After the play ‘The Boys in the Band” became a huge if unlikely success, initially resisted by producers and actors alike but brought to life Off-Broadway by many brave souls, director William Friedkin took it to the big screen, immortalized for audiences forever thereafter.
I was one of those young gays who saw it at an early age and got it, even if its adult situations and humor often went over my head. Growing up on a military base in Japan, we had one American TV station provided by the military called FEN (Far East Network) and watched pretty much everything they broadcast, including the after-Midnight movies which included repeated airings of such gay faves as “All About Eve”, “Something For Everyone” (Michael York as a bisexual infiltrator into Angela Lansbury’s family), “Lifeboat” (with Tallulah Bankhead), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (Stephen Sondheim), and “The Boys in the Band”. This was before streaming and all that, so was limited to what prints of films the queens at the TV station could get their hands on. To these brave, or bored pioneers, I salute you for my early education.
Anyhow, back to the film. Friedkin was a director who could have been described – if you were generous – as “emerging”, having on his cv “Good Times” with Sonny and Cher and “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” but also Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” which got noticed by “Band” playwright Mart Crowley and Dominick Dunne. (After this, Friedkin directed ‘The French Connection” and “The Exorcist”, so this didn’t hurt his career.) Unusually, he kept the Off-Broadway cast intact for the film, although to be truthful, there weren’t many actors clamoring for these parts, due to the anti-gay stigma. Friedkin also filmed it in New York, where it was set, doing most of it in the Chelsea Studios but filming the patio scenes on a real one, which belonged to actress Tammy Grimes who was a friend of the Crowley’s.
The lines are bitchy, flying fast and furiously, the characterizations very accurate, and the performances brilliant, especially Leonard Frey’s portrayal of Harold. The ending is depressing but truthful, representative of another age, capturing it like a Polaroid before fading.
Since the film debuted on March 17, 1970 – 50 years ago minus a week – the play has had many revivals and productions around the world, finally hitting Broadway in 2018 with a starry cast including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells and Matt Bomer, all openly gay, showing how times have changed. This cast will appear in a filmed adaptation directed by the play’s director Joe Mantello (superstar Broadway director, who appeared as an actor in the the original production of “Angels in America”), produced by Ryan Murphy, to appear on Netflix later this year.
But here are some clips from the unforgettable original: