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Saturday, October 25, 2008

THE BOYS IN THE BAND -- DVD review by porfle

While growing up, I'd always known THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970) as "that gay movie" because it was pretty much the first of its kind. Now that I've seen it, it's not the gay version of ROOTS as I'd long suspected, nor is it a farcical companion piece to LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Based on the groundbreaking Off-Broadway play by Mart Crowley (who also wrote the screenplay) and starring the original cast, it's full of wonderfully witty dialogue along with some equally lowbrow humor, but what it eventually becomes is an emotional drama about people who joke about their own inner turmoil until the laughter turns to bitter tears and scathing recriminations.

The story begins with Michael giving a surprise birthday party in his apartment for his friend Harold, when suddenly his former college roommate, Alan, shows up. Which wouldn't be a problem, except Michael, Harold, and everyone else at the party are gay, while Alan is (seemingly) arrow-straight and unprepared for the sight of a bunch of guys drinking Pink Ladies and chorus dancing to "Love is Like a Heat Wave." Although the story is lighthearted and filled with breezy humor and wisecracks at first, we get the feeling we're in for some heavy drama sooner or later. Alan's presence at the party is the proverbial other shoe that begs to be dropped at some point, but even this is hardly the main event we think it will be--before the night is over, shoes will be dropping all over the place.

THE BOYS IN THE BAND is one of those filmed plays that often betrays its theatrical origins--but in a good way--while remaining almost self-consciously cinematic in order to balance things out. Director William Friedkin deftly keeps the camera moving and the characters in motion with various bits of business, and the acting, dialogue, and editing all crackle. Several of the lines are quoteworthy--when Michael's weekend lover Donald enters in his party attire and asks, "Am I stunning?", Michael responds, "You're absolutely stunning. You look like sh**, but I'm absolutely stunned."

Birthday boy Harold's belated appearance is worth waiting for--he's a real pip, and Friedkin lets us know it by giving him an entrance worthy of Karloff's monster in FRANKENSTEIN. Impeccably dressed and coolly detached, this self-described "32-year-old ugly pockmarked Jew fairy" saunters world-wearily into the midst of the film's first major blow-up and levels the whole thing like a cross between Bette Davis and Oscar Wilde. His acerbic attitude and dry, sarcastic witticisms usher in the film's next phase of frank dialogue and brittle interplay. As for Michael, he seems to morph into Joan Crawford the longer he's around Harold and starts in on him with relentlessly cutting putdowns, which the unflappable Harold disinterestedly waves off with bland retorts like "You hateful sow."

When a sudden rainstorm buffets the terrace and forces the party inside, putting everyone into close quarters including the shell-shocked Alan, it's here that Michael's alcohol-fueled cruel streak really comes to the fore and nobody is spared. He initiates a party game designed to humiliate the participants for his own sour amusement, but, in unintended ways, it forces the characters to confront problems that need to be worked out--not just gay problems, but universal ones as well. Even the cartoonishly-flamboyant Emory gets his fleeting moment to be a real person instead of a caricature. Ultimately, Michael himself turns out to have the biggest issues, and Harold's just the guy to make him face them.

By this time, we don't need kinetic visuals to keep us interested, so Friedkin gets more stagy during this sequence to focus attention on the dialogue. Still, he handles it all with exquisite dexterity. The final act is riveting, with the kind of raw emotion played to the hilt that you rarely see outside of something like Liz and Dick going at each other in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

As Michael, Kenneth Nelson runs the gamut of emotions in a brilliant and moving performance. Leonard Frey is so decadently cool as Harold, he could almost be a Bond villian. Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice have some great moments together as Hank and Larry, a couple with painfully differing views on monogamy. Alan, whose homophobia may be a denial of his true nature, is played by Peter White with just the right enigmatic touch. The one really flaming queen in the bunch, Cliff Gorman's Emory--described by Alan as "a butterfly in heat"--is the most stereotypically camp character, but in a story in which almost everyone is gay, the omission of someone like Emory might seem unrealistic in itself. The rest of the ensemble is equally good, including Frederick Combs as Donald, Reuben Greene as Bernard, and Robert La Tourneaux as Cowboy, Emory's dumb-blonde birthday gift to Harold.

The film has been restored under Friedkin's supervision and remixed in stereo sound. In a way, the look reminded me of a really high-class Joe Sarno movie but without the sex. After watching it I couldn't wait to indulge in the bonus features, which include a commentary track with Friedkin and Crowley being interviewed, and three featurettes. The titles, "The Boys in the Band: The Play", "The Boys in the Band: The Movie", and "The Boys in the Band: Today", are self-explanatory, and feature retrospective comments by Friedkin, Crowley, and some of the surviving castmembers.

As far as the fine art of transferring plays to the screen goes, THE BOYS IN THE BAND is a tour-de-force for the young Friedkin and a robustly entertaining experience for the viewer. It's funny, emotionally searing, and cathartic. And it's a lot more than just "that gay movie", because anyone can recognize some of these characters' fears and insecurities in themselves. But the fact that they are gay gives it all a unique perspective that adds to its resonance.
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