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Netflix’s The Boys in the Band is a polished remake of a caustic classic

The new movie adaptation can feel more like a history lesson than urgent viewing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Jim Parsons in The Boys in the Band
Scott Everett White/NETFLIX
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

I grimly joked with a friend last week about the trailer for the seemingly very weepy movie Supernova. The film, which comes out in November, stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a gay couple coping with the stark and cruel reality that one of them has early-onset dementia.

“Well, at least gay men have survived long enough that [in movies] we now get to be old and die tragically from something other than AIDS,” I said. “That’s a victory, I guess?”

My friend changed the conversation. The scene where Tucci hogs the bed was funny, he said. I was being grumpy, I said.

I am sure that Tucci and Firth and Supernova will be great. I also realize that I’m lucky enough to have been born at a time that allowed me to live my gay adult life with scientific advances such as the HIV-prevention drug PrEP. Being able to joke, now, about how the AIDS crisis became a cultural fascination is a privilege that hundreds of thousands of gay men never had.

Considering how AIDS, enabled by a cruel administration, wiped out nearly an entire generation of American gay men and their futures, it’s not hard to see why suffering, death, and our fragile existence became the basis for so much of our art over the last few decades. That art has been magnificent (see: Angels in America, Philadelphia, And The Band Played On; and more recently, The Normal Heart and BPM), but it was also inescapable for me growing up.

Tragedy was our reality. And our suffering has become one of the underpinnings to our cultural identity, though that’s slowly changing as mainstream culture allows room for more gay mens’ stories (think: Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, even Love, Simon).

The Boys in the Band — a play Mart Crowley created in 1968, ported over to cinema in 1970, and revived on Broadway in 2018 — is, in hindsight, a bit of a twist. It’s considered a massive cultural artifact because it explored the lives of gay men, but it did so before the crisis that altered their history.

The Boys in the Band is a glimpse into gay mens’ lives independent of the AIDS crisis, though not without its own brand of suffering. Their existence is far from heaven. Since one could still be arrested for being gay when the play was written in the late ’60s, the men in The Boys spend their days pretending to be anyone but themselves because society deems their true selves unworthy — of employment, of friendship, and of love.

That heaviness is all tucked into the play’s seemingly breezy setting, what seems to be a gathering of friends who happen to be gay men. It’s supposed to be a celebration, an alcohol-fueled, joyous occasion. But the beauty of the original work is how Crowley slowly reveals the damage and trauma that each of these men carry, not turning them into saints who rise above their adversity but showing how the societal hate they internalize manifests in the pain they inflict upon one another.

The original play was “by far the frankest treatment of homosexuality I have ever seen on the stage,” New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote in his review. “The point is that this is not a play about a homosexual, but a play that takes the homosexual milieu, and the homosexual way of life, totally for granted and uses this as a valid basis of human experience.”

For gay men, survival meant finding your chosen family, and though times have changed and struggles have evolved, that is still true even today. What The Boys in the Band did so well was show that survival isn’t necessarily a beautiful thing. We’re all uglier on the other side of it.

Fifty-two years later, the brutality, pain, and thrill of The Boys in the Band live on in a new, proficient film adaptation directed by Joe Mantello, now streaming on Netflix.

As in the original play, it begins as a story about the universal human desire of finding people like yourself and unfurls into a fanged, snarling creature as it lays bare the rage and insecurity that roll in its characters’ hearts. The bitchy beats are hit, the venom still runs hot, and some of the scenes steal your breath and plunge you into that uncomfortable space between comedy and horror.

Yet I was left wanting just a bit more, something resembling the daring spirit that floored Barnes in 1968. The original play’s and subsequent film’s ability to shock was The Boys’ best argument in support of its own existence, and one of the few things the 2020 film adaptation lacks. That isn’t totally the fault of Mantello or his cast; times and politics have obviously changed. But the difference feels like greatness versus a performance of greatness. And the new movie left me feeling like I was a watching a well-executed, flawless emulation rather than art that demands to stand on its own.

The Boys in the Band and the rage of gay existence

Matt Bomer and Michael Benjamin Washington in The Boys in the Band.
Scott Everett White/Netflix

The Boys in the Band is truly about the rottenest birthday party ever thrown. Michael (Jim Parsons) is hosting a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto). The term “friend” is generous, as Michael and Harold seem to hate each other but also desperately want to sleep with each other. The invited guests are Donald (Matt Bomer); caustic couple Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins); effeminate Emory (Robin de Jesus); and stoic Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington). There are also a couple of surprise attendees in Michael’s college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison), whom Michael is convinced is closeted, and a prostitute in cowboy garb played by Charlie Carver.

While it’s a birthday party in name and there is a cake (left out in the rain, not unlike the one in Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park”), the gathering quickly unravels into a prickly reunion.

Everyone arrives grumpy and irritable and slowly gets drunk — and by extension, exponentially grumpier and more irritable — by the night’s end. It’s not long before thinly veiled insults become naked, with blunt attacks about one another’s cowardice, intelligence, age, and appearance. The dialogue that sharpens and launches attacks is The Boys’ strongest selling point, a staccato of barbs wrapped in casual delivery.

Blink and you’ll miss the acid and the venom.

The boys are all-in on a game of poking and prodding to find each other’s vulnerabilities. And once they’ve found one, they sink their fangs into that soft, unguarded tissue. The poison in these men defines every iteration of their story. It’s supposed to feel ugly and make you want to leave. The comedy falls off fast as the “jokes” grow dark and bitter. The self-pity, insecurity, and terrifying self-loathing were, in 1968, the private parts of these mens’ lives that no one but other gay men knew about.

That pain and awfulness is their unspoken bond.

One of the men you feel sorry for in the new movie is Bomer’s angelic Donald. He and Michael used to be a thing, and he currently serves as Michael’s safety net. Bomer gets to be a little funnier and acerbic than we usually see him (for example: his dramatic, dashing turn in The Normal Heart), but it’s mostly playful, and mostly at his character’s own expense. Washington’s dignified Bernard and de Jesus’s charming Emory, who also caught in the crossfire, are a little less terrible than the rest of the guests but still game to engage.

Meanwhile, the crux of the story isn’t about Rannells’s Larry and Watkins’s Hank, the movie’s bitter, brittle couple. Their romantic struggles with desire are just one facet of the original play. But they end up just about slinking away with the entire film. Larry doesn’t believe in monogamy the way Hank does. Hank doesn’t believe in compromise the way Larry does. And even though they both have big, splashy scenes with which to get their points across, the beauty happens when the two actors find small spaces — wicked glances here and there; the way one of their bodies stiffen when the other speaks — that tell a lifetime’s worth of story.

While Larry and Hank’s anguish is believable, at times brilliantly so, I found myself stretching a bit more to believe that all of these men actually, in some way, love and care about one another — a complaint also lodged against the 2018 Broadway revival whose cast reprises their roles in the new movie. It’s also not entirely convincing that even if they don’t all love one another, they at least all love either the party host (Parsons’s terminally unhappy but extremely elegant Michael) or the guest of honor (Quinto’s devilish Harold).

Perhaps that’s the point — that they don’t necessarily love one another so much as they need one another to survive.

But then there’s that well-worn saying about how we always hurt the ones we love the most. The Boys’ impressive verbal flayings don’t matter if the people saying such nasty things don’t really care about one another deep down. Without that tenderness, the insults fall apart and become hollow combinations of words. If we’re meant to realize the pain of what these men are saying and inflicting upon one another, we should also be able to recognize what’s at stake. And the movie struggles to make the latter clear.

Who is The Boys in the Band for?

Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer in The Boys in the Band.
Scott Everett White/Netflix

The one question I kept asking myself throughout the movie was: Who is The Boys in the Band for?

When the play debuted in 1968 (with the cinematic adaptation following two years later), I can imagine how it could have been a multitude of things — a plea for help; an indulgent, flashy flex of wit; a call to action about prejudice — but I’ve always interpreted it as a mirror. It was as if Mart Crowley was shaking his audience, rubbing their nose in the cruel ways gay men could treat each other to ultimately show them how a society of shame, anger, and repression manifests itself in ways that we don’t see out in the open.

Here’s what you created. Now lick it up, Crowley seemed to say.

The 2020 Netflix adaptation functions more like a history lesson about why so many gay men hate themselves. It’s adept at showing us gay mens’ caustic tendencies, but the societal ills it highlights feel distant, barely updated for or connected to today.

It’s as though we’re all expected to breathe a sigh of relief after watching it — maybe to say, thank goodness times have changed — rather than reflect on our own personal rages boiling beneath the surface. And what if satisfaction isn’t the point?

Whereas Crowley left no one off the hook in his scathing play, creating a purposely painful experience, this remake seems to lack the same purpose of frightening accountability. The flourishes that made the original work so risky and raw feel more like polished, glimmering performance in the adaptation. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But more discriminating viewers hoping to feel discomfort instead of just seeing it may find themselves craving something more.

The Boys in the Band is currently streaming on Netflix.

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