The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, USA, 1970

boys in band

 

When I was growing up, everything I heard or read about The Boys in the Band was terrible. Recently, after the Broadway revival, it was meant to be ´period´and wonderful. I´d never seen the film until now and found it a difficult and unpleasant watch, with some of the worst-directed acting I can remember seeing. If I´d been invited to this party, I´d have told the host to f**ck off, left within five minutes, and there would have been no play. The most interesting aspect for me was the décor (Fire Island greetings, Marlene in Concert posters), pausing the film to eye up the bookshelves (Berlin Stories, etc), the line dancing scene in the rooftop, and the wonderful pop music of the period that the characters put on (Tammy and Marvin, lots of Burt Bacharach).

Talking about it with friends (worth naming since so many of their views are drawn on and collectively summarised below: Andy Medhurst, Matthew Hays, Andrew Griffin, Matthew Motyka, David Greven,  Lawrence Napper, Bryan Johnson, Andrew Moor), there were lots. of mixed feelings. Most loved the first half, where we´re introduced to each of the characters and New York seems alive with cruising, and sex and secret  and hidden knowledges. They can cite by heart reams of dialogue which remain acidly witty. The camp elements of the period are still recognisable as such and still work, though I wonder if younger people will catch the extent to which all of these characters are talking through a particularly intimate and shared knowledge of the careers of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Marlene and Maria Montez. For other generations shared reference points would be Liza and Diana Ross, or Madonna, or Britney or Rihanna and Beyoncé. The film evokes that, brings it to life, vividly. It´s like a secret code made from knowledge of the stars.

Friends have made various comparisons. David Greven for example talks about how the film is like Rope in that it´s about the agony of and violent reaction against the closet. And one can certainly see that. Other friends such as Matthew Hays have made comparisons to Albee and Waiting for Godot and Abigail´s Party. And again those comparisons are understandable but to my mind only superficially so. I think even existential theatre has some utopian dimension that drives it, there´s no emphasis on the fun of company, even of the repartee (most of it is meant to hurt), of the joys of sex, or the pleasures in overcoming oppression or even of the pleasures in being marginal. It´s relentlessly grim, and thus I find it untrue.

I´ve seen a marvellous production of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton recently and it was alive with pain and hopes and a kind of deep love within the hurt that is nowhere evident in this. I´ve also been seeing a lot of Pinter, and this certainly doesn´t have all the significant ’empty spaces’ within the dialogue that he does. So he might have been inspired by Pinter but it doesn´t feel Pinteresque.

The interesting thing to me  is that queer cultures continue to connect on the tangents of this work but perhaps only because that´s all the work gives you, the odd line, the camp, an imagined sense of a history of how things used to be etc. But they are tangents. All the characters are to me one dimensional stereotypes…and yet they echo something we recognise, which is what makes it interesting, but the moments where it echoes are not necessarily the best bits.

My suspicion is that the play IS better than the film. I´ve never seen the play but…even the SCREENPLAY feels better than the film. I hated almost all of the performances and I think it is the director rather than the actors that are to blame. That Emory, the queeny camp one, is meant to be an interior decorator beggars belief. We´re TOLD that but nothing in the way he dresses, acts or behaves would connote that.  I  can´t imagine him talking to an ageing wealthy  matron  about colours in  a way that would lead to his hiring. So Friedkin´s  direction is in some ways  wonderful (in  the way it moves, its use of space, the highlighting of moments) but terrible in that it shows so little understanding of the psychology of the characters represented.

 

I think there´s something interesting about this and Killing of Sister George, generally badly reviewed upon first release, flops, films that gays and lesbians felt they had to see because of a dearth of representation but that annoyed or appalled those same people that flocked to them (at least from the accounts we have) and that are now being re-appropriated in a somewhat ironic way by new audiences.

 

An afterthought but perhaps interesting. I thought the screenplay´s treatment of ‘Cowboy’ the hustler was appalling in that it took for granted or supported all the insults the rest of the group threw at him, normalised them in classist terms, and I actually thought the film was better than the screenplay in this instance, the camera lingered on him, made him tender and beautiful in a way not allowed by the dialogue, and gave him a symbolic curtain.

 

It´s a cruel and dishonest film, one that I think would have made me even more scared than I already was had I seen it as a teenager. It´s still a type of attitude from a type of world I like to stay away from, though that in itself might account for my response in contrast to that of others. And yet, by virtue of being ‘first’ or at least early, it´s become a kind of landmark. That is not necessarily a good thing.

I´ve been told that Matt Bell´s book on the film is wonderful and I might yet read it, though at this moment I have no plans of ever re-watching what  to my mind is an unpleasant and untruthful film, albeit one with a great deal of gay input (the actors, Crowley obviously, the agonised closet queen that was Dominick Dunne etc.)

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I posted a version of the above on facebook and it lead to a great discussion which in turn informed the post. I hope to hear from at least some of you and continue the process.

José Arroyo

3 thoughts on “The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, USA, 1970

  1. Part of the value of this film is its historical record of internalized homophobia. It’s not a negative image of homosexuality but rather a record of negative images of homosexuality on the part of the characters. I also think Crowley and Friedkin both are to be commended for including an African American character whose longing and loss are as relevant as any other character’s. I don’t understand, Jose, your view that this film is not “alive with pain and hopes and a kind of deep love within the hurt,” when in my experience that’s ultimately what the film throbs with. As Friedkin will do in his great CRUISING (to which I devote a chapter in my book PSYCHO-SEXUAL), he explores the meanings of masculinity here, fantasies of masculinity and constructions of male sexuality that run parallel to gay desire and self-regard. Crowley and Friedkin brilliantly revise Tennessee Williams’s Gentleman Caller with the ambiguously oriented guest interrogated for his sexuality and also the promise of captivating romance he embodies and thwarts. The catharsis the film moves toward in the endlessly taunting, provoking Michael’s (Kenneth Nelson) crisis of meaning, resolved through the same resource of gay male friendship that Michael has so hazardously exploited, is a crucial statement about healing from self-hatred. Lots more to say, of course, and thank you for reviving discussion about this important work!

    Liked by 1 person

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