The Boys in the Band
Directed by William Friedkin
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 119 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 26.99
Release Date: November 11, 2008
Review Date: October 27, 2008
“The Boys in the Band is not a musical” so said the newspaper ads in 1970, and how right they were (even though the film does begin with the 1934 show tune "Anything Goes" on the soundtrack)! The groundbreaking 1966 off-Broadway play which ran a healthy two and a half years was brought to the screen in 1970 by a production team responsible for its stage success, and its up-and-coming director was just a year away from an Academy Award for directing The French Connection. The Boys in the Band was infamous in its day as the first American play to deal directly with the issue of homosexuality. It may seem quaint now in an era when plays and musicals focusing on gay characters win awards on a routine basis, but for the time, it was revolutionary. Sure, there had been coded gay characters in plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and discussed but unseen gay characters in plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer (all not coincidentally written by Tennessee Williams), but American playwrights of the time didn’t much deal with the subject of gay people and their problems. The Boys in the Band put gay characters front and center and had them vomiting up their problems for two hours eight times a week.
Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is hosting a birthday party for a close friend, former figure skater Harold (Leonard Frey) with five invited guests: continually bickering couple Larry (Keith Prentiss) and Hank (Laurence Luckinbill), the effeminate Emory (Cliff Gorman), bookstore clerk Bernard (Reuben Greene), and Michael’s friend Donald (Frederick Combs). Into the party barges Michael’s former college roommate Alan (Peter White) with whom Michael has never leveled about his homosexuality. During an evening in which everyone grows drunker and more stoned, secrets get revealed and feelings both public and private get a long overdue airing.
Original playwright Mart Crowley wrote the screenplay for the film, coyly adapting his stage version for the dimensions of the screen. We get some early peeps at each of the participants at work and at play before settling in with a more or less completely faithful version of the original piece. The comedy is barbed, often lacerating in the bull’s eyes it hits as it’s flung across the room in torrents, back and forth with exciting expertise. Once everyone has ingested a potentially lethal amount of liquor, however, the fun begins to pale as one sad story after another gets spilled. Crowley climaxes the play and film with a variation of the truth game which had already found a ready audience in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf several years before. There is dramatic license used a bit too freely (the apartment just happens to have a two-line phone so the final game can have both its victors and its victims), and very few people leave the party with dignity intact. Director Friedkin does everything in his power to keep what is essentially a talky stage production moving with actors pacing or grouped interestingly in the frame and spying into the shindig from every possible angle.
The entire original stage cast was chosen to repeat their original characterizations on film, and while it’s a valuable record of nine amazing performances, some of the actors’ on-screen work seems more calculated and stagnant and much less natural and organic compared to the others. Chief among the performances that seem a bit ossified from years in the same part are Leonard Frye’s curt, biting Harold and Kenneth Nelson’s manipulative Michael. Both actors are wonderful technicians, but their performances don’t have quite the freshness that, say, Laurence Luckinbill’s sensationally sober Hank or Keith Prentiss’ lounge lizard Larry have. Cliff Gorman’s extravagant queen Emory received much attention at the time of the original play since he was playing very much against type. Decades of subsequent performances where he played a series of no nonsense tough guys give some perspective to his terrific achievement as Emory. By the end of the film, he’s taken the audience on a journey with him from being the outlandish court jester to its most tragic and noble figure.
The gloom and doom that seems built into the tone of The Boys in the Band gives it a black eye in certain circles in these more progressive and liberating times. As a film focusing on some real people with disappointments to endure and the herculean spirit with which to cope with them, it’s actually something of an ode to survivors and a sad-funny film that‘s a treat to see once again.
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 for this first DVD release, and it has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Sharpness and color fidelity are both a bit erratic with mostly positive results but with occasional softness and some flesh tones which sometimes take on a purple tinge. Otherwise, though, the sharpness is clear enough to reveal makeup on several of the actors including the pock-marked patches that have been applied to Leonard Frey’s cheeks. The image is very clean, and the black levels are impressive. Surprisingly, the film has not been given any chapter markers at all.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is solid where it counts; with the movie being heavily dialog-focused, the center channel gets the majority of the workout here. An occasional ambient effect and some recorded music (Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love”) get routed to the left and right.
The audio commentary by director William Friedkin features many comments ported over from the documentaries elsewhere on the disc. Still, his comments run the length of the movie and contain some interesting information, even when he spends a lengthy segue discussing bringing the film to DVD and getting the color timing right.
The Boys in the Band: The Play is a 14-minute summation by original playwright Mart Crowley on how he came to write the work and the effort it took to get it workshopped and then staged off-Broadway. This anamorphic widescreen featurette and the others were produced by Laurent Bouzereau.
The Boys in the Band: The Movie features interviews with director William Friedkin, producer Dominick Dunne, writer Mart Crowley, and the two surviving actors from the film: Peter White and Laurence Luckinbill. It runs 24 ¾ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
The Boys in the Band: Today is a 5 ½ minute tribute to the play and film which broke so many taboos forty years ago. Along with the participants already named is playwright Tony Kushner giving his opinion on the influence the piece had on his own work.
The disc offers a trailer for Queer as Folk - the Complete Series on DVD.
Some of the dramatics may be a bit dated and the directorial technique somewhat busy and obvious, but The Boys in the Band still has the power to touch and to inform even decades after its sensationalism has died away. It’s a pleasure to have the movie available at last in a more than decent DVD edition.