Boys in the Band (1970) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman
“Boys in the Band” is one of the benchmarks of cinema. One of the first films to portray overtly gay characters intended for mainstream audiences. The film is also notable for being an early William Friedkin film – just before his phenomenal 1970’s successes “The French Connection” and “Exorcist”.
The new DVD release makes for good timing. Gus Van Sant’s terrific biopic “Milk”, on Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to hold public office opens in limited release this week. As well, the controversial repeal of gay marriage in California has put the issue of gay rights back into the spotlight.
“Boys in the Band” isn’t about gay rights, but it was arguably the ‘coming out’ party for Hollywood into the regular public. Before 1970, gay characters were disguised as fashion designers, hairstylists, or deviant anti-social types (like the murderous ‘roommates’ in Hitchcock’s “Rope”). So it was natural coinciding with liberalization of Hollywood that gays could comfortably come out of the closet on screen.
The film, written by Mart Crowley based on his successful Broadway play, portrays the ups and downs of a night in the life of a group of gay men in New York. Michael (Kenneth Nelson) has assembled his coterie of close friends for a surprise birthday party for his pal Harold (Leonard Frey). But when Michael’s old college roommate (straight roommate that is), Alan, shows up it spurs conflict which will test the relationships with each other.
The film waxes and wanes between comedy and tragedy. It’s a telegraphed trajectory, often contrived to create and maintain conflict. At one point Michael’s friend Alan starts a physical fight with Michael’s most flamboyant and thus threatening friend Emory. Despite punches being thrown Alan, for some undiscernable reason, continues to hang out at the party.
Friedkin lays on the metaphors a little heavy too. At the height of the party it starts to rain, bringing everyone inside, which is when the film turns darker (cinema note: bad things happen when it rains on screen). Once the party goes inside, Michael, seemingly without reason, turns into devilish manipulator – forcing everyone into a complex game of telephone truth or dare.
Crowley via Michael’s character reveals the dark internal self-loathing many closeted homosexuals felt at the time. It’s on the nose, but Crowley and Friedkin needed to be very clear about the film and it message. After decades of closeted cinematic sexuality, subtly with these issues understandably takes a backseat.
Friedkin’s direction is sharp. He does his best to lift the material outside of its inherent ‘theatricalness’ – with some confident camerawork – sometimes handheld and documentarylike (as in “French Connection”) sometimes traditional locked off coverage. His assured direction makes the confined apartment seems less clausterphobic.
“Boys in the Band” seems surprisingly relevant today, the dialogue uses terms, like “the closet”, “ménage” which were probably new to audiences at the time, but are commonplace now. The variety of gay personas seems authentic and up to date – free of clichés, which would be assumed for such an early film. Watching the film as pure entertainment may disappoint, but as a cultural benchmark it's an important film. Enjoy.
"Boys in the Band" is available on DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment