What was The Boys in the Band?

February 6, 2004

William Friedkin's film version of The Boys In The Band
Debuting a year before the Stonewall Riots, The Boys in the Band was one of the first plays (and, later, films) to portray gay men and their issues before a mainstream audience. Gay activists quickly branded the story and its backbiting, self-loathing characters a relic of a bygone era. But over the years many have come to appreciate The Boys in the Band as a documentary of preliberation times, and as more of an indictment of society's homophobia than of gay men themselves.

The play, written by Mart Crowley, opened off-Broadway in April 1968. It was later made into a film scripted by Crowley, directed by William Friedkin, and starring the original stage actors which premiered in March 1970.

The Boys in the Band centers on a group of gay friends who gather at Michael's upscale Greenwich Village apartment to celebrate Harold's birthday. Other party guests include Michael's sensible friend Donald, lisping interior decorator Emory, Emory's friend Bernard (the sole black character), newly divorced schoolteacher Hank, and Hank's promiscuous lover, Larry. The men receive an unexpected visit from Michael's purportedly straight former college roommate, Alan, who has just split up with his wife. Finally, "Cowboy" arrives, a beautiful but dumb hustler hired by Emory as a birthday gift for Harold.

As the men get increasingly drunk, their good-natured banter turns spiteful. Alan is offended by Emory's blatantly queer mannerisms and attacks him, but he seems surprisingly taken with "straight-acting" Hank. The story climaxes with a game in which each man must telephone the person who was his greatest love and confess his feelings. As the show ends, after spending the evening trying to make everyone else as miserable as himself, Michael suffers an emotional breakdown.

The Boys in the Band broke new ground as the first mainstream play, and the first major Hollywood production, to include a full cast of gay characters and to deal realistically with homosexuality. Before that time, most films portrayed homosexuals as either clowns or victims who typically ended up dead or converted to heterosexuality by the final scene. Both the play and the film enjoyed critical acclaim, despite the raw language that shocked many heterosexual viewers. The Los Angeles Times hailed it as "unquestionably a milestone." Time magazine called the film a "humane, moving picture," and Newsweek deemed it a "landslide of truths."

But many gay viewers were less pleased, especially as the social and political climate changed and queers were able to live more open and proud lives. Gay activists protested both the play and the film. The Gay Liberation Front at Iowa State University, wrote a critical letter to the college paper calling it "trash" that "perpetuates the ignorance of stereotyping and the idiom of the locker room."

While some gay critics found the characters too stereotypical especially campy Emory the main complaint concerned the men's self-hatred. "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse," says Michael, who also laments, "If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much."

But the characters in The Boys in the Band were drawn from real life, and the story reflects an era in which homosexuality was seen as both a mental illness and a crime. "I knew a lot of people like those people," Crowley said in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. "The self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self-esteem, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself."

Decades after its debut, The Boys in the Band remains a popular choice for local theater productions, and the film enjoyed a revival in the mid-1990s. A sequel, The Men from the Boys, also written by Crowley, premiered in fall 2002. In this play most of the original characters, plus three younger men, gather at the same apartment 30 years later for a memorial for Larry, who has died of pancreatic cancer.

Friedkin went on to direct Cruising, which starred Al Pacino as an ostensibly straight cop who goes undercover as a gay leatherman to investigate a series of brutal murders in New York's S/M bars. As they had with The Boys in the Band, gay activists protested the film, claiming it stereotyped gay men as hedonists and killers.

Today, many regard The Boys in the Band as a queer classic. While its gay characters struggled with many of the same personal and social difficulties faced by heterosexuals, their problems were compounded by the guilt and repression brought on by society's homophobia. In the words of the late gay film critic Vito Russo, The Boys in the Band provided "the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Crowley, Mart. 1996. 3 Plays: The Boys in the Band, A Breeze from the Gulf, For Reasons That Remain Unclear (Alyson).
  • Russo, Vito. 1981, 1987. The Celluloid Closet (HarperCollins).

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