Hoo boy, talking about this movie is going to be quite a task. Because the movie itself can raise such conflicted reactions in oneself, and also because one must address the differing experiences of those old enough to remember when the movie was out, and the gay scene at that time, and those born afterward, and how this movie must appear to them now. But one thing that can be said with certainty is that this film, and the play it was based on, is a major milestone in mainstream gay expression and simply must be acknowledged.
It is very important to understand the context this play, and later film, was created in. The play debuted in 1968, one year before the Stonewall riots and the official birth of gay rights, and thus reflects PRE-Stonewall gay life and attitudes. When it came out, homosexuality was still very much a hot-button social issue that the average straight person would only need to consider if they REALLY wanted to be socially sensitive, but otherwise need not think about at all. The life of the gay man was widely considered to be a tragic existence of empty promiscuity, drink and drugs, and seedy lurking around society's fringes grasping at some small splinter of acceptance and happiness that could at best be fleeting and insubstantial. And the reason this movie is such a major thing to deal with is that, despite its attempt to show the perspective of the gay people, with their deep loves and real personal attachments, the net effect is to reinforce the view of gay culture as a sad, dead-end existence.
We open with a shot of a sink crowded with beauty creams and lotions, then have short shots of all our characters going about their daily lives in New York, with the emphasis on picking out the gay people who might otherwise pass unnoticed among the throng of New York society. As this is unfolding we are hearing a version of "Anything Goes."
We soon settle into the apartment of Michael, where we will spend the rest of the film [the movie doesn't try to escape, but makes a strength of its provenance as a one-location play]. Michael is a movie actor who is constantly running between coasts ["And why? ...And why?"] and is deep in debt. He is joined by his boyfriend Donald, although we are to understand that they do not live together and seem to have little to no commitment, but just hang out and sleep together a lot. Michael has books and posters and images of the typical gay female glamour icons [Marlene Detrich, Joan Crawford] all around his apartment, and one notes he has an entire drawer full of scarves. Michael is in therapy, and has stopped drinking and smoking--although of course he puts out copious booze and [amusingly] two cartons of cigarettes out for his guests. That's 400 cigarettes for eight guests for one night, by the way, or 50 cigarettes per person for one evening.
So Michael gets a call from his old college buddy, Alan, who is in town, is crying, and asks to come over and talk to him. Michael says it’s a bad time, but sure. By now the other guests have started to arrive, including African-America Bernard, couple Hank and Larry, and Emory, who embodies every stereotype of the flaming queen you have ever thought of—or will ever think of. The dialogue is virtually all bitchy queen snaps and zingers, usually an unnecessary comment laced with a cruel personal observation or insult, often ending in an epithet such as bitch, cunt, fag, fairy or queer. And we’re at the BEGINNING of the movie. Tension begins when Michael tells the group that they should “cool it,” because his straight friend Alan is coming over. Some respect this, some feel resentful, and Emory takes it as an annihilation of who he is.
Alan comes over to find all the guys dancing to “Heatwave.” Michael is clearly embarrassed. Alan is immediately impressed by the straight-seeming and once-married-with-kids Hank, which causes Larry to become bitchily jealous, which only reveals his own insecurity, as Alan is obviously no threat. Emory becomes even more lispingly campy than ever, having been told to rein it in. Soon Michael has to take Alan upstairs to get away from the rest of the guys. By now Michael, who has been drinking and smoking despite having supposedly quit, is getting a little pointed and angry in his questioning of Alan, who has really disrupted his party and made him very uncomfortable. He finally asks him: “Why were you crying on the phone?”
We cut away before finding out. Eventually they both come down, and soon Alan gets so worked up by Emory’s constant comments that he calls him a “freak” and punches him. Alan soon gets sick and disappears upstairs for a while. Meanwhile Michael is back downstairs and we have several shots of him drinking. Then this young hustler arrives, supposed to be a “birthday present” for Harold, who has not yet arrived. Then he arrives, way late for his own party, joint in hand, face first seen in the shot below [which to me makes him look like a killer from a De Palma film]. Michael castigates him for being late, and Harold responds that he’s Jewish and has bad skin, so if it takes him longer to get ready, “it’s nobody’s business but my own.” Looks like Clash of the Queens, which is what it is for a while as he and Michael lay into each other in friendly/vicious banter, Michael saying that Harold is so obsessed with his appearance and acne he attacks his face with tweezers, only making it worse, and Harold attacking that Michael is in debt. Don’t you want to hang out with these fun guys?
Then a sudden rainstorm forces everyone inside. Alan comes back down. Everyone owns up to being gay to him, including Hank, who tells him that he loves Larry, despite once being married and having kids. Everyone is drunk and stoned. Then Michael, now a fearsome, vicious drunk, insists that everyone play a game in which they have to call someone they love and get points based on whether they say who is calling and say that they love them. Bernard—who has had pretty much nothing to do up til now—gets his little character moment before retreating once more into the background. Then Emory, now quieter and less obnoxious, tells of his high school crush and how it got spread all over the school that he was in love. Then Hank and Larry air their dirty laundry—which is that Larry loves to fuck around [“I love then all! I need them all!”], while Hank wants to be monogamous.
SPOILERS > > >
Then Michael won’t let Alan go until he calls someone. He says Alan needs to call this guy Justin that he used to fuck around with in college. Michael has kept in touch with Justin and Justin says they had a torrid affair and were very deeply in love until Alan couldn’t take it, dumped Justin and married a woman! And THAT’S what Alan was crying about on the phone, wasn’t it? Because he’s CLOSETED! Alan keeps denying it, saying that Justin was lying, because Justin made a play for he and Alan to be lovers, and Alan dumped him [which would mean that Justin is still another jealous, insecure, lying queen]. Michael tells him he’s lying, that he’s gay and he knows it, and forces him to call someone. Then Alan calls—his wife? He had left his wife, and that’s what he was crying about? Wuh-oh, now Michael feels really bad. Pretty much everyone leaves. Harold delivers a withering assessment of Michael, saying he hates himself for being gay. After he leaves, Michael breaks down, realizing how ugly he’s been all night, causing Donald to say “I’ll give you a Valium—I’ve got them in my pocket!” Michael weepingly says the big sum-up line: “If we could just not hate ourselves so much,” then says he’s going to catch midnight mass, while you at home are like “Wait a minute! What the fuck time is it supposed to be!? I thought it was like dawn by now.”
< < < SPOILERS END
Also on the disc are interviews with the writer, Mart Crowley, that tell the genesis of the story, play, and film. He says he was in debt and in the midst of a deep depression when he just started writing dialogue and it all flowed out. He says he broke his own personality up into the many characters. You can also, as it’s going through, see it name-checking several gay aspects of existence at the time—the baths, Fire Island, Judy Garland, Valium—to provide a bit of a tour and give its audience stuff it can relate to. They then talk about the film, and William Friedkin and how he filmed it [interesting] but only pay the slightest bit of attention to how hard this film fell out of favor for quite some time. Of course, that is precisely what I’m interested in, but as you know, in DVD extras, the negative DOES NOT EXIST, so we only get a mention that some in the gay community turned against it for a while, but then it was revived in 1996, and Ben Brantley of the New York Times said “I guess it’s okay to start liking The Boys in the Band again.”
Okay, so we should start with that. For quite some time, gay groups were against this play and film as presenting a negative, stereotyped portrayal of gay life. All right, but let’s consider that most of what people consider “negative stereotypes” of any group are usually fairly true… it’s just that the group doesn’t WANT to be seen like that. They would rather concentrate on the more positive, non-stereotyped portrayals—although the people they represent may actually be the minority of the actual group in reality, and the majority of the group may represent the stereotype! This is how, in my opinion, political correctness is the enemy of art and turns art into propaganda.
So one big set of questions this movie raises for gay men is "Are we really like this? WERE we like this, but have evolved? Or are we still like this?" My personal experience has been that there are very much people like this, and almost any gay person has known plenty of them. In my experience, however, the level of self-loathing and insecurity that leads to lashing out is in inverse relation to the amount of acceptance of homosexuality. For instance, more older people, mature at the time this film covers, tend to relate in these ways than younger people. More people where I grew up in Michigan, where acceptance was less widespread, were invested in being the one to make the clever derogatory comment and took pride in being “bitches.” Furthermore, in my experience—really un-PC idea coming now—greater oppression also correlates to greater “feminine” identification and presentation. So now in New York, where there is a great deal of acceptance and being gay is pretty much no big deal, right now most of the guys have adopted a fairly straightforward “dude” persona, a guy in jeans and a T shirt who hasn’t shaved in a few days [except in black and Latino communities, where there is more enforced macho attitudes, more oppression, and thus much more feminine presentation]. So with a lower level of oppression [and also missing a generation lost to AIDS] leather has pretty much died out as well… so this OVER-presentation of “masculinity” has faded away as well, and for the most part, gay guys have become just regular [and in some ways dull and generic] guys. Is it better? Well, personally I think it’s gotten a lot more boring, but I’m perverted. I would really love some sociologist to correlate presentation and identification with level of acceptance… but I fear that this whole area is too fraught with political agendas and sensitivities that only the most empty and banal explorations can be allowed.
The other thing that sets this movie apart and what I think makes it such a lightning rod is that it can generate such a lot of raw emotion in the gay viewer. You can be outraged that it is showing gay people that way, or you can be horrified that maybe gays are [or at least USED to be] that way. I was surprised to find many people on the IMDb finding the many bitchy lines hilarious, where I personally did not laugh once during this movie. If you identify more "masculine" [note the ironic quotes to indicate I understand this is a culturally-created construct!] you may find that these characters--particularly Emory--really get under your skin, and have the power to truly agitate. You may be horrified that "friends" would treat each other this way, or want to step in and curtail some of the emotional manipulation. Or you might be annoyed that homosexuality is so completely connected to self-loathing in this portrayal. So in one way the movie is incredibly successful in that it's very unlikely any gay viewer will be able to just sit through it without becoming seriously riled up and involved, and being left with a great deal to think about afterward. And I think you have to give anything that can do that a lot of credit.
You also have to admire it for having the courage to be really raw and nasty and negative, rather than wholly whitewashed and brimming with phony "positive images." One also has to realize that this was the first film to center exclusively on gay characters, and the widespread attitude at the time was that being gay was a sad and tragic lifestyle choice. So at the time, this movie was actually a huge leap forward simply for showing a gay person's daily life at all. Furthermore one has to keep in mind that at the time this play was written, gay bars were not at all as open as they are now, and you ran the serious risk of being arrested simply for being in one. So it's important to put the self-loathing these characters express in that context, and perhaps use the movie as a measurement of how far we've come since then.
Now some last little notes. One factoid that blew my mind is that Hank, the married one in this film, is played by Laurence Luckinbill, who sounded reallllly familiar to me. Imagine my shock and horror to learn that perhaps his other most major role is as Spock's brother, Sybok, in Star Trek V: The One That Sucked So Hard. Also, Cliff Gorman, who played super flamboyant Emory, was known for macho straight roles, such as lecherous artist Charlie in An Unmarried Woman. Lastly, if you're looking for another movie that comes from a gay perspective but is mega-negative about gays, check out Fox and His Friends, which is so merciless in its portrayal it'll make this one look like a very special television event from the Hallmark channel.
If you're gay, I think you are pretty much required to face this at some point.