New York Magazine

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The pioneer­ing gay drama, long dis­missed as a relic of self-ha­tred (for years, I’d re­fused to see it), is now a Net­flix film that re­mains bril­liantly un­com­fort­able.

- By Mark Har­ris the boys in the band de­buts on Net­flix on Septem­ber 30. n septem­ber 30,

an in­vi­ta­tion to the most fa­mously toxic gay birth­day party in the his­tory of New York City will go out once again when Net­flix re­leases its film ver­sion of The Boys in the Band. It has been 52 years since Mart Crow­ley’s open wound of a drama, in which nine gay men get to­gether for a long evening of cock­tails, cake, and tear­ing into one an­other and them­selves, pre­miered Off Broad­way. It was ac­claimed, then dis­missed as a self­loathing relic of an un­en­light­ened time, then ac­claimed again as a mile­stone of frank­ness, em­pa­thy, and even lib­er­a­tion. This, its lat­est and most ac­ces­si­ble re­turn, should feel like the sum­mit of its re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion as an es­sen­tial text of gay his­tory, en­shrined by a gay pro­ducer, Ryan Mur­phy; a gay di­rec­tor, Joe Man­tello; and an en­tirely out cast led by Jim Par­sons and Zachary Quinto, none of whom are do­ing any­thing in the least bit risky to their ca­reers. And yet, even half a cen­tury later, The Boys in the Band de­fies the easy tri­umphal­ism of “Look how far we’ve come”; it’s too tough and bru­tal to be the oc­ca­sion for a vic­tory lap. Just like the char­ac­ters them­selves, you en­ter ex­pect­ing a cel­e­bra­tion, only to en­counter some­thing much more trou­bling.

That lack of com­pro­mise speaks very well for the dura­bil­ity of Crow­ley’s work, which tells the story of Michael (the char­ac­ters are first names only, in the all too ap­pro­pri­ate style of an AA meet­ing), a semi-lapsed Catholic who is try­ing to cut down on his drink­ing and has a mean streak as wide as a river of acid (es­pe­cially when he drinks), and his at­tempt to throw a party for his fren­emy, Harold, a self­de­scribed “ugly, pock­marked Jew fairy”

Owho masks his in­se­cu­ri­ties with a de­meanor of icy hau­teur and un­shak­able self-pos­ses­sion. The guests—mu­tual pals, for­mer lovers and their cur­rent part­ners, a 20-dol­lar hus­tler, an un­ex­pected col­lege room­mate from long ago—con­verge on Michael’s shabby du­plex for an evening of fun and games that, by its end, turns into games but no fun, reach­ing its nadir when Michael baits them all into pick­ing up the phone, call­ing the per­son they love most in the world, and telling them, “I love you.” His cruel goal is to show them all that their gay lives can never be any­thing more than a trav­esty of hu­man con­nec­tion en­acted for gig­gles or points on a score­board. But the game play­ing, just as it does in Ed­ward Al­bee’s clearly in­flu­en­tial Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf ?, re­veals some­thing else— a depth of emo­tion that gives the play its last­ing power.

The crit­i­cal re­ac­tion to Boys when it first opened, even from those who liked it, is hor­ri­fy­ing to re­visit. In the New York Times, Clive Barnes called it “scream­ingly funny as well as scream­ingly fag” and, while warn­ing that “camp or ho­mo­sex­ual hu­mor … like Jewish hu­mor … is an ac­quired taste,” saluted Crow­ley for how well he cap­tured “the special self-drama­ti­za­tion and the fright­en­ing self-pity—true I sup­pose of all mi­nori­ties but I think es­pe­cially true of ho­mo­sex­u­als.” As in­fu­ri­at­ing as it is to know how re­cently and ca­su­ally gay peo­ple were dis­cussed with an­thro­po­log­i­cal de­tach­ment, it is equally painful to re­al­ize how much of the praise Boys re­ceived was for what was seen as its dar­ing in de­pict­ing how aw­ful gay lives re­ally were.

The show was a hit. Cu­ri­ous au­di­ences kept the play run­ning for more than two years, and in 1970, Wil­liam Fried­kin di­rected the orig­i­nal cast in a movie ver

First Off Broad­way re­vival.

Orig­i­nal Off Broad­way pro­duc­tion.

First Broad­way pro­duc­tion.

Se­cond Off Broad­way re­vival and first im­mer­sive pro­duc­tion.

sion. But by the early 1990s, The Boys in the Band was re­garded as an an­tique that had writ­ten its own obit with the caus­tic line “Show me a happy ho­mo­sex­ual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” It was then that I first heard about the play (ac­tu­ally, the movie, which would turn up at re­vival houses now and then), and I re­mem­ber think­ing, Thanks, I’ll pass. In the mid­dle of an ex­is­ten­tial threat to gay lives, a play whose pur­pose seemed to be to con­firm all the worst things straight peo­ple ever said about us was the last thing I wanted to see. When I re­luc­tantly went to the movie any­way, I un­der­stood what I hadn’t be­fore: The Boys in the Band was, to use the slang of the time, made for us, by us—a time cap­sule, sure, but also a rich, com­pli­cated truth ses­sion from an artist who didn’t re­ally care what im­pres­sion it made on straight peo­ple; it didn’t be­long to them.

By the time I saw the film, had killed the play’s orig­i­nal di­rec­tor and five of its nine cast mem­bers. Crow­ley sur­vived that pan­demic and lived long enough to see Boys em­braced by new gen­er­a­tions with an Off Broad­way re­vival in 1996 and an­other in 2010. I in­ter­viewed him for an on­stage talk­back af­ter a per­for­mance of the se­cond re­vival; he seemed shy, abashed, and a lit­tle dis­ori­ented by the tor­rents of ap­plause, blink­ing as if, hav­ing lived in the shad­ows for so long, he couldn’t quite be­lieve he was be­ing al­lowed back into the light.

Crow­ley fi­nally won a Tony two years ago when the play de­buted on Broad­way with the same cast and di­rec­tor as this new film; he died in March at 84. The Net­flix movie is likely to be his fi­nal cre­ative legacy, and it ar­rives at a good mo­ment. It’s time for us to have an­other awk­ward, painful dance with a play that chal­lenges cur­rent au­di­ences in some ways they may not be used to.

At a mo­ment su­per­sat­u­rated with ano

The Net­flix movie (with the 2018 Broad­way di­rec­tor, pro­ducer, and cast). dyne state­ments about the im­por­tance of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and of telling our own sto­ries, here’s a piece of work that re­fuses to fill that pre­scrip­tion com­fort­ably. View­ers un­set­tled by char­ac­ters who are not read­ily iden­ti­fi­able as either he­roes or vil­lains, or by writ­ing that res­o­lutely re­fuses judg­ment, are un­likely to take well to the play’s lack of re­as­sur­ances. The Boys in the Band has ideas about cru­elty beget­ting cru­elty, but Crow­ley is brac­ingly un­in­ter­ested in mak­ing any­one feel bet­ter. His char­ac­ters, all in their late 20s or early 30s (the film has shrewdly ex­tended their age range into the late 40s), are not role mod­els or “steps

It’s a time cap­sule, sure, but also a rich, com­pli­cated truth ses­sion that didn’t care what straight peo­ple thought of it.

for­ward,” but the new film also makes clear that they can’t be con­de­scended to as pe­riod-piece em­bod­i­ments of op­pres­sion. If, for in­stance, it’s jolt­ing to see the ca­sual racism of a pre­dom­i­nantly white gath­er­ing of gay men noted and chal­lenged, it’s dou­bly so to re­al­ize that Crow­ley was prod­ding at this hot topic decades be­fore Twit­ter was. The ug­li­ness that pours out of Michael—and Par­sons, in go-for-broke mode, spares au­di­ences noth­ing—is, even to­day, a shock. But it’s just as jar­ring to see most of the other char­ac­ters barely raise an eye­brow at it.

Any di­rec­tor who tries to adapt a play into a movie has to de­cide how much to con­cede to the cam­era’s de­fault de­mand for real­ism. It’s a par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing ques­tion for The Boys in the Band, which Crow­ley wrote in a height­ened, de­lib­er­ately brit­tle, stren­u­ously arch style that gives any au­di­ence mem­ber who wants to ghost per­mis­sion to do so by call­ing it “stagy” or “the­atri­cal”; it re­mains an easy play from which to re­coil if you’re look­ing for a rea­son.

Man­tello doesn’t give you that out. For one thing, he has solved the prob­lem of the set. The orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion didn’t have one—it was just a group of chrome and Nau­gahyde chairs and side ta­bles that Crow­ley, in the stage di­rec­tions to the se­quel he wrote, hi­lar­i­ously calls “dra­matic and anal … it should pos­i­tively scream ‘taste.’ ” (Yes, there’s a se­quel; to quote one of the char­ac­ters, “Oh, Mary, don’t ask.”) Since then, the set—Michael’s apart­ment—has been ren­dered as every­thing from kind of grubby (the first movie), to im­mer­sive (the 2010 re­vival, in which the au­di­ence essen­tially sat in the liv­ing room), to im­prob­a­bly luxe (the Broad­way re­vival). In this movie, it feels like what it was al­ways meant to be: a mod­est, un­flashy set, a place for some­one who likes to stage drama in his home and knows how to make room for the ac­tion to play out. There is a bal­cony, ac­ces­si­ble by a spi­ral stair­case. There’s even a sort of prosce­nium—the ter­race, vis­i­ble through a set of French doors, where the friends are camp­ing it up when Michael’s col­lege buddy walks in. In this ver­sion of the play, more than any other, the ma­nip­u­la­tive, in­sis­tent Michael comes off as a kind of failed di­rec­tor.

That’s one of many smart de­ci­sions Man­tello makes; an­other is to keep The Boys in the Band real while lean­ing into the kind of ar­ti­fice the play de­mands. He knows there can be no such thing as a re­laxed or nat­u­ral­is­tic ver­sion of Boys be­cause, for most of its char­ac­ters, the night it­self is a tense per­for­mance. In the movie’s first min­utes, he gives us fleet­ing glimpses of their lives out­side that apart­ment—the dec­o­ra­tor, the squash player, the porno-house cruiser— and we start to un­der­stand that, for many of them, walk­ing through that door and pre­sent­ing them­selves to other gay men on a Satur­day night re­quires a willed act of, in essence, get­ting into char­ac­ter. The Boys in the Band doesn’t set­tle for the sen­ti­men­tal idea that we au­to­mat­i­cally drop our guard around peo­ple like our­selves. For most of those cel­e­brants, that apart­ment will prove no more of a safe space than any other, and Man­tello is acutely aware of how quickly even the one mo­ment of cut­ting loose that the men per­mit them­selves—a joy­ful sing

and-dance-along to Martha & the Van­del­las’ “Heat­wave”—can turn into an oc­ca­sion for anx­i­ety and shame.

Mike Ni­chols once said there were no great movies of Chekhov plays be­cause the plays them­selves are mas­ter shots; both their com­edy and their tragedy ac­crue from the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of see­ing all the char­ac­ters on­stage to­gether vir­tu­ally all the time. If Crow­ley’s play isn’t ex­actly Chekho­vian, its sense of en­nui and de­spair and con­fine­ment comes close enough, and when you see it on­stage, your eyes of­ten drift to char­ac­ters who aren’t talk­ing but watch­ing as the slow-mo­tion night­mare un­spools. A movie can’t repli­cate that ef­fect; al­most by def­i­ni­tion, a cam­era makes choices, and so a movie be­comes about peo­ple tak­ing ac­tion, do­ing things. That could be a haz­ard for The Boys in the Band, which is, in so many ways, a play about be­ing stuck, not mov­ing for­ward. But, some­how, it works. If the 1970 film, di­rected by a straight man, turned the au­di­ence into tourists, Man­tello’s eye makes us si­lent guests at the party, peer­ing through a look­ing glass at who, by an ac­ci­dent of birth tim­ing, we might have been and how far we have or haven’t trav­eled from that.

By the end, I was aware of what a nec­es­sary re­minder The Boys in the Band is that the strug­gle con­tin­ues. Half­way through its orig­i­nal Off Broad­way run came Stonewall, a date that has been com­mod­i­fied and over­sim­pli­fied as a line of de­mar­ca­tion. But Boys isn’t cleanly read­able as either a pre- or post-Stonewall work; it’s one in which con­straint and free­dom, pride and self-loathing, masochism and an un­kil­l­able sur­vival in­stinct all ex­ist in the same room on the same night. Many of the younger gay men who may de­cide to watch Boys in the com­ing weeks have grown up on a Bravo-VH1 diet of over­staged con­fronta­tions. They know all about read­ing some­one (“The li­brary is open!”), about “liv­ing for the drama,” about sav­age take­downs—not to men­tion about the sex­ual hi­er­ar­chies of Grindr. It’s up­set­ting, in the best pos­si­ble way, to look at where some of that orig­i­nated and at how much of it is toxic. Af­ter all, what is Ru­Paul’s mantra “If you can’t love your­self, how the hell you gonna love some­body else?” but a think-pos­i­tive re­write of the still­heart­break­ing line at the play’s end, when Michael, the self-styled il­lu­sion shat­terer who has man­aged to shat­ter no­body but him­self, pleads, “If we could just learn not to hate our­selves quite so very much.” Crow­ley left that sen­tence un­fin­ished. Writ­ing its end­ing is, as this vi­tal re­vis­i­ta­tion of his work re­minds us, our job.

pro­duc­tion re­sumes, a new role has emerged: the com­pli­ance of­fi­cer (CCO), in­fec­tion-preven­tion co­or­di­na­tor, or pro­ducer. There isn’t one of­fi­cial ti­tle for this po­si­tion or any stan­dard­ized re­quire­ments for hold­ing it. That am­bi­gu­ity has led to con­fu­sion and an un­reg­u­lated ar­ray of on-set pro­to­cols. We spoke with some of the peo­ple try­ing to fig­ure it out.

The COVID com­pli­ance of­fi­cer who runs a Face­book group for CCOs:

“Pro­duc­ers have to do their re­search on who they’re hir­ing, but they them­selves are un­sure of what this po­si­tion should look like. Some aren’t do­ing their due dili­gence to make sure their CCOs are up to par.

No tem­per­a­ture screen­ings, no test­ing—noth­ing.”

The set medic and union rep­re­sen­ta­tive look­ing to es­tab­lish in­dus­try-wide safety pro­to­cols:

“One of the most dis­heart­en­ing sit­u­a­tions was a pro­duc­tion where there was a fa­mous tal­ent who’d flown in from a hot-spot state. Pro­duc­tion said that the gov­er­nor had is­sued a waiver for this per­son, so they didn’t have to quar­an­tine. I emailed the pro­duc­ers in Cal­i­for­nia ask­ing for doc­u­men­ta­tion, and they wrote back say­ing the state doesn’t pro­vide doc­u­men­ta­tion on this. So this tal­ent came to set—walked into a pub­lic build­ing and up to the floor—with no mask.

I was sched­uled for two more jobs with them, but af­ter that, I was sum­mar­ily dis­in­vited.”

The set medic on a trav­el­ing food show for a ma­jor TV net­work:

“Some peo­ple have been say­ing it’s more im­por­tant to have pro­duc­tion ex­pe­ri­ence than med­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence for this role, which frus­trates me. What you have is peo­ple who have not been able to get ahead in pro­duc­tion roles, and they’re like,

Just be­cause they took a one-hour course. I’ve seen peo­ple ar­gu­ing that health pro­fes­sion­als should not be in those po­si­tions, and I’m just like, Y’all are idiots.”

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