Where the Boys Were
BY Dave White
October 22 2008 12:00 AM ET
The opening shots of The Boys in the Band show a man getting ready for a party. His bathroom counter isn’t visible beneath the clutter of creams, lotions, face masks -- even makeup. He fusses over his hairline, then takes out a fancy silk scarf and ties it around his neck.
“I like how back then you had to dress nice to be gay,” says my 27-year-old friend Adam, who’s sprawled on my living room floor. “Like, you had to tie a scarf around your neck.”
Adam works in music. He’s never seen William Friedkin’s legendary 1970s anticomedy -- adapted from Mart Crowley’s stage play -- about a group of gay male New Yorkers attending a stunningly un-fun, emotionally abusive birthday party. The other young homosexuals in my living room -- Graham, a 20-year-old filmmaker; 26-year-old Steve, a librarian; and 22-year-old Juan, who’s in a band called Abe Vigoda—haven’t seen the film either. Juan just learned of its existence this week.
So we’re watching it because, after 38 years, the seminal piece of queer cinema is finally available on DVD, and I want to record a new generation’s reactions to the onslaught of its “tired fairies and screaming queens.”
Film critic Stephen Rebello, a friend of mine, saw The Boys in the Band when it was first released. And even then gay audiences had mixed feelings. “We loved it for its biting wit and Crowley’s brilliance in portraying bitchy, competitive camaraderie,” Stephen said. “But all that despair, self-pity, and self-hatred? You could have it.”
I first saw The Boys in the Band in 1993, when I was 28. It was like witnessing an alien race of men prone to shrieking like trapped animals and clawing each other’s eyes out -- just as long as they didn’t spill their martinis doing so. How would these even younger, even more progressed gays see it?
The plot centers on nine gay male friends who’ve gathered for a night of booze and psychodrama. It’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with eight more Elizabeth Taylors. And it starts funny. At least it starts funny to the young men in my living room. They agree that their favorite character is the sashaying, pouting, vamping Emory, played by Cliff Gorman. “Is he drinking poppers?” Graham asks.