Where the Boys Were

By Dave White

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.

“Yeah,” Adam says. “He’s out of control. He makes you think they were trying to make the movie and he just showed up and started butting in with, “Hell-o-o-o!”

“Wildest thing about that actor,” I say, “is that he was totally straight and known for playing tough guys. Except here. Well, sort of here too, now that I think about it. Queens like that were made of titanium.”

As the fictional party ramps up, the old-school catchall nickname “Mary” gets more traction, African-American character Bernard (Reuben Greene) is advised to go eat some watermelon, and acid-tongued character Harold (the late Leonard Frey) shows up to deliver withering, disgusted glances and blackened, deadpan insults. My young viewers express their amused appreciation: “These are the worst friends ever!” Graham says, laughing.

“I know,” Steve says. “Why are they so fuckin’ bitchy? Although I could probably see this same thing playing out at the Abbey on any given night -- just change the neck scarves to Fendi and D&G.”

“And the gays now are just as racist,” Juan adds. “One guy recently told me he thought I was Indian instead of Mexican, like it was supposed to be a compliment.”

The consensus, however, is that the poisonous level of relentless meanness on-screen is still qualitatively different and way worse than anything anyone in the room has experienced. But it also kicks Gossip Girl’s ass, so that’s awesome. When a surprise thunderstorm drives characters off the balcony and back into the small apartment set, though, my young watchers begin squirming. “How long is this movie?” Adam asks.

“Yes, how many minutes left?” Juan adds. “Are we done yet?”

But we’re not. There are about 30 grinding minutes to go, including the final moments when some characters make a futile plea to end gay self-hatred. But really, how else could it end besides mass suicide? People say Friedkin’s Cruising is a damaged movie, but at least the men in that one get to have some fun before the serial killer gets all stabby.

When the credits roll I ask for final thoughts: “Bleak and exhausting,” Juan says. “Thanks for the total bummer.”

“The movie is like what you’d see in a diorama at Mary’s Natural History Museum,” Adam says. “Look: prehistoric gays. They were unhappy.”

“I actually saw this play when I was 17,” confesses Steve. “I didn’t connect. I still don’t. I think it’s because secrecy propels the story—the idea that you can’t ‘admit’ that you’re gay. But I had gay teenage friends and caring parents then, so I was relatively happy.”

Graham simply calls the movie “insane. I think it just turned me straight.”

“But they all get to live at the end,” I say, trying to justify the last two hours of sadness. “That made it sort of groundbreaking.” Yet even as I say it, I realize I sound like a docent at Mary’s Natural History Museum.