Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Boys in the Band (1970): Preserving the pre-Stonewall gays

The Boys in the Band (1970)
Dir William Friedkin

God bless William Friedkin. He had been doing film for a couple of years before he did The Boys in the Band, which some people mark as the last film before Friedkin's career truly took off, and others consider to be the first real film of his career. The Boys in the Band is also a landmark film of circumstantial time and place.

The play The Boys in the Band came out in January of 1968. Stonewall happened in June of 1969. The film The Boys in the Band was released in March of 1970, and the first gay pride parade happened in June of that year.

The play The Boys in the Band was kind of a smash hit Off Broadway, but was never off-off Broadway. It post-dated the Warhol Factory, and the Cino Cafe crowds. So, gay theater was already starting to take off. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had already taken Broadway and the film world by storm, so combining the two, plus the coming awareness of homosexual self-identity would lead to The Boys in the Band, which would pinpoint attitudes prevalent in the gay community before Stonewall that many eventually detested after Stonewall.

The plot of The Boys in the Band is deceptively simple. A bunch of gays get together for a friend's birthday party when the host's straight, square, college friend drops in after having an existential crisis with his wife.

But, this is pre-Stonewall. Closets were prevalent, self-hatred and hetero-envy were side dishes, and straight people wouldn't normally be seen fraternizing with gays. Hell, this is practically the set-up of La Cage Aux Folles, where the straight son of two gay guys invites his fiance and her conservative parents to meet the family. Hilarity ensues.

But, The Boys in the Band is not nearly as polite or as French as La Cage Aux Folles. The gays in The Boys in the Band each have their own personalities and levels of camp and history. They're used to passing in public society, but when you have to repress behind closed doors, tensions come out, games are played, and hatred is spewed from all angles. This is more the gay version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? except it's 6 on 1, and that is gay vs straight.

Our host for the evening is Michael, a rather not-campy recovering alcoholic, is setting up for his friend Harold's birthday party. Alan, an old, straight, married college roommate calls up crying demanding a drink, and is invited up. The guests eventually arrive, including Donald, a lazy bastard; Emory, a femme guy; Hank, a soon-to-be divorced guy who is dating Larry, the town bicycle; and Bernard, a black bookseller.

When they're all together, protective attitudes are dropped, shields are let down, and everybody is catty and bitchy at each other. But, when Alan arrives, and the shields have to suddenly raise behind closed doors, everything goes haywire. When Harold, the late-arriving birthday boy, finally arrives, the games really begin.

The second half is dedicated to Michael's parlor game where he offers points to any guy who will call up the one guy they have truly loved. This is an attempt to get information out of Alan about his breakdown, and perhaps to get him out of the closet. But, it also pierces everybody's politeness as their shields don't just come down, but explode into shrapnel.

What makes The Boys in the Band feel alive is also what makes the gays hate it so much. Everybody in The Boys in the Band is casually and caustically cruel to each other. The words are first wielded like foam bats used in therapy, but end up as ice picks aimed at each other's throats as well as their own. The emotions of The Boys in the Band are complex and incisive. There's the usual emotions that always happen when you're good enough friends for a long period of time. There's the overlaying emotions of the closet when you have to hide who you are in straight company. There's the resentment of the outside world and the cruelty that happens when that world is hellbent on oppressing you. And, then there's the self-hatred that can happen when you're not happy with your situation and you lack the ability to change it.

When I say that The Boys in the Band is pre-Stonewall, this isn't an insult at all. It's the transitional period of the time, as it didn't glorify the gay lifestyle to be shiny and glittery. Nor was this a celebration of cruelty. Rather, this was an an incisive dissection of the gay lifestyle, being observant of the attitudes, and the source of the problems that the attitudes presented.

The director, William Friedkin, a straight man, says that these attitudes aren't gay-exclusive. This play was a play about humanity and basic human emotions. The writer, Mart Crowley, however, was writing about the life he saw around him. Whether or not the movie is gay-exclusive, or a universal human experience, The Boys in the Band codified the attitudes of an era. As a play it provided the kick-in-the-ass mirror that was needed to push from closet to pride. And, as a film it preserved what the attitudes were like.

By the time The Boys in the Band came out, the self-hatred became embarrassing and tired for gays to be associated with, and they picketed the film. They didn't want to be seen as self-hating queens who couldn't help themselves. They wanted to be seen as proud happy people. It was a total marketing move to push people into a happier, more accepting place. But, the tongues and the attitudes of the film are still finely attuned to the gay dialect and lifestyle. I've seen these catty queeny bitchy people in real life. Hell, the bitchiness is the basis for Andy Cohen, or that stupid show on Logo, The A-List.

Compare this to the works of Andy Milligan. Really, the personalities here aren't all that different from that of Cherry in Fleshpot on 42nd Street. It's a bit more middle-to-upper class, and it is more about the emotional games one plays, but there can be lines drawn directly from The Boys in the Band through Vapors to Fleshpot on 42nd Street.

William Friedkin would go on to do a wide variety of movies like The French Connection, or The Exorcist. He returned to the gay community to do Cruising, in which Al Pacino has to go undercover as a gay leatherman to stop a series of murders in the gay leather community. Of course, this was also picketed because the gay community didn't want to be seen as a bunch of murdering sluts, or something. It's not that Friedkin had been only making movies that demonized gay people. Look at the The French Connection or The Exorcist. Those straight people were fucked up royally. Friedkin specialized in sour looks at life. And, his latest movies prove that with Killer Joe and Bug.

Poor William Friedkin. We're sorry! Your films were victims of bad bad timing. They preserved sides that we didn't want presented. Please, come back and make another gay movie. I will be there to watch it (even if others in the community won't be).

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