Thursday, October 22, 2020

Unhappy Birthday: The Boys in the Band

Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells in The Boys in the Band (2020), now streaming on Netflix.
 

The Boys in the Band, if you need reminding, is a landmark 1968 play by Mart Crowley about eight gay men at a birthday party: Michael, the host, full of venom and self-hatred; his bookish ex-lover Donald; gentle, self-possessed Bernard; flamboyantly effeminate Emory; promiscuous Larry and stable Hank, a volatile couple; a dumb hustler called Cowboy; and Harold, the figure skater, pothead, and supercool “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” whose birthday it is. Emotional hostilities and histories emerge, with Michael finally forcing the others into a sadomasochistic truth-telling game which involves saying “I love you” to someone over the phone. The same actors—Kenneth Nelson as Michael, Frederick Combs as Donald, Reuben Greene as Bernard, Cliff Gorman as Emory, Keith Prentice as Larry, Laurence Luckinbill as Hank, Peter White as Alan, Robert LeTourneaux as Cowboy, and Leonard Frey as Harold—played these roles off-Broadway, in the West End, and in the first film version, from 1970, produced by Dominick Dunne and directed by William Friedkin. The play didn’t reach Broadway until 2018, its fiftieth anniversary, when it was directed by Joe Mantello, produced by Ryan Murphy, and played by an all-gay cast: Jim Parsons as Michael, Matt Bomer as Donald, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, Robin de Jesús as Emory, Andrew Rannells as Larry, Tuc Watkins as Hank, Brian Hutchison as Alan, Charlie Carver as Cowboy, and Zachary Quinto as Harold. The same personnel return for a new film version, which began streaming on September 30 as part of Murphy’s multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix. 

Though I feel great affection for the 1970 film, I’ve never seen Crowley’s play onstage and suspect I wouldn't care for it if I did. That’s mainly thanks to a) the published play, which doesn’t read well, and b) a long-out-of-print LP, issued on A&M Records in 1969, which captures a full performance specially recorded in a studio by the original cast. Accessing only the voices, you must imagine every other component of a live presentation—the presence of the actors; the contributions of set design, costuming, lighting; and the Heisenbergian variance between experiencing a thing alone versus with an audience. In addition, the action is frenetically hurried, probably so that a two-and-a-half-hour play will fit on four album sides. But even so, the record gives a clear if compromised sense of how Crowley’s comedy-drama landed with its off-Broadway audience, and of how the actors did their parts—their degrees of projection on loud lines, quiet lines, and the 90 percent of lines falling somewhere between. It’s that very projection, of body as well as voice, that is so vital to the theater, and that can so easily overwhelm a movie camera (or, in this case, a studio microphone).

That’s where one begins to appreciate the subtlety and restraint of the Friedkin film. To find ourselves applying those words to this director is as puzzling as it is to imagine that a filmmaker as mediocre as George Roy Hill could produce something as delicate and touching as The World of Henry Orient. Friedkin went straight from Boys to The French Connection and The Exorcist, two films which, however effective they are at what they do (and I'm a fan of both), scarcely exemplify subtlety or restraint. But something in Crowley’s material must have lured out Friedkin’s tenderer attentions, for his control over the projection of this inherently stagey material is mostly perfect for the screen—a projection that is sufficiently outward, but largely inward, or even sideways. His film is shot mostly in a real Upper East Side apartment, belonging to the actress Tammy Grimes, and over the course of two hours the place becomes a collective cocoon, both claustrophobic and many-chambered, full of shadows, heights, recesses. Crowley pares down his excessive playscript for the film, and the talk runs noticeably leaner throughout—for instance, in Michael’s “run, run, run” speech, which overstays its welcome by only a few moments. (In the Netflix version, some of the speech is restored, and it goes on much too long; in the original play, it goes on much, much too long.) 

Kenneth Nelson, Reuben Greene, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman, and Keith Prentice in The Boys in the Band (1970).
 

The Friedkin film benefits from a structural evolution that's felt in terms of energy and ambience rather than contrived breaks, as in a play. The drifts from sunlight to shadow, outdoors to indoors, noise to silence are perceptible but never obvious, and all support the evening’s emotional degeneration from gaiety to despair. The first forty-five minutes or so rush by at horserace tempo, with expository dialogue and dramatic backfill going past in a funny, half-heard blur, characters buzzing from room to room, shouting insults or bitching sotto voce while squeezing through windows or doorways. Later on, in relaxed dialogue scenes, Friedkin puts the speaker at or near the center of the image, but with listening characters unfocused in the foreground or background; as well as reinforcing our sense of the group, this lends a soft, friendly edge to the shots. The mood begins to cool after Harold’s belated appearance, with an accumulation of silences held for just the right number of seconds. After the birthday cake and opening of gifts, a sensual interlude of music, dancing, and weed is destroyed by a sudden thunderstorm that pushes everyone inside, humid and hostile. The ensuing emotional confrontations occur in a deceptively inviting living space, characters moving toward and away from each other naturally, not as if choreographed; the steady beat of rain on glass is the very sound of distance and loneliness. Much of this could be done in an equivalent way on a stage, and much of it couldn’t. But Friedkin achieves it all cinematically, with great warmth, ease, and skill.

It probably won’t surprise you, by this point, that I think the Netflix remake is not nearly as good. Hopes are raised by an opening which shows Harold making his pre-party preparations—the sizzle as a cigarette is lit, a pristine vinyl LP (with period-accurate Capitol label!) placed on a turntable. They remain up through early scenes, as beautiful vintage New York locations are recreated, clever background details are noted (the days of Michael’s kitchen calendar marked off with X’s, as on a prison wall), and each actor makes his individual go at these familiar lines. Speaking of which, it’s interesting to note how evolving social sensibilities have reshaped the work. Emory’s “Chinese laundress” joke has been deep-sixed; Michael’s use of the n-word remains, but is obscured to inaudibility by crosstalk; and a line about closeted Mormons rings with new clarity and comedy. (Crowley again adapted himself, this time with Ned Martel.) But the movie never settles into a holistic groove. Mantello’s direction provides a lot of stylishness and very little style. He never flirts with recreating the Friedkin film shot for shot, as Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho tried to do with Hitchcock; but there is so little successful rethinking of the material in visual terms that many moments, and even whole images, come off as virtual replications. (There is, however, one lovely and inspired image—a shot from just off Michael’s terrace, several floors above the sidewalk, timed to a singing of “Happy Birthday” and a shower of mirrored confetti.)

It’s hard to know just who to blame for the mishandling of the climactic phone calls. Director? Adaptors? Assume it’s everyone’s fault. The device—by which a character describes his great love, then attempts to reach the person on the telephone and declare his feelings—was always artificial, but here it’s phonied up even further, the maudlin appeal brought forward. The backstories of Bernard, Emory, and Hank are visualized (we also see Donald and Larry going at each other in a bathhouse passion), and in each case the physical manifestation renders the described emotions more obvious, less authentic. Robin de Jesús works his way through Emory’s monologue in a mostly truthful way, but the thing falls flat: the lighting is bland, the camera won’t stay on the actor, and the whipped-cream flashbacks to a high school prom, primal scene of Emory’s outsiderness, are foolish and false. As Friedkin shot it, the same scene was spellbindingly simple and still. Cliff Gorman, his voice perched like a bird at the top of his throat and the back of his tongue, spoke in a near-monotone, as if no more than faithfully transcribing the images that were flooding his character’s memory. When he reached his loved one on the phone, and dissolved the moment by saying “You wouldn't remember me,” we not only saw Emory uttering the words; we also heard, or felt we did, how the words sounded at the other end, whispered over a wire by a midnight voice from the past. Few screen moods are as complete as this, few scenes more effectively dark, sad, lost—and all charges of gay self-loathing aside, “dark, sad, lost” is the dramatic truth of what Crowley has written. (The scene has always reminded me of Truman Capote’s short story “Shut a Final Door,” but with the viewpoint reversed.) 

Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer in The Boys in the Band (2020).
 

The actors are all over the map. Though Parsons can sometimes tickle the ear with the oscillations of his high-pitched voice (“Listen, asshole, what am I going to do?”), he usually hits his lines too hard or too much on the nose. Kenneth Nelson came at them obliquely, his voice and face tilting into each insult; Parsons hasn’t that skill. (Perhaps Nelson also had a more direct pipeline to the character's self-loathing.) Bomer, who was quite fine in the otherwise disappointing third season of USA’s The Sinner, often hits too hard as well—in fact, all the actors do at various points. De Jesús is just too much: not “too gay,” but too little directed. Quinto, an old hand at playing villains (TV’s Heroes) and Vulcans (Spock in the Star Trek remakes), portrays Harold as if warming up for another season of Murphy’s American Horror Story, of which he’s also a veteran. As the original Harold, Leonard Frey gave even his sourest utterances the sorrowful grain of a lived-in voice; Quinto’s brittle, one-dimensional tone makes every line an invitation to a haunted house, or a mad scientist’s promise of torture. (To be fair, he does nicely with Harold’s two-liner about his mother and the salad.)

Reuben Greene in the original played Bernard as grounded and mostly self-accepting, with a fragility that came off as more emotional than sexual or racial; Michael Benjamin Washington’s Bernard, in obvious deference to contemporary standards, is portrayed as proud and secure throughout—which renders the damaging effect of the telephone game on his psyche pretty much a non-drama. As Cowboy, the least-written role, Robert LeTourneaux was often awkward and always poignant, while Charlie Carver is charming but external: he regards his character’s qualities approvingly, from a slight distance, rather than living inside them. In 1970, Peter White, working mostly through wide eyes and elegant postures, made Alan much more palpable and present, while Luckinbill implied Hank’s depth in every sad smile, compassionate gesture, and demonstration of an easy masculinity. Hutchison’s Alan and Watkins’s Hank, on the other hand, make almost no impression: despite their importance to the group dynamic, they are played and directed as little more than stolid faces, witnessing eyes.

Andrew Rannels is the best thing in the remake, perhaps because his part has been rethought most completely. Keith Prentice’s Larry, though a tad dissolute, was also intelligent, self-aware, and finally generous. Rannels’s Larry is a blowsy, swaggering crotch rat with a pot belly and explosive tendencies, and clearly alcoholic. Where you could believe in, or at least hope for, some future between Larry and Hank in the 1970 film, their rapprochement here is only a temporary cease-fire, acceded to in a depth of exhaustion and drunkenness. More rethinking—not necessarily toward darkness and defeat, but toward a new dramatic and visual interpretation supporting the strengths of the material, not its weaknesses—might have saved this new Boys in the Band from being a redundancy. But who can say? In 1970, some very unlikely elements came together, somehow meshed, and produced what I’ve always regarded as a small classic. In 2020, some very well-chosen, perfectly appropriate elements have come together to produce something I don’t expect to recall very clearly a month from now.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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