Tonight I watched ‘The Boys in the Band’ on Youtube.
It’s a film, directed by William Friedkin (of ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The French Connection’ fame) based on the play, of the same name. It was written by Mart Crowley, at his friend Natalie Wood’s house on the Hollywood Hills, as he stayed with her one summer in 1967.
It premiered off-Broadway in 1968 and ran for years. And it was quite the revolutionary play for its time. All the main characters were gay, but none of them end up serial killers, murdered or committing suicide? Say what?
It’s the story of Michael who is throwing a 32nd birthday party for his stoner friend Harald, in his New York apartment. As he waits for his guests to arrive he receives a call from an old, straight college friend Alan, who breaks down in tears on the phone over an unexplained situation with his wife.
The guests arrive and proceed to get drunk. Alan arrives unexpectedly, causing ructions of resentment, as all the other guests have to pretend to be straight around him. During the party, the humour takes a nasty turn, as the nine men become increasingly inebriated. The party culminates in a vicious game, where each man must call someone and tell him he loves him. Michael, believing that Alan has finally outed himself when he makes his call, until he realises that Alan’s wife is the recipient of the call when he grabs the phone away from him. The audience never learns what Alan intended to discuss with Michael in the end.
This play was written before the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (and 25 years before Ireland decriminalised homosexuality) and it is very much a snapshot of an era. The self-hatred and self-destructive behaviour of the characters is very evident. By the time the film was made in 1970, the Riots had happened and already the film seemed date as it was rejected by the fine young militants of the time, as being too negative a portrayal of the miserable lives of gay men.
But it still strikes a chord. These characters are living in a hostile word where they are pitied and scorned by society at best, where they face the real threat of being fired, evicted or murdered if their dirty secret gets out. Yet still they manage to form friendships with people just as messed up as they are. And none of them commits suicide or gets killed at the end – this was the inevitable fate of the few deviant characters on film up to that point.
I remember this film being in ‘Moviedome’ video shop in Limerick in 1992 – I never rented it. I knew what it was about. Well of course I did. I used to have this incredible ability to scan a newspaper and my eyes would hone in instinctively if the word ‘gay’ appeared anywhere in print. So desperate was I, for news about The Others, that I developed a primitive x-ray vision for gay references. But being gay was a crime. In my paranoia I semi-believed that I might get arrested if I was caught with such a film. That the Garda Siochana were waiting with their truncheons behind the counters of suburban video-shops to arrest renters of deviant films.
I eventually bought a VHS videotape of the film in 2002, while on a weekend break from Amsterdam. In a second hand record shop in Geneva of all places. By this time I was a fine young militant myself. I expected to hate it because of how the reviews has dismissed it as a piece of self-loathing crap. I loved it.
Oh it is dated and jaded for sure. But it is written so well, and each of those characters is still recognisable as versions of people that I have known. Fourteen years later I could still remember so many of the lines.
‘Now who do you have to f*** to get a drink around here?’