In today’s cinematic landscape, there is a (relatively) healthy stream of LGBTQ+ representation on the big screen, certainly healthier, at least, than fifty years ago in 1970. That is why the original film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys In The Band is such an important milestone in queer cinema. As seems to be the way with most properties these days, 2020 was chosen as the year for this seminal work to receive the remake treatment. Personally, I was excited to see what might be done to bring a half century old story to a new audience in a new era.
Well, as it turns out, very little. Telling the story of a gay friendship group in late 1960s New York whose party turns from passive aggressive into full on aggressive, The Boys In The Band is no doubt a deliciously toxic, intense drama experience, but the problem is that it plays so incredibly close to its 1970 predecessor that viewers are simply left with one question, what was the point?
If you can imagine placing yourself in the mindset of a mainstream 1970s audience, a full feature film that explores not just capital H homosexuality but rather the layers underneath the umbrella must have been a really new and, for some, startling experience. From internalised homophobia to fear of ageing to promiscuity to culturally motivated self hatred, The Boys In The Band really does cover it all, but under the lens of a 2020 production, it does feel like the filmmakers have missed a trick or two by sticking so rigidly to the original time period of the play.
In remaining so faithful to both Mart Crowley’s play and William Friedkin’s original film adaptation, Joe Mantello’s 2020 effort can’t help but feel like a rather pointless imitation. Given the choice between both films, you are always going to pick the one that feels most important, most alive, most ‘of its moment’, and that is Friedkin’s. Don’t get me wrong, the razor sharp humour is there, the vicious yet delicious jibes are all delivered with effective potency, but at the end of the day Netflix’s The Boys In The Band suffers the same fate as any number of recent remakes, not enough interesting changes made to warrant watching it over the original.
Of course, the one element of the picture that will inspire viewings is the chance to check out the new cast. A large and talented ensemble, the standouts for me are Jim Parsons as chief party organiser Michael, a lapsed alcoholic Catholic dealing with heavy internalised homophobia issues, and and Andrew Rannells and Tuckering Watkins as Larry and Hank, a bickering couple in the process of confronting their differing opinions on polyamory versus monogamy.
On the whole, the performances given are fantastic across the board. The cast is completed by Matt Bomer as Donald, a recent New York emigrant seeking to distance himself from the ‘gay lifestyle’, Robin de Jesus as the flamboyant Emory, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, the only African American in the group reckoning with his own complex issues, and Charlie Carver as the ‘Cowboy’, a well intentioned but dim witted male escort who has been hired for birthday boy Harold.
Which brings us to Zachary Quinto. This might be a controversial opinion, but as the aforementioned Harold, I have to say that Quinto is the weak link for me. The role of Harold was so masterfully played by Leonard Frey in 1970 that is was always going to be hard to live up to, and there is something about Quinto’s portrayal that I just don’t ‘believe’ as much. Much of the voyeuristically addictive passive aggression in the narrative comes through the love/hate relationship between Harold and Michael, and something I didn’t expect was for Jim Parsons to be more effective in this dramatic arena. As Harold, Quinto is supposed to bring the verbal hammer down on several occasions, but the impact of his performance just wasn’t as grimly sardonic as I wanted it to be.
Overall, besides the disappointment with Zachary Quinto’s turn, there really isn’t much wrong with 2020’s The Boys In The Band. It’s the dramatic equivalent of a car crash that you can’t take your eyes from, in the best way possible. An intense, drunken friendship row drama that makes you thankful you are not in the room with the toxic exchanges flying. The wider problem, though, lies in the fact that next to nothing has been changed or modified from the film’s 1970 predecessor. At the end of the day, unless you are a super fan of a particular cast member, there is no valid reason why anyone would choose Joe Mantello’s The Boys In The Band over William Friedkin’s. It’s not a soulless remake, just a way too safe one.