A towering white birthday cake, with cute pink frosting piped around its edges, melts away in vociferous downpour. Only a small wound is carved into its side, suggesting but a few slivers – or, perhaps, a hefty slice – have been taken. It’s hardly edible now. It sits on a wooden picnic table, the floor below it being the boards of a slimy rooftop patio. Confetti and popped balloons are scattered indiscriminately, washed further into the cracks between the boards by the rain. An array of pastel apartment buildings tower above the scene from across the street; the New York skyline sits in the distance.
It’s 1968. Gathering at Michael’s (Jim Parsons) apartment are a cacophony of self-loathing homos, as was the fashion at the time: Donald (Matt Bomer), Michael’s macho-queer boyfriend; Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins), spiteful “roommates” who, try as they wont, struggle to keep up with monogamy; the bookish but far from austere Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington); and Emory (Robin de Jesus) who unapologetically wears Camp on his sleeve, seldom seen without a rouge-red clack fan, which he spreads, pouting, like the tail of a faggy peacock.
They await the arrival of the birthday boy, introduced by Bill Pope’s camera in close-up as he gracefully ascends the apartment stairs, cut against a scene of chaos, the party having descended into a brawl: the majestic Harold (Zachary Quinto), so self-conscious of his apparently grotesque appearance that he must spend hours in front of the mirror with ointments and brews, and smoke a big ‘ol joint, just to leave the house. Ah, yes: Prepare to not only suspend your belief but douse it in petrol and set it alight with a discarded cigarette, ladies and gays, because this film expects you to believe Zachary Quinto isn’t hot.
The Boys in the Band, which is to say, the original Mart Crowley play from 1968 – to which this, the second film adaptation after William Friedkin’s 1970 version, keeps strict fidelity – is a seminal queer text, filled to the brim with witty rejoinders, catty shade and c-words. It’s an artefact of a bygone era, capturing a very specific historical moment, only a year prior to the Stonewall Uprising and eighteen after the first gay liberation group in the United States, the Mattachine Society, had been established. It was a time where the politics of visibility and the closet were beginning to be explored; there was, of course, no such thing as tolerance (both within the queer world and in the hetero majority, as Crowley’s play reflects) but a political consciousness had long sprouted.
The text bubbles with these discussions, some more explicit than others. The overwhelming sense of The Boys in the Band, though, which carried through to Friedkin’s adaptation with some controversy among queer audiences (the iconic queer film critic and activist Vito Russo famously shouted at Friedkin that the film was “stupid” in the middle of a lecture) is that of self-hatred. “If we could just not hate ourselves so much,” blubbered by a sailor-drunk Michael close to the film’s denouement, has always been the defining line of the play, a text which is comedic as it is tragic in exhuming the queer condition. Some felt that it was an unfair reflection of the queer world at the time, rendering it as a lecherous, immoral underbelly; others argued that the patheticness of its characters, of their struggles to be themselves, made them sympathetic – and ultimately provided the text with great pathos.
This The Boys in the Band is everything as brilliantly snappy, often hilarious and terribly sad as both of its muses. Joe Mantello has done wonderful work in many respects, not least in shaking away the shackles of the Ryan Murphy machine, applying his own chic stylishness (this is, without a doubt, the best of the Murphy/Netflix duets thus far). There isn’t anything particularly showy in a directorial sense; this, in confluence with The Boys in the Band’s chamber piece setting, gives the film a very theatrical feel. Sometimes that can be a hindrance, but here it’s fitting; in fact, the only times one feels that Mantello dropped the ball somewhat is with his more cinematic additions, such as to take the characters out of Michael’s apartment in the scenes bookending the party.
The performances are near-universally excellent across the ensemble, but particularly that of Jim Parsons, whose emotive range and versatility outflanks that of his predecessor Kenneth Nelson throughout. Parsons has regularly popped up throughout Murphy’s filmography and done a sterling job – Hollywood was otherwise dross, and he’s one of the standouts in the cast of The Normal Heart, inarguably Murphy’s best directorial work – but this is another echelon. Perhaps it’s that Nelson’s performance of Michael in the Friedkin version is so one-note, but so much here hinges on Parsons’ dynamism; he melts like the sodden birthday cake as he descends into drunkenness, amping up the film’s tension across its runtime as one waits for another razor-sharp rejoinder.
The centerpiece of The Boys of the Band is a sequence in which the ensemble, with some additions – Tex (Charlie Carver), a street hustler bought as a gift for Harold who they refer to as “Midnight Cowboy,” and Alan (Brian Hutchinson), Michael’s perhaps closeted college roommate – play a drunken game wherein they must call their life’s loves on the phone and admit their undying infatuation. It’s the text’s greatest manifestation of queer rage, desire, and loathing – most of them, of course, are in love with ostensibly straight men. Mantello’s rendering reminds one, if only for the frenetic tension the sequence builds, of the Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter,” albeit with a rotary dial as opposed to a revolver; it bubbles with masochism, Michael a deranged ringleader, the bullet being shameful rejection.
If this sounds pretty good so far, that’s because it is: In many respects, it’s excellent. But there is a problem, something that itches at the back of one’s scalp throughout the film if one is conscious of it, and that’s the existence of Friedkin’s film. If Mantello’s film owes a debt to Crowley’s play as a textual adaptation, it owes similar dues to Friedkin’s rendering of it: There’s much of his directorial affect at play, here, from the film’s pastel palette to its strikingly similar costume design; many shots and sequences are directly lifted from his version, as with the prior example of Harold’s introduction. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with homage, and comparisons are clearly bound to occur. But here, it niggles, and the more the film refuses to diverge, the more irritating it becomes.
Queer self-hatred in The Boys in the Band is ever present and pathological, waiting for a moment to bear its sharpened teeth, erupting as more alcohol is consumed; Friedkin’s film frames this with little sympathy, demonising queers as much as the characters within the text demonise themselves. Mantello’s version is somewhat more sympathetic, granting some moments of reprieve to Michael, who is less a figure of blame so much as he’s a victim to the same virus of queer self-loathing. The film is a period piece, yes, and seeks to accurately reflect Crowley’s perceived realities of the era, but you can’t help but think, with fifty years of distance: Are these not tired tropes?
It’s most frustrating, and that the line it follows is so similar to Friedkin’s adaptation makes it seem all the more like a close copy; in reality it’s a sort of simulacrum, an adaptation of an adaptation. This isn’t to trample on the terrific work of the ensemble, nor for the most part of Mantello – they’ve done a great text justice, as one might expect when attending a Broadway revival. But even Michael’s apartment shares an incredibly similar blueprint to that of the Friedkin version, providing yet another distracting itch that you’ve just got to scratch. In the end, you have to wonder: “If it’s going to be this close, what’s the point?” Divorced from this context, though, the film is a rollicking ensemble piece packed with tea sipping and shade; gay men will no doubt love it, not least for how much they’ll see themselves reflected – for better or worse. But don’t expect too much new: It’s a strikingly familiar tune played by a great new band.
The Boys in the Band will premiere globally on Netflix September 30.