He may be associated with the tough, transgressive American cinema of the 1970s, but there’s a part of William Friedkin that would have made a first-rate Old Hollywood journeyman. Peers like Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader have recently been making personal, self-penned projects, but Friedkin’s 21st-century career renaissance came from spurning auteurism in favour of making tight, disciplined, faithful adaptations of quality plays. It’s a method that’s served him well in the past. His fourth film, reissued on Blu-Ray by Second Sight, opens by giving the source author possessive credit: “Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, directed by William Friedkin.”
Made just one year before The French Connection sent his career supernova, The Boys in the Band shows Friedkin’s fearlessness bent towards less macho ends. It has a certain trivia-quiz immortality as the first Hollywood film to use the C-word, but its real historical importance lies in its exploration of gay life, made with a mostly gay cast in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall riots. (The riots aren’t mentioned – Crowley’s play was completed a year before – though there is a practical joke involving an unseen man yelling “This is a raid! Everybody’s under arrest!” In the context of its time, it’s thrillingly tactless)
Why, then, is Second Sight’s extras package so concerned with defending the film? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a bullish, intelligent, full-throated defence, with plenty of eloquent testimonies. But from the interview with Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard (both of whom starred in a 2016 revival) to the three-part retrospective on the play, the film and its aftermath, there is a sense that The Boys in the Band is something that has to be rescued from the judgment of history. About the only person who isn’t following the script is Friedkin, who explains creative decisions he made almost fifty years ago with the clarity of someone who made the film yesterday, and says the resulting drama is some of his proudest work.
The problem, I think, lies in Crowley’s play. To go back to Stonewall for a second, Crowley’s characters are the kind of anxious middle-class types who would never man a barricade, and The Boys in the Band is a very good portrait of how trapped and unhappy gay men in this strata of society at this time must have been. But the drama, claustrophobically confined to one room on stage and opened out as little as possible by Friedkin, doesn’t find a perspective outside their despair. You could certainly view that as brave, as a refusal to turn Crowley’s observations into the stuff of blandly uplifting Oscar-season issues drama. Over 121 minutes, though, it becomes suffocating, even with the considerable palliative of Crowley’s witty dialogue.
The lion’s share of the best lines go to Cliff Gorman as Emory, whose catty one-liners are both a weapon and a shield against the world. Gatiss notes that Emory holds a strange position among the party-goers; they treat him with disdain but still see some value in having him around, as though his theatrical bitchiness makes them feel more ‘normal’ – a minority within a minority. In the same way, you get the feeling that some of the backlash against Crowley’s play came from a post-liberation desire in the gay community to push back on camp, to integrate into straight society and reject the tragic queens who provided such a disproportionate amount of their media representation in the past. It’s only now, with queer cinema so mainstream that all four of this year’s acting Baftas went to people playing LGBT characters, that we can dust this off and reassess it.
The easy defence would be to say that The Boys in the Band only shows a particular subset of gay men, that it shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of representing the entire community. But for a while it was The Gay Play, and Crowley’s intention is clearly to address as many issues within the community as possible, with characters whose arcs are designed to discuss matters such as non-monogamy, straight-passing and the black gay experience. It’s best to accept it as a time capsule and revel in the undimmed skill of Crowley’s dialogue writing and characterisation, not to mention the sheer ambition of writing something like this in 1968.
And Friedkin, for his part, can hold his head up high. The decision to restrict the action to Michael’s flat, while not obviously cinematic, is absolutely the right one, with Arthur J Ornitz’s wintry cinematography occasionally hinting at the horror territory Friedkin would so unforgettably dive into a few years later. He also creates an unforgettable visual coup with the entrance of Leonard Frey’s Harold, whose air of indefinable menace reminds you that Friedkin’s CV also includes adaptations of Pinter and Tracy Letts. So many dramas about gay men in the 1970s are retrospective works about the AIDS crisis, and Harold’s unsteady posture and permanently-worn sunglasses almost suggest a premonition of that epidemic, one which tragically claimed the life of Frey and four other members of the cast.