- Movie Rating -

The Boys in the Band (2020)

| September 30, 2020

Going into Netflix’s new version of Mart Crowley’s 1968 off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band, I promised myself that I would keep an open mind.  This movie lands at an odd point for me because just a few weeks ago I did a piece about William Friedkin’s 1970 film version for my blog and a year ago, I talked about it on my podcast.  That’s problematic because the Friedkin version is so fresh in my mind that any updating runs the risk of feeling like a watered down rerun.

Sadly, that’s pretty much what we have here, but for a more basic reason.  The play itself is captures a moment in time, it takes place in 1968 when gay men were looked upon as a pestilence by the disapproving masses – there were laws in place that kept gays and lesbians from living out loud.  That the play looked into their lives and dealt with how they saw themselves with hard bitter truth was its strong point.  The play, and the Friedkin film, end with the wonderful message that “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves so very much.”  It was a truth bomb for being gay in a most difficult time.

This new version offers the same bitter truths but suffers from looking and feeling too modern.  Yes, it takes place in 1968, but the setting and the characters feel far too contemporary.  This adaptation, which was revised by Crowley (who died in March) and by “American Horror Story” co-producer Ned Martel, transplants the entire cast from the 2018 stage revival with some memorable faces – Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer – but there’s something of this new version that feels out of place.  It feels so contemporary that you always feel that the closet door is standing wide open.  Here in the third decade of the 21st century, the thick atmosphere of gay men looking into their lives and their insecurities doesn’t seem as dangerous as it was 50 years ago.

The setting is 1968 in New York City, before, during and after an all-night birthday party featuring nine men – eight gay and one straight.  The host is Michael (Parsons), who is angry, fussy, middle-aged and worried about the geography of his receding hairline.  He’s also Catholic and a former alcoholic – he claims to have been off the sauce for several months (that doesn’t last).  The birthday party is for Harold (Quinto), an old friend who is a bitchy match for Michael’s insecure tirades.

Into this soiree comes Donald (Bomer), Michael’s former lover; Larry and his soon-to-be-divorced partner Hank, a feuding couple who seem to spent the evening playing a private game of one-upmanship; Emory, the most flamboyant member of the gang; and Bernard, a black man who becomes an unfortunate magnet casual racism once the alcohol starts flowing.  Throughout the evening two unexpected guests arrive.  First is The Cowboy, a lunkheaded stud-for-hire who is Emory’s birthday present to Harold.  And there’s Alan, Michael’s former college roommate who drops in unexpectedly and – whoops! – had no idea that Michael was gay!

The reason that Alan has dropped by is always in question.  He’s straight, but he was so desperate to see Michael that he broke down in tears on the phone.  What comes of his visit is the plays great McGuffin.  What happens seems to push him back in the closet . . . we think.  Whatever the reason, it seems to break open a great confessional.

The most pungent element to Friedkin’s 1970 film version was that it was so filled with heavy emotion and bitterness that it seemed to be floating in the air, much of it emanating from Michael, played in a strong performance by the late Kenneth Nelson.  His verbal attacks on everyone (especially Howard) felt like a loaded gun that he was firing blindly into the night, especially into the plays’ uncomfortable third act – a cruel telephone game in which he forces his party guests to call the person they are most in love with.

Here the role of Michael is played by Jim Parsons, no less an effective actor but there’s something weak about his verbal attacks.  It is less like he’s lobbing truth bombs then persistently having a hissy fit.  They don’t feel like an attack.  During the telephone game the earlier film you felt that the guests were emotionally and physically trapped in that living room.  Here it’s not played as well, and you wonder why they don’t just get up and leave.

To be frank, I just didn’t feel anything in this film.  I didn’t feel that I was getting an outsider’s point of view into a world that seemed foreign to me.  Today there are a thousand pieces about self-examination within the gay community so this new version of The Boys in the Band feels like less impactful.

But, maybe I’m being unfair.  There’s no comparing to the original, and my mind may be jaded by having spent time with Friedkin’s film so recently that its heavy tones are still so fresh.  I don’t know.  See the new film for yourself and decide, but definitely check out Friedkin’s version as well.  You may have a different opinion.  I don’t know.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized