Sunday, July 19, 2009

Revisiting Boys in the Band

In the late 1960s, playwright Mart Crowley was seriously depressed and broke when his friend, actress Diana Lynn, asked him to housesit. Suddenly surrounded by beauty and quiet, he poured himself into writing Boys in the Band, the play that stands as the iconic study of gays as a people who want to kill themselves.

OK, so that’s exaggerated. They don’t all want to kill themselves. They are just so filled with self-loathing that they talk as if they do.

Crowley became not only Michael, the main character (sharing the features of being a Southerner and a Catholic and a man who can’t control his finances) but a bit of all the other eight characters of his play. The story is about a birthday party Michael (Kenneth Nelson) throws for his friend Harold (Leonard Frey). Michael and Harold share self-loathing in common, as well as intimate knowledge of each other’s darkest secrets, which they reveal bit by bit in a slow-burn exercise in mutual psychological destruction as the evening goes on. Michael has another best friend, Donald (Frederick Combs), who shows up regularly once a week. Michael rides Donald mercilessly over his need for psychotherapy, revealing a kind of crabpot relationship, with Michael pulling Donald back down in the stew he presumes gays are meant to live in. In a healthier time for gays, you can imagine Michael and Donald as best friends/lovers growing old together.

The action begins when the first guests show up: Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) are a mismatched couple. Larry needs the freedom to roam and Hank is killing their partnership with jealousy. They arrive with Emory (Cliff Gorman), a swishy limp-wristed interior decorator and classic stereotype, and Bernard (Reuben Greene), another self-loather who takes Emory’s outrageously racist remarks as a way of being his friend – Bernard is black, all the other characters are white. And then comes “Cowboy,” (Robert La Tourneaux) a feast-for-the-eyes street hustler Emory has rented for the evening as Harold’s birthday present. Cowboy is too clueless to be vicious, and the bitch queens laugh hard at his expense.

The lengthy introduction of characters, reminiscent of the opening of Murder on the Orient Express, ends with one of the great movie entrances of all time. Harold arrives at the door in a way that makes you believe you’re watching a queen descending a staircase to a hushed gathering of adoring subjects. Harold is in residence. Let the bitch fights begin.

The plot then thickens with the unexpected arrival of Michael’s college roommate, Alan (Peter White). Because Alan is allegedly straight, Michael insists everybody play it straight as well, even though Alan is actually a party crasher. As the evening wears on, we begin to suspect Alan is a closet queen, a view that appears to be confirmed when Alan physically attacks Emory for being such a flamer, flamers being a serious threat to closetedness.

One last plot device drives home the degree to which Michael’s self-loathing makes him dangerous to be around. Michael insists they play a game in which they each have to telephone “the one person they truly loved” and tell him so. As with Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, you wonder why people just don’t refuse to play or go home. The answer seems to be they don’t know how, and that puts the cap on the notion these are people caught in a web of destruction of their own making.

For a more thorough summary and commentary, see

If, by now, you’re not convinced this is a play to be avoided at all costs if you are susceptible to depression, you haven’t been paying attention. I saw it in 1970 when the film first came out. Thanks to Crowley, it was made with the same actors who put it on as a stage play for three years first. Hard as this may be to believe, I all but missed the self-destruction, intent as I was on celebrating seeing gays actually portrayed on screen. It was, after all, the first gay-centered gay-themed film in American cinema history, more than a decade before Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean’s first serious gay onscreen kiss in Making Love, a decade before Harvey Milk, and pre-Stonewall. Only later did it sink in that the image of gays was so dark that associating with the characters would cost one dearly.

But associate gays did. By the thousands. For about a decade until the tide turned and gay pride made Boys in the Band politically incorrect. Then, from the days of Stonewall and Harvey Milk, until Boys was revived in 1996, gays spoke of it with disdain and embarrassment. I participated in countless discussions where Boys came up. Inevitably the film was dismissed out of hand as furthering stereotypes and extending the view expressed in the line, “I thought people like that always killed themselves.” Once pride kicked in, who wanted to watch gay self-loathing.

If you are of the school of thought – I am – that self-loathing is gone and pride is here to stay, you are free at last to watch the film (or see the play) as a “landmark and cultural touchstone." Students of gay history and culture should see it as probably the best depiction available of internalized homophobia, the “before” picture, before consciousness raising. It does take effort to watch hysterical screamers having nervous breakdowns and couples torturing each other psychologically.

Just before I put the DVD on, Fiddler on the Roof was on television. I marvelled at the coincidence that Leonard Frey, who plays Harold in Boys, also plays the character Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler. But there is another parallel. Watching the Jews of Anatevka driven from their homes, if you are inclined to dwell on the past, will make you grieve. If you focus on the lot of most Jews in America today, however, you need not fear being a pollyanna. You can simply be looking at the glass as half full, and embrace and celebrate progress.

There is no other way to look at Boys in the Band, it seems to me. If you are looking for a gay story to enjoy, this clearly isn’t it. If you are looking for gay history, however, this is a must-see. As one reviewer put it, “I recovered from it grateful I don’t hate myself (at least not for being gay).”

I steeled myself to watch it, waited till I was in the right head space. Wanted to be well rested and not distracted, figuring I was going to go into a funk. Instead, I was delighted. The bitch fights between Harold and Michael, cruel as they are, made me nostalgic for the 60s when putdowns were avidly cultivated by many people I knew. Emory’s habit of using women’s names in alliteration in a running commentary on what’s happening – “Connie Casserole” as he brings in the lasagne dish – made me remember discussions I had in linguistics classes on "the syntax of the native tongue, faggotese." And I was reminded of a complaint one politically astute gay student at my university levelled in the mid 90s at the other students in the organization. Instead of fighting to get each other out of the closet, they were content just to sit around, he said, and give each other girls’ names. “It’s all very Boys in the Band,” he said.

My reaction to the film involved all these heady thoughts, in other words, and few if any emotional reactions.

I was fascinated and amused by the nostalgic bits. The Bert Bacharach albums and the music by Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Sergio Mendes and others, the cartons of Kent cigarettes provided with the food, the size of the stereo speakers, the ring of the telephones all carry you back. I was astonished to discover how brilliantly the play was constructed and the subsequent film was paced and lit and staged. (See for details.) I wondered at first why the straight-acting characters Donald, Larry and Hank were not more like Alan in being put off by Emory’s over-the-top mincing, given this is a play about internalized homophobia, until I realized Crowley had captured the phenomenon in its complex gradations. There is more nuance than initially meets the eye. And you become aware just how good the script actually is.

Apparently, I’m in good company. Rotten Tomatoes gives it its very rare 100% rating.

Even if you can’t bear to watch (and shame on you if you don’t try), rent the 2008 DVD for the historical background. You will learn how Crowley got Edward Albee to help him get the play produced. Many have claimed that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was actually a bitch-fight in hetero drag. Now we see how Crowley took it home, bitch fighting skills being one way the gay world has of making lemonade out of lemons. A skill one can mourn as one mourns the passing of the camaraderie of the ghetto while celebrating one’s escape from it. You’ll also learn that Emory is played by straight actor Cliff Gorman and that he and his wife later took care of Cowboy when his career tanked and he ended up in Rikers Island. And (sinking now into seriously trivial trivia) that Laurence Luckinbill, who plays Hank, is married to Lucie Arnaz and that the film was filmed in Tammy Grimes’ New York apartment.

An update on the actors in Boys is a sobering experience. Of the nine actors in the play, seven are dead. Of the six gay actors in the play, five died of AIDS, and one, Reuben Greene, has dropped out of sight.

At least one footnote is an upper, the origin of the title. Judy Garland once was given the advice, “You’re singing for yourself and the boys in the band.” Since gays were so much Judy’s boys, the double entendre resonates with a very warm tone indeed.

But mostly it’s about a time gone by. “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves,” Michael says to Donald after the party is over, shortly before going out to midnight mass, leaving us to watch him, in quiet irony after all that has passed that evening, return to the trough of his self-loathing to feed some more.

“You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”

We had no place to go but up.

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