Though it’s produced by Netflix‘s golden boy Ryan Murphy (Hollywood, Ratched) and has a fantastic cast led by Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto, The Boys in the Band doesn’t exactly look like electrifying cinema. For one thing, it’s a dialogue-heavy chamber piece set almost entirely in a Manhattan apartment. For another, it’s based on a seminal gay play by Mart Crowley that was hailed as groundbreaking when it debuted in 1968. Just one year later, the Stonewall Riots would kickstart the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, beginning a hard-won journey towards greater queer visibility and acceptance.
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But though some aspects of this handsome film adaptation inevitably feel dated – especially its narrow focus on gay men to the exclusion of other LGBTQ+ people – the overall effect is still incendiary. Director Joe Mantello previously revived The Boys in the Band on Broadway in 2018 and he’s reassembled the entire cast from his stage production here. Before he died in March, Crowley co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Murphy collaborator Ned Martel. The result is a booze-sodden battle royale of quips, campery and uncomfortable home truths.
The drama unfolds over a single evening as Michael (Parsons), an insecure screenwriter who spends beyond his means, throws a birthday party for his prickly but charismatic friend Harold (Quinto). The guest list is exclusively gay until Alan (Brian Hutchison), an old college pal who doesn’t know about Michael’s sexuality, invites himself over. Michael asks his guests – melancholy Donald (Matt Bomer), elegant Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), flamboyant Emory (Robin de Jesús), and bickering couple Larry and Hank (Andrew Rannells and Tuc Watkins) – to pause their campy banter so they don’t give him away.
Alan’s bigoted attitudes provide a window into what homophobia looked like in 1968, but Crowley is even better at lifting the lid on queer self-loathing. There isn’t a duff performance here – Ratched’s Charlie Carver supplies welcome light relief as a dimwitted rent boy – but Parsons is most devastating as tortured and torturing Michael. For him, verbal attack is simply a brief distraction from his own crippling inability to reconcile his sexuality with his religious beliefs. As the alcohol flows, Michael cruelly picks at his friends’ sore points, even resorting to racism at one point, and goads them into exposing painful moments from their past. Knowing that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is just over a decade away makes jokes about Larry’s promiscuity feel unexpectedly poignant. The way Michael mocks Emory for being unattractively “nelly” still happens today when gay men write “masc 4 masc” on their Grindr profiles.
By inserting a handful of flashback sequences and scenes set outside Michael’s apartment, Mantello opens up Crowley’s source material just enough to make you forget you’re watching the film of a play. It’s also very possible that he manages to sneak in the odd contemporary political point. By showing us Bomer looking superhero-ripped in the shower, is he making us question why this openly gay actor with leading man looks has never been cast in a comic book blockbuster? Either way, there’s no denying that he’s enlivened The Boys in the Band: this dark and doleful comedy is more than just a queer history lesson; it’s a film primed to hit some long-exposed raw nerves.
- Director: Joe Mantello
- Starring: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer
- Release date: September 30 (Netflix)