A Broadway play in your living room.
In my review for Barefoot in the Park (1967) – which you can check out, here – I wrote about how it was a remarkably seamless transition of a stage show into a full-length movie. That movie manages to blend the fun and drama of seeing a live show, with the familiarity and pacing of watching a movie. It’s without a doubt one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations out there. The Boys in the Band (2020), Netflix’s recent adaptation of Mart Crowley’s revolutionary play, is less successful. A fantastic, introspective look at the lives of queer men before the Stonewall Riots, I can’t help but feel this movie would be more impactful if it flowed more organically and felt less staged. There’s a lot to like about this movie and I’m glad such a powerful story is able for streaming on such an accessible platform, I just wish it had a little more soul in it.
Based on the play of the same name, The Boys in the Band follows a group of gay men who gather in a Manhattan apartment to celebrate the birthday of one of their friends. When the college roommate of the host unexpectedly shows up, the initially celebratory evening takes a turn for the worse.
I just want to preface this review by stating that I didn’t dislike The Boys in the Band. Not in the slightest. Produced by Ryan Murphy, the movie carries all of the trademarks the acclaimed producer is known for: lavish set design, perfect costumes, and pedigreed actors unafraid to dive head first into the material and give it their all. As a fan of Murphy’s, I appreciated all of that and immensely enjoyed it. I’m even a fan of theatre and queer history so really, it’s like this movie was made for me. And yet, there was something holding me back from liking this movie as much as I had the potential to. It seemed like all the pieces were there but for some reason they just weren’t capable of clicking together in a cohesive way. I think my hangup with The Boys in the Band is that while it’s wonderfully-acted and astoundingly-made, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m watching a production. I never have a moment where I’ve fallen into the story completely and wholeheartedly believe it.
I may never buy the authenticity of what The Boys in the Band is selling, but the movie can’t be blamed for lack of trying. Visually pleasing, the movie excels in both production and direction. I can’t think of a single thing that I would change about this move from a technical standpoint. Oh my God, when I saw Michael’s two-storey, cozy, New York City apartment with a terrace, I was in HEAVEN. There’ something about small apartments in busy cities that I go wild for. The apartment, the central set of the story, is filled with phenomenal performances from the amazing cast that The Boys in the Band assembles. In fact, it’s the same cast as the 2018 Broadway revival of the play.
What a genius choice to cast these actors. First of all, it’s always a relief to see LGBT+ characters actually being portrayed by LGBT+ actors. Secondly, this is an amazing group of actors. Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells…all exceptional. Especially Quinto whose performance is somehow bizarre, creepy, endearing, and captivating all at the same time. And shoutout to two actors I’d never seen before, Robin de Jesús and Michael Benjamin Washington. They more than meet they high bar set by their famous co-stars. They’re all wonderful actors with a playful chemistry that bounces off each other with perfection. They genuinely feel like lifelong friends and more than once, I wished I were able to jump through the screen and join their party. Everyone gets the opportunity to steal the spotlight and shine, each actor giving memorable and meaningful performances. For me, the only weak link is Parsons. His acting is by no means terrible, but at times it feels wooden. As if he’s reading his lines at a table read instead of performing them in the heat of the moment. When you’re dealing with a movie that’s as dialogue-heavy as The Boys in the Band, that can distract from how great the source material is.
The Boys in the Band is HEAVY on dialogue. And not just any dialogue. This movie is written poetically, articulately, and with heartbreaking historical accuracy. The writing is so in-depth and carries such weight, that keeping up with it at times can feel like a chore. It’s a chore worth doing though because watching The Boys in the Band is like getting a lesson in queer history. The experiences of the main characters all feel true to life and they’re a haunting reminder of what past generations of gay men had to endure and overcome. Crowley’s screenplay is incredibly powerful and it’s amazing how the material is capable of spanning generations and be relevant for even today’s LGBT+ community. The thing about the writing though, is that it occasionally stalls the story. The simplest of throwaway remarks turns into a longwinded monologue that while well-written, bears the burden of SOUNDING like a monologue, y’know? Sounding less like what someone would actually say in the moment, and more like a rehearsed retort. When that happens the characters sound less like real people and more like the actors just reading their lines. It takes you out of the story. Everything turning into a monologue makes the movie truck along at a glacial pace, and I’d say it’s a solid 14 minutes in before anything consequential happens. Even worse, there’s little resolution for the events that do happen.
I have a strong feeling that the 1970 movie version of The Boys in the Band packs more of a punch than this version. While the themes and topics discussed are timeless and universal, I suspect they were even more impactful when first seen in the 70s. That being said, I don’t regret having seen this movie and I’m thankful that I got the chance to be introduced to Crowley’s work. Honestly, it fills me with joy that this new version is going to open the door for a whole new audience to learn about a part of history that rarely gets to see the light of day. To learn about the stories of men who historically, have been silenced. However, I think if you want the full effect of this remarkable work, you’re best to check out the celebrated original. I know I will be.
Have you seen The Boys in the Band? What did you think?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!