on July 31, 2008
I have been waiting for this film on DVD for years; apparently the people at the studio have no idea how important a piece of gay history this film really is.
There is no denying that Boys in the Band is controversial. Among gay men, it seems to provoke either fierce defense or intense outrage. Indeed, there seem to be just as many people who praise it for its honesty, humor and status as a ground-breaking film, as there are people who condemn it for its stereotypes and self-hating negative images. There seems to be no middle ground. Many people who know me well might be surprised to find that I am one of its defenders.
Although I was only 16 years old in 1970, I was already totally "out" as a gay person in most aspects of my life. As such, I had heard about this film (but couldn't get in to see it) almost as soon as it came out. But you can bet I acquired a copy of the play shortly thereafter, and what I found thrilled me. Yes, "thrilled" is the only way to describe my initial reaction to The Boys in the Band. I guess when you're used to being totally ignored, having your life acknowledged, even in a negative way, can be surprisingly positive.
First of all, BITB was the first mainstream Hollywood film whose main subject matter was homosexuality; that in itself was a giant step forward. In 1970, depictions of gay men in Hollywood movies were unheard of, unless we were presented as swishy stereotypes or evil predators. And yes, that's precisely what the controversy is about - back in 1970, as today, many gay men felt that Boys in the Band presented nothing more than a rehash of the same, tired stereotypes that Hollywood had been foisting on us for years. But I am not at all sure that I agree.
After a superficial look, you will find that The Boys in the Band contains several characters that do not fit the description of stereotypes or negative portrayals. In fact, if one overlooks the characters of Michael (self-hating, bitchy, self-destructive) and Emory (swishy, swishy, SWISHY) the characters in Boys in the Band are about as positive as one could expect for 1970. And for all his limp-wristed excess, the character of Emory is ultimately presented as forthright, honest and tough. For several years following the birth of gay liberation, a lot of gay men wanted to pretend that people like Emory didn't exist. Now we know - or should know, anyway, that some people (even some straight people) don't fit the mold of what society has come to expect from their born gender. Aren't we supposed to be enlightened enough to know that people have the right to be who they are? Yes, there are gay AND straight men who are every bit as effeminate as Emory. I have met quite a few of them in my day. So what?
As for the character of Michael, a lot of us seem to forget what it was like in those days. In the Pre-stonewall world of the 1960's when Boys in the Band was written, many gay men swallowed the heterosexual propaganda that gay people were mentally ill, unstable, and just plain weird. In fact, early homophile meetings were often consumed by debates on whether or not the psychiatric community was correct in labeling us as sick. It should therefore not be surprising that yes, some of the dialogue in Boys in the Band is certainly outdated; thank goodness gay men no longer waste time on endless analysis, absorbing psycho-babble about why we are "that way", and wasting even more time re-hashing and debating the same drivel with their friends in an efforts to justify our existence. But in 1970, we DID debate these things, and we DID think that way, because mainstream society spent so much time cramming us into closets and demonizing our very existence. But we had to start somewhere, and if nothing else, The Boys in the Band is a startling reminder of how far we've come. Up until the time the film was released (and to some extent, even today) much of the heterosexual world tried to convince us that we are deranged, child-molesting sociopaths, hell-bound and totally immoral. And guess what? Far too many of us listened to the lies, and a great many of us were damaged by it. These are the roots of internalized homophobia, and the characters in The Boys in the Band are, in a very real sense, accurate depictions of the results of decades (if not centuries) of society-sanctioned homophobia. At the time the play was written, there were a lot of gay men who did resemble the characters in it (I know; I was one of them). Rather than being embarrassed at the mess society wrought on some of our psyches, we should be proud that so many of us have been able to overcome decades of repression.
And the most important underlying theme in The Boys in the Band is frequently overlooked by its critics. Michael's closing speech in the play, "If only we could learn not to hate ourselves quite so much" is a powerful indictment and, dare I say, revolutionary rebuttal to the self-absorbed indifference that characterized much of the gay community prior to 1970. And the overall message (which I heard loud and clear in 1970) is that we (gay men) must realize that we are not the sickos that some portions of society wants us to think we are, and we must come to terms with exactly who we are without reservation before we can ever hope to make any progress.
In the end, I know this much - I saw the off-Broadway revival of the stage version of The Boys in the Band in 1996, and the audience was composed almost entirely of gay men. The laughter was loud and frequent, and the abundant applause made it clear that many in the modern gay audience recognized themselves or their friends among the characters presented, even if only as pieces of nostalgia. Self-hating? Yes, sometimes to a painful degree. But learning to love yourself in a world where so many people condemn your very existence is a life-long process, and Boys in the Band is nothing more or less than a reminder of where some of us came from, and how very far we've come.
on August 25, 2008
I, as well, eagerly acquired a fullscreen DVD of this film from a VHS master. I discovered this play via the film when I was a teenager. (I had a VERY progressive-minded grandma, for an old-world Russian immigrant, who took me to see it -- and her only question, when it was over, was, "If you're with people like that, could you be like them?" I assured her it didn't work like that, which she seemed to need to hear. Over her, happily many, remaining years she could not have been warmer to my gay friends and colleagues.) I thought it was just swell, bought the cast album (which I still own) and while I agree it can be viewed as an artifact of another time, it was pretty powerful stuff for a young and naive straight male to see IN its time, because it was really the first compassionate, coherent mainstream presentation of a subset of society that had otherwise been marginalized, ridiculed, handled dismissively or simply inaccurately. The film is a somewhat darker experience than the play (Friedkin and/or Crowley introduce an unexpected rainstorm into the proceedings, which forces a patio party into the living room where Michael's claustrophobic variation of the Truth game takes place) but it sure is something to experience the energy of those original guys.
A good number of the play's original cast (and its director, Robert Moore) did indeed perish of AIDS-related illnesses, as reported here by others, but not all. Cliff Gorman (Emory), married and hetero (whose biggest claim to fame was playing Lenny Bruce in Julian Barry's play LENNY on Broadway, not long after the film of TBITB put him in the public eye), died of non-AIDS related cancer; Laurence Luckinbill (Hank), former husband of Robin Strasser, currently husband to Lucie Arnaz, is very much alive, and has remained active as actor, writer, director and producer (he has played historical figures in one-man shows, some of which he authored, including Lyndon Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt and Clarence Darrow); and Peter (Alan) White (orientation unknown to me) has pretty much never stopped working as a ubiquitous TV character actor.
For those interested, Crowley wrote a published and Amazon-purchaseable sequel to this play called THE MEN FROM THE BOYS (in a volume called THE "BAND" PLAYS). The sequel is set 30 years later and, though interesting, really depends on your knowing the first play for any genuine impact.
on August 1, 2008
How long have I been waiting this release! I originally heard this original cast on an LP (which I probably would have ruined from continued hearings had I not transferred it to cassette tape), then got hold of a VHS version, then a laser disk version, which I "burned" to DVD when I got my burner, but have actually been checking new releases on several DVD websites for probably 15 years at least. How surprised I was when I finally found that it was coming out in November. Although the record was based on the stage play, and the movie had some parts cut out of it, I've really loved both versions and have seen/heard them enough to have almost the whole play memorized. I just hope this will be a faithful reproduction of the movie, which was really very well done. All the actors (most of which have died of AIDS) fit their parts perfectly and I always laugh, cry and get very carried away by this wonderful play. I can hardly wait until November! Now, will there also be a Blu-Ray release?
on August 2, 2008
Finally a landmark gay film is released on DVD. I saw the origianl cast in New York years ago, bought the original cast record of the complete show, then saw the movie when it was released. I have had the Video for years and have watched it many times. Now have the DVD of such a great film of our gay history. Lived thru those times and the play and film was very much as it was. Even today gay people can relate, everywhere is not like San Francisco, New York City or L A, there are still many gays in small town America that live this life daily. The film has been beautifully transfer to DVD in both picture and sound. Lots of extras on writing the play, the theatrical production, the film and updates since it was realeased. Wonderful DVD for all gay people to watch. Thanks for finally putting on DVD.
on January 3, 2010
I've seen this movie twice, and neither time did it disappoint. It's an amazing realistic depictions of a painful, harsh, cruel world--the world of a group of pre-Stonewall (and thus pre-AIDS) gay men in New York City. They are hurt, damaged, raging, hyper-sexualized, insecure, and to varying degrees out of the closet. They despise the straight world--yet often struggle to emulate it. They despise themselves--yet so easily and comfortably torture each other verbally and emotionally--in the most vicious of ways. They are brilliant and witty--yet adolescent in their genius. They are competitive and nasty--yet also desperate for each other's love. They wield thick and powerful facades--yet have an amazing capacity for dropping their guards and being honest.
It's not an easy movie to watch--because of the overt expressions of internalized homophobia and cruelty--but, damn, this movie is brilliant. And what's most amazing about it to me is that although the movie is dated in some ways (it originally came out in 1970), it's shocking how little has changed. How many gay men still have radical internalized homophobia, still have terror coming out of the closet, still marry women and have kids because they can't handle the rejection of their family and friends and disturbed society, still act out sexually in the worst of ways despite the risks and the horror, still abuse external substances to deal with their internal pain, still wish they were straight, still try to dissociate through religion, still play the camp game to defend against their self-hatred, and still despise and torment other gay men even worse, half the time, than do straight people.
Our world, both gay and straight, still has a lot of growing up to do, and that fact that so much has stayed the same in over forty years should be one hell of a wake-up call.
on December 16, 2008
I've just seen the movie for the first time ever (I'm a 20 year-old student) and, as a young gay man who's also very interested in gay movies and gay history, I thought it was extremely interesting. This is a personal analysis of three aspects of the movie - it is not a summary or a complete review.
I think that this movie has been vilified without much reason. Yes it shows self-hatred, but only to denounce it. I think that the way it was reviled in the post-Stonewall era is a sign that the movie hit too close to home for many at the time (which is understandable). No one likes to have their own flaws reflected to them too clearly - an issue the play also addresses... For me it was also a matter of saying "this is what you are - change it", which was taken as provocation in the gay liberation movement of afterward. It is, after all, the point of much of the cruel exchanges between Michael and Harold: Telling the horrible, cruel truth to make the other one react.
For me, in context - and I strongly advise to read the wonderful "Celluloid Closet" by Vito Russo (or at least see the filmed version that was made) - it *is* indeed a breakthrough movie. It shows a bunch of gay men, who are friends. Gone is the vision of the lonely closeted suicidal queer. Maybe these people are not totally happy, maybe they drink too much, maybe they snap at each other, maybe they're not automatically out and proud but they're not alone. They have friends that stay with them through the hardships, friends that forgive and forget, and they have a sense of community. I'm 20, living and 2008, and still this is something that I can identify with. 40 years after, this is something of the gay community that has survived. And that this film shows it is immensely important.
Another terribly interesting topic that has to do with gay life and is both contextual and still relevant today is the relation with the straight world. The straight world, that does not always understand the gay world (the taxi driver, the deliverer) and even scorns it (Alan, the woman on the street). To me, the way Michael immediately goes back in the closet when Alan comes is extremely important. He respects this "very close total stranger" more than his friends at first - he's more concerned with the straight man's comfort level than his friends'. But when Alan disses them, (concerning Emory mostly) Michael defends them. He is still ashamed, but he is adult enough and self-accepting enough not to pretend anymore. This relation of the gay world to the straight world is still a riddle for us in 2008 - how to behave "outside", who to tell, who to hide from, how to handle these colliding worlds, the private from the public, and so on? The question is not dated, and the answer of the play isn't either.
The final topic that I want to talk about is the friendship theme. As I've said, there is this group of friends. But more precisely, there is an important triangle: Harold/Michael/Donald. Are they simply friends? Were they lovers? Are they still f**k buddies? Who are they, who were they, who do they hope to be? I do not subscribe to the idea of a love/hate relationship between Michael and Harold. For me, they do not hate each other. They love each other (Michael organizes the party, gets a personal gift... the glances etc.). But Harold becomes harsher with Michael when the latter begins to drink and becomes hostile. It is a way of keeping him in control, and still not wanting to spoil the party. Harold would have been very mean, he isn't, he plays it cool. Michael becomes drunker and drunker and meaner and meaner. But, after all is said and done, Harold lets Michael know that he will still be there in the morning. Donald on the other side is the archetype of the ex-lover/best friend/ future boyfriend(?). It is very common in the gay world to have for best friend an ex-lover, an old flame or an ex- boyfriend (sometimes of a long-term relationship). Gay friendships are often sexually ambiguous - such is Donald and Michael's. Everyone thinks they're lovers, Michael makes sure that Donald feels "settled" and that the Saturday night thing is a fixture (the toothbrush, the question in the end). And Donald is the only one other than Harold that Michael doesn't touch during the telephone game, and the only one he doesn't harm and doesn't attack during the night. They share an intimate relationship, and Donald plays the support role for Michael, without being judging like Harold. And he is there in the end, non-judgmental, still committed.
In conclusion, yes this film is cruel, yes it may be disturbing, but it is also witty, hilarious and, for me, full of hope. It is a strikingly real portrayal of gay relationships, of the gay family, and even some things have changed (the self-hatred, mostly), it is incredibly modern in the issues it deals with (coming out, the straight world, friendship, the community, homophobia...). It is a must-see for any gay person.
on October 16, 2008
I first heard the play on LPs in the listening room at my college library in the late 1960's. It was my first exposure to what seemed at the time to be "real" gay people in a play written by a gay man, and I listened to it over and over. When the movie came out, I went with friends to see it in a nearby large city (the film didn't get wide distribution). The theater was almost empty, but I sat totally enthralled throughout the entire film.
I've seen it many times since then, and of course I realize why younger gay people are put off by it, because it's so far removed from their reality. Not only that, but today there are hundreds of films that portray positive gay characters who effectively confront a variety of situations. But in the context of its time, this was a breakthrough film. Up until that time, there had been very few films with openly gay characters, and when a gay character did appear in a mainstream film, it was as a figure to be feared, scorned, pitied, or derided. There had never been a Hollywood film in which all the main characters were gay or bisexual.
It's true that many of the characters in the film were extreme stereotypes, but at least some of them were portrayed sympathetically, and that was a first. The dialogue may seem campy and dated, but it has a certain wit and intelligence that haven't faded. Furthermore, whether we want to admit it or not, the film accurately depicted the self-loathing that plagued certain gay men of that generation. Before blaming some of the characters in this film for failing to accept their homosexuality, let's not forget that suicide among gay teens continues to be an issue of concern. Clearly, even in more enlightened times, very few people find it easy to deal with their homosexuality. So the film can serve to remind us not only of how far we have come, but how far we still have to go.
Reading some of the other reviews here, it's good to know that I'm not the only one upon whom this film had such a powerful impact. While it was many years before I was able to acknowledge my own sexual orientation, this film was one of the first steps that allowed that process to occur at all. For that reason alone, it will always be a landmark film for me, and not just a historical artifact.
on August 27, 2008
I first saw this phenomenal work on TV many years ago in an edited, sanitized version. When it came to VHS I bought it and watched it hundreds of times with many friends. I have to first say that the character of Michael is any actors dream to play. His emotions go from A to Z in a matter of two hours. And Kenneth Nelson, who portrays Michael, and also starred in the original cast of "The Fantastiks!" is nothing short of brilliant! Personally, I think it was his best role and his life cut way too short. It was a very smart casting move to use the stage cast. They are all very comfortable with the material and I cannot imagine another cast. I am so thrilled that this is comming out on DVD and has been restored by William Friedkin himself. While it is true that homosexuals are no longer so self loathing, it is also true that this is a valuable piece of history that we should never forget. Leonard Maltin wrote in his review of this picture that......"It is the only time in movie history where one tiny claustrophobic set can be one of the films biggest assets......" He was right. This film works on all levels. Well directed, acted, and written. I simply cannot wait until November. Great extras only enhance this gems worth. My only hope is the 'lost' scene of Larry and Hank upstairs be restored. Buy this picture. It really is worth it.
on August 11, 2008
Anyone who wants to see where the ideas for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Broken Hearts Club came from originally need look no further than this piece of gay history. All of the characters from those later works are present in this movie. As previous reviews have pointed out, the characters in the play and movie BITB are certainly tragic characters. However, we must remember this play opened two years before the Stonewall Riots. At that time, self hatred was a large part of the gay community. This movie broke ground if for no other reason than it had a cast of gay characters, all of whom lived as the curtain fell. None of them were murdered or committed suicide in the last act. That as much as anything else was revolutionary at the time. This is an amazing piece of art and history and it's highly recommended to anyone looking for either.
on July 17, 2008
Perhaps the best film ever made on the Homosexual lifestyle. Even the one "Stereotype Gay" character is beleiveable, and understandable. A great plot joins very funny lines to make even homophobes realize that gay men have the same issues hetrosexual men have regarding human need, human failure, and human desire for acceptance. A great movie!