There are worse ways to spend an evening than watching the gorgeous cast of Netflix’s new LGBTQ+ film The Boys In The Band. Based on Mart Crowley’s 1968 play, The Boys In The Band centres on Harold’s (Zachary Quinto) birthday, celebrated by his coven of friends: Michael (Jim Parsons), Donald (Matt Bomer), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Watkins), Larry (Andrew Rannells), Hank (Tuc Watkins) and Emory (Robin de Jesús). Cowboy, a male hustler played by Charlie Carver, is brought by Emory as a birthday present.
The core of the film is the shifting dynamics between these characters, from gentle ribbing to barbed words, the cruel to the kind. What tips the party off its axis is the arrival of Michael’s straight college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison), who called sobbing, begging to meet Michael. The call is the perfect hook into the film, remaining unknown throughout. Forced inside, Michael proposes a game with a full points system – each character has to call the one person they truly loved. The drama hits the ground running.
Not a single cliché can be found among the characters. The untrained eye might paste on a stereotype, but the writing and acting of every character is too nuanced, too delicately pieced together, for any kind of labelling. Parsons and Quinto share the load of being the Blanche DuBois of the story, desperate and stinging monologues delivered between sips of gin and drags on another cigarette. As soon as they appear on screen, the tension between Larry and Hank is palpable – a facial expression, a single word, and you are pulled in, dying to know what history lives between them. In the after-film documentary, de Jesús talks about learning to take up space from Emory: and that’s what Emory does. His humour and unapologetic flamboyance start as levity, but even that can’t last.
The beginning of the party sets the scene perfectly, the introductory montage gives the audience a glimpse of these characters. The tension in the back of Michael’s mind of Alan’s call is interwoven throughout, as we see Michael explain the event to the party attendees before Alan unexpectedly shows up. As the game begins, each character’s story is unfurled: Bernard and his night with the son of his mother’s employer; Emory at the prom; Hank and his first time with a man; and Alan’s relationship with a mutual college friend of Michael’s.
The call scenes are punctuated with flashbacks, the light playing on the pool that Bernard swims in, the handmade stars at prom that Emory is ridiculed under. Tension ebbs and flows between the calls, you edge closer and closer off your chair as you watch, waiting to see if their true loves will answer the call. All that is unspoken, that we guess amongst the fog of suggestive looks and innuendo, comes boiling over, and everyone is scolded.
If the party and the game is the centre of the film, Alan and his story orbit it. Hutchison’s portrayal pulls on every heartstring, Alan somewhere between being tight-lipped and silent, to bursting at the seams with secrets. Just as you being to sympathise, to lean into this clearly tortured man, Hutchison inverts everything, Alan’s homophobia climaxing in his attack on Emory. Throughout the film, you are transfixed in the confusion of how you should feel for these characters. How much of their cruelty is humour? How much of it hides personal foibles? How much of it is uncensored malevolence? You oscillate between love and hate, compassion and chastisement, for these men. They are as fabulous as they are flawed. The one thing you can fall in love with: the artistry of the acting.
Under the direction of Joe Mantello, The Boys In The Band microscopically examines and unpacks a multitude of queer experiences. With few heteronormative milestones to bond over, the characters are set to the backdrop of other issues and topics. Michael and Harold are alcoholics, obsessed with their appearance and age like fairy tale witches. Michael and Donald are seeing therapists, Larry refuses to be monogamous, and Hank, as recently divorced, still can ‘pass’ for straight. While the experiences are diverse, the characters share one common feeling: self-hate and denial. Of themselves, of their identity, of love and of addictions, the audience are exposed to lives that, unless also queer, they could only have nightmares about.
The film climaxes when Harold flays Michael, overturning the party and game to reveal his obsessive medicated self-loathing. “You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be”, Harold says. “You can’t change that. Not all your prayers to God. Not all the analysis you can buy. You will always be a homosexual.” Quinto delivers his lines deliberately, a blend of honey and vinegar. But watching him say this, as Parsons stares at the wall, white-knuckling the mantlepiece, strikes deep. You want to cry, shout, and gnash your teeth with rage. But the power of Quinto, of all the cast, is the power to strike you dumb with awe.
The Boys In The Band revels in and exposes the inner mechanics, the inner lives, of the gay community. Each character, and actor, diverging from and uniting under our ideas of gay. No word or action is left to chance but is as precise as the artist’s brush. To watch this film is to begin to understand the family, the friends, the idols, even the everyday strangers who have held these truths and had these experiences. This is not light-hearted viewing, to watch while you do the ironing. You’re going to want to sit down for this.
Words by James Reynolds