The Boys In The Band (2020)

I love this play. I love that it can now be done by an all out, gay cast and that Mart lived to see it, and be in it. Good plays deserve to have a life, to be performed by many different people in many different settings. That’s how they live on with relevance and meaning. Michael and Harold and Emory should be inhabited by many different souls. With live theater, the actors interpret characters, sharing themselves and audiences connect and respond (or not) to the particular inhabitants living in front of them. Then the play is over and the performances waft away, sadly temporary. That leaving, makes space so that both actors and audience can enjoy the play again in the future, unencumbered by it’s previous occupants.

That leaving, makes space so that both actors and audience can enjoy the play again in the future, unencumbered by it’s previous occupants.

But in a film, performances become enshrined. They don’t leave and make space for future versions. And this is especially problematic when there is a previous version, who’s performances are still very present. A previous version that is like having someone throw a drink in your face, then stub a cigarette out on your new suede coat, while you’re wearing it. She will not be ignored. Comparisons are part of the bargain.

So why would I choose to watch this modern production of Boys In The Band instead of the original film? After having seen both, I wouldn’t. There are a handful of improvements here, but a much larger list of things that are lost, or simply not up to the level of the original. Hank and Larry’s reconciliation is more touching in this version. Tuc Watkins looks more appropriate as Hank, than Lawrence Luckinbill did. This better motivates Alan’s fawning. But Luckinbill’s performance was better as the quiet professorial type. Watkins just seems ineffectual. This production points up the connections between characters better, the past romances that inform the present. The power dynamic between Bernard and Emory is deliberately re-balanced for today’s politics. And if memory serves there is a change in the dialogue as well. But we’ll get to Emory in a minute. The arc of the alcohol is clearer here as the party progresses, but at the cost of showing the differences between alcoholics. But we’ll get to Michael in a minute.

The film stock itself is telling you about these people’s lives. It perfectly captures the New York of that period, the urban decay, gutted tenements and a Times Square filled with porno theaters.

This production, like so many films and tv shows today suffers from “Pretty-itus.” It is there from Matt Bomer’s abs to Michael’s apartment, to NY itself. The production has sacrificed truth for “pretty-ness.” The original film was not a large studio production, but was clearly shot on a limited budget in a studio. The slower lenses and film stock of the time required more light just to get an exposure, resulting in images with hard highlights and film grain. This lends the film an air of grubbiness and sweatiness, accentuating the imperfections in peoples faces. The film stock itself is telling you about these people’s lives. It perfectly captures the New York of that period, the urban decay, gutted tenements and a Times Square filled with porno theaters. The remake is practically a valentine to the city, all golden sun and the lights of Broadway. It doesn’t seem like NY it seems like LA.

Michael’s apartment suffers similarly in the update. In the original, he is living in a dark, grubby, dirty, run down building but has slapped grasscloth over the crumbling plaster and is trying to make it look chic. Open the front door and you can see the grubby hallway. Not so in 2020. Open the door this time and you see urban, middle class respectability. In 2020, Michael’s place is aging whitewash, filled with soft lamps and antiques. It is a worn but warm and inviting space where your grandmother might live. It doesn’t reflect Michael’s class aspirations or the desperation of a piss-elegant queen.

When you have a talented actor in a good role, performing a personal story like this, the performance paints pictures for you that you would swear were actually shot.

During the party games, director Mantello makes the choice to cut away from the character’s monologues and show us what they are describing. On the surface, this seems smart when converting play to film, but I think it sacrifices deeper things. The apartment is a pressure cooker. Michael even says, “It’s like an accident. You can’t look away.” Cutting away relieves the tension in the room, when you should be holding on to it. It also sacrifices audience identification. When you are forced to sit and stare at the actor’s face as they tell their story, it bonds you to that person. Cut away and the connection is lost. When you have a talented actor in a good role, performing a personal story like this, the performance paints pictures for you that you would swear were actually shot. The original cast in the original film achieve this and it is truly magical.

But it isn’t just about bravura acting. The plot and themes of the play demand this identification. In the original, Bernard and Emory are written as the lowest class characters in the group, Bernard because of his race, Emory because of his “nelly-ness.” The love monologues are meant to make the audience identify with them, to elevate and equalize them in their humanity. It is a lesson to us the viewer. In the original, Cliff Gorman plays Emory as funny, but flighty and dangerously annoying. He is the worst stereotype, but he also represents all of the character’s fears and shame. He is what none of the rest of them want to be. Robin de Jesus comes in more as the voice of reason. “Get me out of here, these queens are crazy.” It may suit modern politics, but it just flattens out an entire layer of depth and meaning to the show.

There are similar issues with other members of the cast. In the original, Peter White has the strong jawed, uppercrust, blue bloodedness to inspire Michael’s class aspiration. He is everything Michael wishes he was, or wants to attain. Unfortunately in 2020, Brian Hutchison comes across as frightened and mousy. He’s a punching bag the whole time, not a fallen paragon. In fact, I fully believed that de Jesus’s streetwise Emory would wipe the floor with him, not the other way around.

Which brings us to Michael. I love Jim Parsons. He is a good actor and was very effective in The Normal Heart. In fact, I have taken his success as a personal message. I think I am very much like him as an actor, and I always thought it would hold me back. I just assumed certain doors were closed to me because of my body and my personality. Jim has proven that I shouldn’t have made that assumption. But I have problems with him in this role. He is playing his truth, which is important. And in a live setting, or in an original film, this would be enough. But we do have Kenneth Nelson to compare to. And I feel that Nelson is more suited to Michael. Parson’s “flappiness” works in lighter comedy, but is diffusing in more serious moments here. The early monologue about spending and running just doesn’t land. Part of that is a fault in the coverage throughout the film. We never really get closer to anyone than a medium shot and that keeps the audience at a distance. And Parsons does get somewhat stronger once Michael starts drinking. But his instinct is to turn his pain inward. He curls up and takes the pain upon himself, causing us to pity him. Nelson’s pain is about lashing out. He strikes when hurt, and that is what Michael is built around. He hurts others, not himself.

I am glad that this play is still being done and that many people can inhabit these characters. But as a film production, I can’t recommend the 2020 version over the original. Instead of bringing us new insight, this is just a pale, less effective copy. The culture that these characters came from has changed and I am glad of that. Our health as gay men is most important. But I do believe we have lost depth in our storytelling, all at the price of being prettier.

The Boys in the Band (2020) Drama | 2h 1min | 30 September 2020 (USA) 6.7
Director: Joe MantelloWriters: Mart CrowleyStars: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt BomerSummary: In 1968 New York City - when being gay was still considered to be best kept behind closed doors - a group of friends gather for a raucous birthday party hosted by Michael (Jim Parsons), a screenwriter who spends and drinks too much, in honor of the sharp-dressed and sharp-tongued Harold (Zachary Quinto). Other partygoers include Donald (Matt Bomer), Michael's former flame, now mired in self-analysis; Larry (Andrew Rannells), a randy commercial artist living with Hank (Tuc Watkins), a school teacher who has just left his wife; Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a librarian tiptoeing around fraught codes of friendship alongside Emory (Robin de Jesús), a decorator who never holds back; and a guileless hustler (Charlie Carver) hired to be Harold's gift for the night. What begins as an evening of drinks and laughs gets upended when Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael's straight-laced college roommate, shows up unexpectedly and each man is challenged to confront long-buried truths that ... Written by Netflix

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The Boys in the Band (1970) Drama | 1h 58min | 17 March 1970 (USA) 7.6
Director: William FriedkinWriters: Mart CrowleyStars: Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard FreySummary: It's Harold's birthday, and his closest friends throw him a party at Michael's apartment. Among Harold's presents is "Cowboy", since Harold may have trouble finding a cute young man on his own now that he's getting older. As the party progresses the self-deprecating humor of the group takes a nasty turn as the men become drunker. Climaxed by a cruel telephone "game" where each man must call someone and tell him (or her?) of his love for them. Written by Ron Kerrigan <mvg@whidbey.com>

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