There’s a not a weapon in sight and only one punch is thrown in “The Boys in the Band,” but this is one of the most bruising movies of the year if you count all the verbal slings and arrows flung about during an intense group therapy session disguised as a birthday party in a New York City apartment in 1968 — a birthday party where everyone is gay and most are in the closet and we’re still a couple of years away from Stonewall and a half-century away from modern times and a culture that is hardly perfect but inarguably more enlightened.
Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” debuted off-Broadway in 1968 and was considered groundbreaking for its frank and honest portrayal of the lives of gay men. Two years later, the great William Friedkin directed the film version, one of the first major American movies entirely about gay characters. Fast forward a half-century later, with renowned theater director Joe Mantello (“Wicked,” “Blackbird,” “Assassins”) directing the revival, first on Broadway in 2018 and now in a crackling, electric and searing Netflix feature film reuniting that Broadway cast — all openly gay actors. Wisely, Mantello retains the 1968 setting, so “The Boys in the Band” doesn’t come across as dated but rather a period piece accurately reflecting the tenor of those times.
And wow, what a cast. The entire ensemble is excellent, but the nomination-worthy standouts are Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto as two friends with a complicated dynamic that has us wondering if they despise each other or are in love with one another, or it’s both and that’s what makes it disconcertingly intense and toxic and yet, somehow, almost … touching.
Director Mantello and cinematographer Bill Pope deliver fluid, intimate camerawork that makes us feel as if we’re an invisible witness to the proceedings, most of which take place in the spacious but tastefully cluttered apartment of Michael (Parsons), who is accustomed to a certain lifestyle that includes jet-setting around the globe and wearing expensive sweaters — not that he can actually afford any of it. Michael is a bundle of neuroses and issues. He’s a recovering alcoholic, a Roman Catholic, a struggling writer AND he’s obsessed with his receding hairline — but he’s going to put all that aside, at least for the time being, as he prepares to host a birthday party for his friend Harold, who will be the last to arrive because Harold is always the last to arrive.
The first to show up and help Michael set up is his former flame, the handsome Donald (Matt Bomer), who casually strips and gets into the shower while Michael frets about his combover and his finances. They’re joined by the theatrically entertaining Emory (Robin de Jesus); the party-hearty Larry (Andrew Rannells), who is with the traditionally macho Hank (Tuc Watkins) but flaunts his promiscuity; the reserved Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), who is Black and quietly endures racially insensitive cracks at his expense, and a cheerfully dimwitted young escort dubbed Cowboy (Charlie Carver), who has been purchased as a surprise present for the birthday boy.
Then there’s the party crasher: Michael’s seemingly straight, outwardly homophobic college roommate Alan (Brian Hutchinson), who is married with children — but it’s complicated. Finally, Zachary Quinto’s Harold makes his entrance, sporting a “Jewfro,” long sideburns, oversized tinted glasses and a green ensemble worthy of a member of the Byrds on “American Bandstand.” When Michael barks “You’re stoned and you’re late!,” Harold replies: “What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked, Jew fairy, and if it takes me a while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I can get up the nerve to show this face to the world, then it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?”
Game on, in more ways than one. Michael pressures everyone to actually play a game in which they’ll take turns calling the one person they loved most in this world, resulting in one emotionally raw, powerfully impactful moment after another. (This also presents the opportunity for director Mantello to take the story outside of Michael’s apartment for a beautiful, dreamlike flashback involving a magical but ultimately heartbreaking encounter between Bernard and the love of his life.) Michael pushes his friends with such cruelty we have to wonder WHY they’re still his friends, but Parsons is tremendously effective at revealing the pain and self-loathing guiding Michael through his darkest moments. We feel for him even as we despise certain aspects of him.
“The Boys in the Band” is filled with stingingly vicious repartee as nearly every character depends on cleverness as a defense mechanism. Even when there’s almost zero dialogue, e.g., when Herb Alpert’s gorgeously sparse “This Guy’s in Love With You” plays on the stereo as a number of characters dance, literally and otherwise, it’s an emotional whirlwind to behold. But there also are some genuine and moving moments of unvarnished truth, as when Michael finally breaks down and laments, “If we could just learn to not hate ourselves quite so very much.” More than a half-century after first taking the stage, “The Boys in the Band” still leaves us with so much to think about, so much to feel, so much to consider.