December 5, 2012

Queer Review: The Boys in the Band (1970)

The Boys in the Band
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Mart Crowley
Cast: Kenneth Nelson, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Peter White, Reuben Greene, Robert La Tourneaux, Leonard Frey

Perhaps one of the more divisive queer films ever, The Boys in the Band was initially criticized upon release for it's cast of self loathing, unhappy gay men. Recent years have been more kind to it, with some critics calling for a re-evaluation of it's deptiction of pre-Stonewall gay life (the riots occurred while the film was in production). At the end of the day, The Boys in the Band best works if viewed as a product of it's time.

Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is hosting a birthday party for fellow queer Harold (Leonard Frey) when he receives a call from his old college roommate, Alan McCarthy (Peter White) who is upset about something and wishes to speak with Michael immediately. In spite of calling again to say he won't show up, Alan does so anyways. Alan's conservative nature causes tensions to erupt between other members of the party. There are the lovers Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) who are dealing with Larry's wandering eye. Donald (Frederick Combs) a close friend of Michael's who is currently in therapy. Bernard (Reuben Greene), the token black guy. However, it is with effeminate Emory (Cliff Gorman) that Alan clashes with the most sharply. The evening climaxes when Michael forces everyone to play an embarrassing telephone game where the participants call the one person that they truly love.

The Queering
There are two differing sides or opinions The Boys in the Band. One side argues that it is an unfortunate relic of it's era in that portrays gay men as vicious, self loathing freaks. Michael and Harold both suffer from self esteem issues and spend most of the time they're on screen together exchanging scathing barbs, many of which cut deep. Donald talks about being in therapy.

The other side argues that The Boys in the Band in fact gives a rather nuanced glimpse of queer life in the mid-1960's when persecution of gay men was at it's height in the United States.

Context is everything. Most importantly with regards to what is onscreen and for the world in which The Boys in the Band was made and into which it entered. When The Boys in the Band went into the production, the stage play was generally regarded as being ahead of it's time for it's sympathetic portrayals of gay men, in that it dared to treat them as actual human beings. But then the Stonewall Riots took place and the resulting gay liberation movement demanded more of it's films than what The Boys in the Band offered.

Historically speaking, there is another issue worth considering. Namely that there has always been an underlying tension between more feminine/fey gay men and those that are genuinely butch. It is a tension that stretches out from before Adolf Brand and Magnus Hirschfield feuded over the merits of queer culture promoting masculine or feminine identites. The Castro Clone look was in direct response to the gay = feminine stereotype. Today, the bear and twink subcultures both exist with varying degrees of animosity.

It was this very same tension that fuels much of the films drama, just as it fueled the ensuing criticism. Note how wide the spectrum of feminine and masculinity that the characters inhabit. On one end is the conservative and butch Hank, who drinks beer and teaches Math, not English for a change. The other end is occupied by Emory, who is the most flaming member of the ensemble.

It is Emory's swishy ways that leads to him being violently attacked by Alan, just as the character of Emory has been criticized. Yet Emory is also the least self loathing character. Insofar as Emory is presented as being unhappy, it is because of unrequited love, not because he hates himself.

Certainly there are queer men just like Emory who do in fact exist. Why then should they not be portrayed on screen? Considering just how diverse the make up of the cast of characters is in The Boys in the Band, Emory's femininity is not an issue.

Which leads one to an inevitable conclusion in that there is an uncomfortable alignment behind the attitude that causes Alan to assault Emory and certain criticisms that tend to be brought up any time a gay movie character gets their swish on.

In my opinion, the fact that The Boys in the Band is problematic, doesn't change the fact that it's one of the most progressive films of it's era and the fact that it's one of the most progressive films of it's era, doesn't mean that it's problematic elements can be ignored. At the end of the day, trying to figure out if the positives outweigh the negatives (or vice versa) is a rather futile exercise.

The boys in this band do not always create the most harmonic or delightful melody but this particular performance is well worth seeking out for lovers of queer cinema.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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1 comment:

  1. I liked the character of Emory; he seemed to be comfortable with his identity, and had carved out a positive life for himself, in spite of being arrested every five minutes. But Michael: "If only we could learn to not hate ourselves so very much."


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