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The Boys in the Band


Opinion

Fifty years of the play that pioneered presentations of gay material on stage, film and TV.

Image of The Boys in the Band

It was 1968 – almost 50 years ago – that The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway. The New York Times wrote “this is a play that takes the homosexual way of life totally for granted and uses this as a valid basis of human experience”. It proved to be a huge, cult hit. The glitterati loved its quotable lines and “shocking” theme… real live queers on stage. So why do most gay men hate the play?

Critics long considered Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (recently revived in London’s West End) a veiled “gay play” presumably because they didn’t think straight people (no matter how stoned) could behave so badly, but hysterical queens reasonably could, even when totally sober. And although Albee was gay he balked at the appellation “gay writer” and insisted even more vehemently that his play should be staged as written and never recast with an all-male (or female) company, even making threats of litigation so that such proposed productions (one at the Edinburgh Fringe) had to be cancelled.

Back when the play was written in 1962 homosexual themes were often hedged about, especially when controversial plays made it to the screen. The gay subtexts of movies like Ben Hur and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might have passed many audience members by. Even as progress was made in the “permissive” 1960s, theatre and film producers were nervous about such a subject matter.

Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton wrote the script for Bonnie and Clyde which made it explicit that Clyde Barrow, the 1930s rebel bank robber and folk hero, was gay. By the time the film reached movie theatres the story was changed and Clyde became a victim of erectile dysfunction. Legend has it that the film’s producers got cold feet. How would a queer story play in Peoria? It was bad enough that Bonnie and Clyde had a blood-spattered climax and no good guys. And would the leading man Warren Beatty ever be offered another film? An actor could play a princeling or a gangster and it would be seen as just a role. But play a homosexual and there would be a taint of suspicion – or so went the thinking. Gay performers like Montgomery Clift and Anthony Perkins wouldn’t dream of revealing aspects of their sexuality even if they were forced to live anguished private lives. Singer Barry Manilow was 73 before he came out earlier this year.

The few films that did have a lesbian or gay character made them horribly conflicted and emotionally tortured or just plain bad. In 1961’s The Children’s Hour Shirley MacLaine hangs herself rather than be outed. This state of affairs is all the more remarkable when viewed in hindsight. Today popular culture has embraced LGBT themes – from this year’s Oscar-winning Moonlight to TV shows as varied as Glee, Orange is the New Black, Billions and even RuPaul’s Drag Race which have brought LGBT lives to television in a way once thought impossible. Not that everything is plain sailing. Recently, actor Pearl Mackie got the right-wing tabloids frothing when she appeared as Doctor Who’s lesbian sidekick.

In the late 1960s Hollywood battled for survival; it became obvious that film had to offer something that play-it-safe TV could not. Sex and violence were big box office. Myra Breckinridge (1970) dealt with transgender, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) wife swapping and The Devils (1971) masturbating nuns. But where were the queers?

In 1968 an off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band was an out and loud gay play, by a gay playwright, with gay themes and (mainly) gay actors. It was risqué, it was sensational, it was funny, it was (inevitably) tragic. Cosmopolitan gays loved it, Andy Warhol’s crowd too. The glitterati came. The play transferred to London and there was a movie version. Everyone adored the zingy one-liners, its “provocative” subject matter, its self-lacerating fags. In December 1969 Irving Penn photographed the cast in velvety black and white for Look magazine.

It’s a curious fact that West Side Story, a reworking of the ultra-hetero Romeo and Juliet story, was the result of four gay men – Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. The 1961 film version starred Natalie Wood and she couldn’t have been unaware of the musical’s gay antecedents. Miss Wood’s pal and PA was a man called Mart Crowley who fancied himself as a writer rather than a mere hanger-on. After a series of aborted projects Crowley finally decided to write about what he knew best. That was the gay life. That was The Boys in the Band.

In many ways Mart’s timing couldn’t have been worse. There was a sexual revolution going on. The black civil rights movement showed what boycotts and collective action could do. Gay activists were beginning to emerge. Progress was slow. In the summer of 1969, as Boys was being filmed, a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the police – a common practice at the time. Judy Garland had just died and Judy was the gay icon resplendent. When, in the campy Wizard of Oz (and later in concert), she sang that life had to be better over the rainbow gay people knew exactly what she meant.

Years after her death the rainbow-coloured gay ensign was born. Judy was a real symbol of the fragile spirit. She had bad marriages and a shaky career and battles with addiction. She was a true symbol for gay men. In fact Michael, the lead in Boys, does a Garland impersonation and the title of the play is a reference to Garland’s movie A Star is Born in which, instead of going home after a paying gig as a singer, her character would rather go and jam after hours “with the boys in the band”.

The marginalised clientele of the Stonewall bar rebelled. There was a three-day stand-off with police which became a rallying call for gay people everywhere. It was into this milieu that Boys was released. Ads ran in the press with the line “this is not a musical” – suggesting it was something very different indeed. The play’s author insisted that the original cast and director be used. He won on the cast front but the producers demanded someone with film experience to direct: William Friedkin who was to become one of the most interesting directors of the 1970s.

The closed-room set (an East 50s duplex apartment) was modelled on that of stage actor Tammy Grimes, once married to Christopher Plummer. Friedkin cranks up the tension – at the climax of the film is a summer thunderstorm forcing the players off the terrace into the sweaty, claustrophobic sitting room with its fussy wallpaper and hissing spotlights. The party, it seems, is ruined. Oh yes. Host Michael is a recovering alcoholic and is back on the booze. Into this feverish birthday party arrives his old college chum Alan (now a Washington DC lawyer). Michael is convinced that Alan, although now married, had gay affairs at university. The atmosphere descends into chaos as the host with the least proposes an evil telephone party game where points are scored by phoning the person you first fell for and telling them you love them.

Boys may have depended on brittle defensiveness, anger, savage self-protection against the horrors of homophobia but it did depict the very real and unhealthy world lived in by countless bitter, corrosive gay men at the time. One of the famous lines in the play found an echo in the hearts of many closeted gays – “if we could just learn not to hate ourselves so much”. When William Friedkin and his movie were savaged his famous remark was: “I hope that there are happy homosexuals. They just don’t happen to be any in my film.” Yet for all that, the movie did show gay men as real three-dimensional characters not just stock victims or creepy killers.

The telephone truth game is powered by malice which is portrayed as a stereotypical homosexual tactic. Michael is reduced to hysterical self-disgust in the end. It was not until gay liberation took off in the early 70s that alternative ways of thinking about and being gay existed. Gay activists and film critics have, in recent years, begun to reassess the play and film. Nicholas De Jongh writes in his book Not in Front of the Audience: “the boys in the band are (some of them), the first liberation victors who have revolted successfully against the governing orthodoxies, and come through happily.”

When Boys was released in cinemas it looked old hat. Not for nothing did Friedkin establish when the action was set in the mise en scene (“1968” appears on a chalkboard on the apartment’s terrace).

Gay film historian Vito Russo in his study The Celluloid Closet conceded that the film “was not positive, but it was fair”. The characters “were losers but they paved the way for winners… The film offered the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.” In its day Boys was mould-breaking in its depiction of homosexuality and unique in its predominantly gay male cast.

Russo said that the film was in danger of being “received as a definitive portrait of gay life” and that it’s not the stereotyped sissies that the straight audience was most uncomfortable with but the two characters who are gay but look and behave straight. The two gay lovers in the play where “part of the future”.

Although Boys created a stink and galvanised gay-rights activists it didn’t do much for Mart Crowley’s career. He may have been able to buy an apartment in Manhattan’s desirable Dakota building on Central Park West but he never wrote anything equal again. The play is still occasionally revived and seen as a politically incorrect curio. Earlier this year, Mark Gatiss revived it in London to distinctly mixed reviews.

William Friedkin went on to direct 1970s classics like The Exorcist and The French Connection. In 1980 he again angered the gay community with his movie Cruising starring Al Pacino playing an undercover cop searching for a gay serial killer.

The cast members, as many of their agents had predicted, found life after Boys difficult. Two were dropped from their contracts with ad agencies, one dropped out of sight altogether. Kenneth Nelson (who played Michael) moved to London. Cliff Gorman (the straight actor who played the outrageously effeminate Emory – “oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty” is only one of his oft-quoted lines) became an in-demand character actor.

Several succumbed to Aids.

There is a scene early on in the film when Michael is wrapping a birthday present. He is seen tying a huge bow. He uses a red ribbon…