Mark S. King

Why Are We Still Haunted by 'The Boys in the Band'?

Filed By Mark S. King | June 21, 2011 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: Boys In the Band, gay movies, gay stereotypes, movies, old films

When I was 15 years old, I couldn't wait to attend a local community theater production of The Boys in the Band. I was intrigued by the play's dark and mysterious reputation, and had heard that it included a lot of homosexuality (funny how that word isn't used much anymore). It sounded like exactly what this budding young queer needed: some lessons about the yellow brick road ahead.

BAND cast.jpgI didn't like what I saw. The characters, a group of gay men celebrating a birthday, were mean and sad and angry with one another. And they were all presented like weird, exotic animals, bitching and crying for the lascivious thrill of a very shocked audience in Shreveport, Louisiana. I left the show feeling terribly disenchanted, fearing my life was destined to be drunken and pathetic.

It was the theatrical opposite of an It Gets Better video.

In the insightful and appropriately melancholy new documentary Making the Boys, the remarkable journey of the groundbreaking play and movie adaptation is discussed by playwright Mart Crowley and a host of gay cultural voices, old and new.

When The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway in 1968, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. The play's behind-the-scenes peek at gay men in their natural habitat was fascinating to audiences and greeted with enthusiasm from the gay community. Yes, they were maladjusted, self hating fags, but they were our maladjusted, self hating fags.

But in 1969, as the movie version was being filmed only blocks from the Stonewall bar, a riot occurred at the club in response to constant police harassment. The modern gay rights movement was born. Seemingly overnight, New York gays stood up for themselves and demanded some respect - from others and, more importantly, themselves.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for makingtheboyssplash.jpgBy the time the film version of The Boys in the Band opened in 1970, the story and its sad characters felt like a politically incorrect relic. We wanted nothing to do with these old, bitter friends anymore. They didn't reflect our "pride."

Opinions about the show vary wildly, as evidenced by the interviews in the documentary. Gay playwright Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?") always hated the show and still does. The surviving actors (the theatrical cast all recreated their roles for the film) staunchly defend the humanity of their characters. And younger gays interviewed about the show have no idea what the hell we're talking about. "I don't really know about any boys in the band," states perplexed gay fashion star Christian Siriano. "Honey, I've got dresses to make!"

The Boys in the Band has become a litmus test for how you view our ability to love ourselves. And those boys continue to reverberate and reflect our attitudes and tribulations as gay men, and that includes the AIDS crisis.

Try watching the film today, and you have an odd compulsion. You see these characters laughing and bitching, and you want to reach through the screen and shake them and warn them, to tell them about something coming, something too awful to describe, of a plague they can't possibly comprehend that is coming to kill them all.

Boys in the Band movie still.jpgIndeed, at one point in Making the Boys, we are shown photos of the actors, of the men who played these iconic characters we loved and then hated and then, finally, simply accepted. And listed under each of the actors' names is the year he died of AIDS. 1984. 1985. 1988. On and on it goes, through what appears to be a majority of the cast.

The moment brings about such emotional confusion, of regret and interrupted affections. It's like hearing of a death of a long lost friend with whom you had a troubled relationship.

Our boys continue to live on through the film, performing their roles on that screen exactly the same way, defiant in their stereotypes, no matter how many times we revisit the movie.

What has changed, for better and for worse, is us.

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Laurie Edwards | June 21, 2011 6:49 PM

When I first read "The Boys in the Band," I was confused. What I pictured as gay men were nothing like the snide, bitter guys in the play. I just figured the playwright must only know nasty people, and left it at that. No surprise, though, that as a young lesbian, the play, "The Killing of Sister George" horrified and frightened me. Now, there's a play that upset me beyond belief. No way those women could be me.

bigolpoofter | June 21, 2011 7:41 PM

I read TBITB with my junior-high boyfriend in 1976 and found the characters nothing like the Gay men we saw in our lives...with the exception of Charles Nelson Reilley, Rip Taylor, and Paul Lynde (on whom I imprinted very young). Then, when I got immersed in Gay culture at 15 right before HIV exploded before us, I realized how real those caricatures were--and I feared that one of those was destined to be filled by me! Sadly, thirty years later, the cattiness and sadness is as apparent among us as ever.

We are haunted by The Boys In The Band for the main reason that we are haunted by any enduring work of art: It has a transcending, ineffable ring of truth to it, not necessarily for ourselves (but often so), but almost certainly for people we know, or people we will almost certainly come to know, before our own play is over.

The play is very dated, admittedly, and could not have occurred in any world other than late-60's Manhattan without substantial re-write. Yet, other than our present knowledge of Gay Pride Parades and AIDS, what has changed? Had there been an openly gay US Congressman such as Barney Frank, in 1969, it would not have changed the play. Had LGBT leaders already been invited to the White House to be included in an Easter Egg Roll, it probably wouldn't have been mentioned. The secret of the endurance of the play is that the entire world goes by outside, but the way we interact, or at least sometimes interact, during a birthday party in our private world of living room and patio, goes on potentially unchanged.

It's still not difficult to find gay men who can't control their credit cards, who have old school chums who don't know I am now out (more or less), gay couples that have trouble with fidelity and struggle with "openness" versus monogamy, who can't relax without lighting a joint, who talk about serving in the closet of the military. Sadly, Bernard is as much the token gay black man today as he was in 1969.

If TBITB were written or re-written for today, chances are it would touch on AIDS and how AIDS has touched us, our communications technology would be entirely different, and probably (hopefully!) a sensitively and thoughtfully-crafted transman or transwoman character would be included in the survey. We would have a small library of new cultural references to sprinkle about: Will and Grace, Elton and Ellen, Madonna and Lady Gaga, Ricky Martin and Don Lemon, Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner. But the issues would be largely the same: self-hatred and self-doubt, maintaining our psychological armor as we navigate a persecuting world, being a minority within a minority (transpeople, blacks), and psychological undercurrents of self-destructiveness. Consider that the next time you meet a guy or read an ad that implies there is no such thing as gay sex if it isn't automatic, unnegotiated bareback sex.

When I first saw the movie, I had barely gotten my driver's license and sneeked into Louisville, Kentucky to see it. I was a 16-year-old virgin. Today I re-watch it as a ... uh, experienced ... gay man with most of my sexual life behind me and living almost the life of a priest (sorry, Father Tony!). I get all the jokes based on sexual innuendo (imagine AJ at 16 not knowing what "rimming" meant!).

And even more, I get the characters. Donald's panic attack at the end of the show is more real, more believable to me now than it was to me as a youngster. Ultimately, TBITB is a very introspective psychological study that gets to our truest vulnerabilities and our evolving yet unchanging inner selves.

Will future generations of gay men reflect on TBITB the same way I do? I don't know, but eventually, probably not.

What has transpired between my first showing at 16 and my latest re-watching of this old poofter's DVD? ...

Well ... I must have blinked.

Gorgeously expressed, A.J.

I blinked too, and suddenly I'm seeing this film through the eyes of a 50-year-old. And I understand these boys a lot better, even love them.

Just a point of information: it was Michael, not Donald, who had the panic attack toward the end of the play, though Donald also had problems with anxiety, as do a disproportionate number of gay men.

You are absolutely right -- Donald was the visiting guest and Michael was the host of the party -- sorry, this is a slip-up I should not have made! Thx for correcting it.

Mart Crowley's play I think had a lot of truth, though that truth was picked and chosen to appeal to the (more) homophobic audiences of the late 1960s. I thought it was amazingly written.

Unfortunately, homophobe William Friedkin directed the film version homophobically, adding a couple of straight bit characters (the Asian cab driver and the pizza delivery guy) to show how much the (straight) rest of the world hated us. If you read the physical descriptions of the characters in the play, Friedkin miscast a number of them by looks at least. He shot the interior scenes darkly to make the movie depressing, and directed the acting in such a way that it didn't seem credible that Alan might actually have done what Michael accused him of. while that, and Alan, were ambiguous in the play.

I love the added detail of the shelf breaking out in the patio, helping to create a feeling of decline, as in "decadence", a thing many people in the late 60s and 70s seriously believed that American society was in the throes of, and that many straight people thought the increasing visibility of gay people was a sign of.

Basically, Friedkin messed up Crowley's play, and made it worse that it had been as far as homophobia.

I can believe that group (in the play) was not too atypical of gay men around the age of 30 in Manhattan pre-Stonewall. Before Stonewall was a BAD time.

It was the theatrical opposite of an It Gets Better video.

If you mean the opposite of the insipidly bland and generic message of "It gets better," then yes, TBITB is the opposite. It has a powerful message that much of life is what you make of it...even for fairies.

"Making" is an excellent and powerful documentary, a snapshot, a history lesson of a particular point in time. It would be a tremendous double feature with the movie itself, though I'm not quite sure which should be shown first. I suppose it might depend on whether or not one has ever seen the play/movie.

May I just raise my hand and say that Christian Siriano is NOT the voice of my generation?

Fair enough. The documentary interviews young gays (drag queens and gay pride revelers on the street) and they have no knowledge of the play. No one under 35 does, it would appear. It's a shame that a more thoughtfully informed young gay man wasn't able to weigh in with his perspective.

I saw the film when I was 22 in 1998, and I had been out a couple of years. I strongly identified with it, even though it was 30 years after the play opened. I recognised the self-doubt, self-hatred and bitchiness of my life and the lives of my friends. I lived in Dublin, Ireland at the time when the gay world in Ireland was expanding rapidly (homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland 5 years earlier.).

I saw the film again last year and still thought it was well-written and funny, but I no longer identified with it so much. I suppose getting older gave me more self-acceptance, so that I no longer felt so out-of-sorts with the world.

I saw the film when I was 22 in 1998, and I had been out a couple of years. I strongly identified with it, even though it was 30 years after the play opened. I recognised the self-doubt, self-hatred and bitchiness of my life and the lives of my friends. I lived in Dublin, Ireland at the time when the gay world in Ireland was expanding rapidly (homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland 5 years earlier.).

I saw the film again last year and still thought it was well-written and funny, but I no longer identified with it so much. I suppose getting older gave me more self-acceptance, so that I no longer felt so out-of-sorts with the world.

I saw the film a year or two after it came out in 1970 (it was an X film, if I recall, so I couldn't see during its initial run). I also remember how reviled it was by the gay community during much of the 70s and 80s... which was a shame. It's a very powerful film with some amazing performances (Leonard Frey was a great actor and, yes, one of the most present gay men on TV... I recall him on all the talk shows). While I'm a trans woman and not a gay man, I still feel the gay community (and a certain segment of the trans community which overlaps it) continues to have huge issues about aging and the marginalization which comes from it. That late 60s-early 70s period in American culture was (along with the 20s) one of the most honest and grittiest eras when people actually opened their eyes to painful realities... far more so than today. While I cursed being alive at that time (for a lot of reasons) I feel lucky I experienced some of what it had to offer.