh*t, but I’m absolutely stunned.” Jealous of that one.
2. The straight guy is the real caricature.
I’m always annoyed when I hear the term “cliche” thrown around about gay characters. Tell me a single straight character in any TV show or movie who isn’t a straight “cliche.” I doubt you can come up with one. I feel like that should mean somethng.
In The Boys in the Band, Michael’s old college roommate Alan drops by the apartment to unleash scads of nervous energy and eventually throw a few punches at the homo he deems most flaming. He is a nutjob and his character arc ostensibly goes nowhere. (Though he does end up claiming he loves his wife, even though Michael convinces him to stay at the party because of his secret man-on-man past — or something? Kind of confusing.) Point is, it’s nice that the homos get all the brilliant quips while this contemptuous bastard lingers in the background like a humorless brick of cardboard.
3. These homos look priceless.
We’re talking about the outfits because I covet a number of them.
Dig Harold (left) and his pine green blazer, rose-colored glasses, and his perfect, Bert Convy-shaped coif. His snakey movement is so mechanical and steady that I’ve renamed him Robo-Swish. Dig Cowboy (right), Harold’s birthday trick who rocks an open shirt and Hilary Swank-as-Amelia Earhart realness. Also, guess what? The ascot/bandana thing? Is going to come back. Hard. In paisley and pinstripes. I’m calling it now. Not joking. Give it three years.
Dig the movie’s resident interior decorator, Emory, whose look combines a Caesar haircut, Jo Anne Worley facial gymnastics, and a traditional V-neck sweater. If you watch Weeklings!, you already know that V-necks are simply gay decorative penises. Divine.
4. The climactic “game” is horrifying and I want to play.
After the party settles down, Michael, the once composed host whose precipitious slip into his old alcoholism has transformed him into a caustic, screaming bastard, orders his guests (who’ve been through enough already) to play a game: In it, the guest must dial up an old crush/flame on the phone, identify himself, and tell the call recipient that he’s still in love with him. Oh, the unnecessary drama! It’s a perfect idea. Hell, I’d play just to call up somebody completely inessential from my past and randomly claim to love that person. Unfortunately, the movie uses this game as a forum for unjustified Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style psychological warfare (Michael starts hollering epithets and yelling, “CALL HIM” to reticent participants), but I remain convinced that the game is the perfect party affair. You get points for humiliating yourself! Where are Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor shoot whiskey with these kids?
5. I believe the friendships.
The Boys in the Band would’ve been a better movie if it didn’t have a conflict. Seriously. I’d rather watch these six people exist together, mock each other, and ultimately understand each other than dredge up weird psychological issues and pretend they stood for greater LGBT concerns. In the final act, Michael is revealed to be a self-loathing gay man who’s barely clinging to sanity, and that stands in stark contrast to the fun and boisterous guy we meet at the film’s start. In one scene Michael has an exchange with his pal Donald (Frederick Combs), and after referencing “Get Happy,” Michael groans, “What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?” Without skipping a beat, Donald retorts, “A queen doing a Bette Davis impression.” Somehow, it’s the warmest moment in the movie to me. I just believe it, and them. Maybe Donald, slight though his part is, is the most realistic character.
But I really want to hear from people who saw this movie closer to when it premiered. I can’t imagine your feelings haven’t shifted towards it, which points out the primary reason I wanted to write about this movie today: Unlike other movies that you simply like or dislike, you have to have a relationship with this one. And maybe it’s even a fond one.