Tag Archives: Matt Bell

In Conversation with Gary Needham on The Boys in the Band

gary needham

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, an experience I’ve written about here. When I had the opportunity to talk to Gary Needham about CRUISING, I also took the opportunity to ask him about THE BOYS IN THE BAND. Gary’s work on queer cultures is by now extensive and wide-ranging:

 

His is the voice of reason; thoughtful and considered on the initial reception of the film, its relation to the play and its subsequent afterlife. I come across as quite brattish. It makes for a lively conversation, one that references a range of films, from Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) to My Hustler (Andy Warhol/Chuck Wein, 1965) to The Queen (Frank Simon, 1968) to Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993). We discuss the film’s uses of camp, Friedkin’s interest in sub-cultures, the stageyness or not of the mise-en-scène, the possible classist dimension of the film, and Tom Waugh’s argument on the duality of sound and image in My Hustler in relation to the hustler and the queen with the hustler afforded the image  and the queen given power over the sound. The discussion can be listened to here:

If you’re interested in further exploring The Boys in the Band, I highly recommend Matt Bell’s The Boys in the Band: Flashpoints of Cinema, History, and Queer Politics as a wonderful addition to Gary’s insights and as a possible corrective to my contributions:

matt bell boys in the band

Matt Bell has also written a very interesting piece on the 2018 Broadway revival (and its various contexts) for The Huffington Post called ‘Taking Pride in The Boys in the Band‘ that can be accessed here.

As with the podcast on Cruising, Gary has kindly made available a range of resources:

 

An entire issue of After Dark, featuring an interview with Leonard Frey where the actor discusses the filming of Boys in the Band, and the strong possibility that it might result in a better film than play: After Dark (Boys in the Band)

Screenshot 2020-07-01 at 13.51.19

An interview with Mart Crowley on the 25th anniversary of the play’s premiere: An_emotional_state_Mart_Crowle

An interview with Mart Crowley that discusses various productions in the context of the recent revival of the play on Broadway: And_the_Band_plays_on

A discussion from 1973 on reasons to see the touring production in San Diego: Boys_still_good_theatre

An appraisal of the film’s DVD release by Peter Burton: Playing_up…

An image of the New York Cast Album, which featured dialogue from the play: Screenshot 2020-07-01 at 10.21.19

A 1969 review of the LA touring production praising ‘the authenticity of the dialogue’: Reflections_on_’Boys’

A 1979 interview with Robert La Tourneaux for Gay News: Robert_la_tourneaux

An ad for the San Francisco production with an invitation to the cast paty: YEQWMD727018207

 

Various reviews and ads for other touring productions:

 

Images from the film (and the play — you can see Natalie Wood in the centre below):

…and perhaps the greatest find is this episode of Emerald City, where the great Arthur Bell —  whose columns in The Village Voice in the  early 80s were so important to me personally — interviews Robert La Tourneaux on the 10th anniversary of the release of the film. Bell talks about how he didn’t like the film then or now but how he still acknowledged the ‘piercing moments of truth’. La Tourneaux is frank about hustling and equally frank about how appearing in the film affected his career giving concrete examples of how his mere appearance in the film was reason for people like Bob Evans to not even see him for roles much less interview or audition, and this from the horse’s mouth. A fascinating show, with the ads in between the interview being at least as fascinating as the interview itself. It can be seen here:

 

 

José Arroyo

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