The Boys in the Band (1970) (R)
William Friedkin does not have a great track record for creating gay cinema. This is the guy best known for "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection"; but don't forget that he also made "Cruising" and "The Boys in the Band". Now, his intentions with "The Boys in the Band" are obviously good, because this is one of the first times in cinematic history that gay men occupied the main characters and were able to define themselves. Naturally, in response to a cultural perception and hatred towards homosexuals at the time, the movie wallows in the miseries of being gay while snapping its fingers with a one-two beat and brandishing a scarf.
These gay men must have been something quite unusual to see on the screen in 1970, only a year "Midnight Cowboy" lulled audiences into a soft sense of homo-erotica. The main characters in "The Boys in the Band" are at best stereotypical, but also human. They fulfill some sort of obligation that we had to pass through in order to make more complex works like "Weekend" and "Keep the Lights On" decades later. The first representation we saw on screen had to be of "screaming queens and fairies".
The set-up of the movie—based on the stage play and featuring the original stage actors—is fairly simple and confined to an apartment. Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is throwing a party for a friend. He's assembling all the gay men he knows, most of who fill some sort of deeper understanding of the gay man. There's Donald (Frederick Combs) who is Michael's best friend and also suffering under the pressures of being gay in the world he lives in. Michael and Donald's dialogue is filled with remorse and longing and, in joking fashion with a whistle and a wink, they are able to make light of some of the darkest situations.
This is how the film plays out, in fact, making light out of situations that don't deserve jokes to be made. This is where we get lines like:
There's nothing quite as good as feeling sorry for yourself
Life's a goddamn laugh riot
I hear if you put a knife under your chin it cuts your throat
The gay men here slog through their life, representative of the single night, the birthday party.
Near the beginning of the party, Michael gets a call from an old friend, Alan McCarthy (Peter White) who breaks down and starts crying on the phone, saying that he's got to see Michael. But Alan is a very conservative person and these boys, well, they're quite flamboyant. Alan is expected to come over soon and Michael urges his friends to tone down the gay a little bit before he shows up.
But then he shows up and the shit his the fan.
One guy in particular, Emory (Cliff Gorman), is the most "gay" of all the men. He stands out with his feminine gestures, his gay lisp, and his constant shifting in pronouns to all his friends...he calls them "Miss" or "Mary" or "she". It's his sass that brings out the worst in Alan and the rage against the evil homosexuals starts to boil in Alan as his simple straight mind tries to process all the information before him.
But that's not what the film is really about, it is about living in constant pain. There is pain of rejection, pain of love, and pain in assumption. Essentially, the movie—though it gets aces for representation in a world where there was none—is about how horrible it is to be gay, which is a fine sentiment and the film is more than capable of showing this; but it's the way it goes about it that I have issue with.
Take a birthday game, for example. Harold (Leonard Frey), the birthday boy himself, shows up and Michael starts drinking as the night gets emotional. In a drunken state of voyeuristic villainy, Michael decides that they should play a game: call the one person in the world that you love and tell them that you love them, if you complete all the steps, you get ten points. Ta-da!
The result of the game is watching men break down and emotionally fracture before your eyes while Michael is screaming for more. It's not pleasant and actually really freakin' weird, because who would play this game?
Anyway, my thoughts of the film are very conflicted. At one part, I'm happy that Friedkin and company had the courage to film and portray gay characters in the early 70s. On the other hand, the view is hardly illuminating and while the gay men get to voice themselves and command their own narratives, it's only under the guise that they should be miserable while doing it.
In film terms, it's well-done. Friedkin has an stylistic eye and it's easy to look at in those terms. But the writing, the actions—they are what I take issue with, not for the dated view, but for the sheer oddity.
Posted by Micah Jones