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‘The Boys in the Band’ – a ‘gay and out’ remake of 1970 movie

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A scene from "The Boys in the Band"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The year is 1968. Records are still records and landlines are still called telephones. Stonewall is a year away and the specter of AIDS lurks in a distant decade.

That’s the setting for Matt Crowley’s then-groundbreaking play, “The Boys in the Band” which opened on Broadway in 1968 and was made into a movie by William (“The Exorcist”) Friedkin in 1970.

Movie poster of “The Boys in the Band”

Crowley’s work was revelatory in ways good and bad. His “boys,” gathered for a birthday party, were plagued by a bigoted culture that invited self-loathing and outsized “swishy” behavior. They were outsiders, beyond the pale, so to speak, consigned to a niche that was, by definition, not a good place to be.

That Crowley even dared to hint at their flawed humanity was a huge deal and his cast rose to the challenge, creating a plethora of memorable performances, the stand-out being Harold, the birthday boy himself, the self-described “ugly, pockmarked, Jew fairy”, played by Leonard Frey.

Now comes the remake, which also started on stage and has moved, with its original cast intact, to film. One difference: in 1968, the actors were gay and closeted; the current group is gay and out. Proudly so.

As the film opens, our host, Michael (Jim Parsons) is preparing for his guests. They are: Emory (Robin de Jesus), a “flaming” Hispanic queen; Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a politely intellectual librarian; Donald (Matt Bomer), Michael’s former lover; Hank (Tuc Watkins) and Larry Andrew Rannells), a couple with commitment issues; the aforementioned Harold; and Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a dim but hunky midnight cowboy who is Harold’s birthday present.

Plus, there’s a last-minute unexpected guest: Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s college roommate who doesn’t know Michael is gay and, for that matter, may be gay himself.

The script is scattered with nasty lines that gleam (“Beware the hostile fag. When he’s sober, he’s dangerous. When he’s drunk, he’s lethal”) and plenty of practiced snark (“Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”). But there are also structural problems, such as a relatively lame second half in which everyone plays a telephone game (call up the person you truly love and tell them) that quickly becomes tedious and self-indulgent.

A scene from “The Boys in the Band”

Most crucially, aside from the inherent problem of whether “Boys” should be applauded for its bravery or shamed for its stereotypes, the movie suffers from a key bit of miscasting.

Namely, the Big Name. Parsons (of “The Big Bang Theory”) is the central figure, the fulcrum, so to speak, on whom the others balance. In the 1968 version, Michael was played by Kenneth Nelson, a closeted gay actor (he later came out) who could so convincingly pass for straight he was cast as the original romantic lead in the long-running musical, “The Fantasticks.”

Parsons, who rarely reads hetero (at least, in my experience), throws the whole piece off-kilter. He’d be marvelous as Emory, but apparently the role is too small.

That doesn’t mean Parsons is bad; his cri de coeur, “If we could just not hate ourselves so much” echoes in these “woke” times with just as much pain and poignancy as it did a half century ago.

Still, we’re left with a film that seems at odds with itself. “The Boys in the Band” gets the job done, but it doesn’t always get it right.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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