Co-produced by Ryan Murphy, gay actor/director Joe Mantello’s 2020 film adaptation of “The Boys in the Band” (Netflix) is nearly a note for note remake of the classic 1970 William Friedkin movie adaptation of Mart Crowley’s brilliant but brutal stage play.
Mantello’s version features all the actors who appeared in the Tony Award-winning 2018 Broadway production, while Friedkin starred the original off-Broadway cast. However, unlike the original stage production and film adaptation, all the actors in the new rendition are gay.
Crowley, who died in March 2020, co-wrote the screenplay for the Netflix remake with frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator Ned Martel (who also co-produced). As such there are some noticeable differences and expansions to the script.
Set in pre-Stonewall 1968 Manhattan, the titular “boys” are anything but. With the exception of one, all of the men are 30 and above, making aging a central theme; an obsession for some gay men that has not abated.
Michael (Jim Parsons), who is hosting a birthday party at his fourth-floor walkup for his dear friend Harold (Zachary Quinto), is his jittery self. Returning home after having dashed all over town to get the soiree necessities, a pair of phone calls only puts him closer to the edge.
One is from Donald (Matt Bomer), Michael’s fuck-buddy who has arrived early from the Hamptons for a therapy appointment that was canceled and wants to be Michael’s first party guest. The second is from Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s old Georgetown roommate, who is married, straight, and not on the guest list. But he wants to see Michael regardless, even breaking down during the phone call. Michael tries putting him off, but Alan is persistent, and Michael relents.
After Donald, the other guests slowly begin trickling into Michael’s flat. Schoolteacher Hank (Tuc Watkins) and commercial artist Larry (Andrew Rannells), the only official couple of the group, turn up with Emery (Robin de Jesús), who virtually lights up every scene. Emery is the comic relief, sometimes to his own detriment. Hank and Larry, on the other hand, perpetually snipe at each other. Librarian Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), a black man known for camping it up with Emery, also livens things up. The arrival of Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a rentboy who is Emery’s gift to Harold, adds another element to the party.
At one point, Alan calls to cancel, which is a relief to Michael. But that is short-lived as he shows up unannounced, just as Michael, Emery, Bernard and Larry are doing a choreographed dance routine to “Heatwave.” You can just imagine how that goes over. Nevertheless, Alan does form an immediate bond with Hank, the most straight-acting of the lot (who is in the process of divorcing his wife and is described as being Larry’s “roommate”).
Alan grows increasingly uncomfortable, eventually acting on it by physically attacking Emery, altering the celebratory mood. But it is Harold’s entrance that has the most profound effect on the dynamics. Quinto, who had big heels to fill considering how unforgettable the late Leonard Frey was as the original Harold, does an admirable job with the role.
Not long after dinner, cake, the unwrapping of gifts, and a lot of alcohol and pot consumption, “The Boys in the Band,” changes its tune. Michael initiates a party game that will leave the participants, as well as the audience, reeling and gasping. The guests get points for calling the one person they truly loved and telling them so.
This leads to the movie’s most difficult section as each participant agonizes over the experience. This unpleasantness leads to them eventually picking each other apart, publicly humiliating each other for their shortcomings. Michael’s reputation for living beyond his means and dodging bill collectors, as well as his alcoholism. Harold’s pockmarked skin and his affinity for pot. The way Bernard tolerates overt racism, especially from Emery. Emery’s OTT queenliness, and so on.
Anyone familiar with the movie version from 50 years ago will notice some nuanced differences. Michael’s apartment, for example, and the spiral staircase. Additionally, the early, intimate interactions between Michael and Donald indicate that Michael was deeply in love with him, something that was less evident previously. Parsons also brings out Michael’s Southern-ness (Crowley was from Mississippi), especially in the racially oriented scenes. The flashbacks incorporated into the party game portion flesh out some of the backstories. Also, the post-party sequence, including a passionate same-sex kiss between Hank and Larry, attempts to tack a happier ending on the characters’ wreckage and is an interesting addition.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.