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June 21st, 2011

Why Are We Still Haunted by the Boys in the Band?

When I was 15 years old, I couldn’t wait to attend a local community theater production of The Boys in the Band. I was intrigued by the play’s dark and mysterious reputation, and had heard that it included a lot of homosexuality (funny how that word isn’t used much anymore). It sounded like exactly what this budding young queer needed: some lessons about the yellow brick road ahead.

BAND castI didn’t like what I saw. The characters, a group of gay men celebrating a birthday, were mean and sad and angry with one another. And they were all presented like weird, exotic animals, bitching and crying for the lascivious thrill of a very shocked audience in Shreveport, Louisiana. I left the show feeling terribly disenchanted, fearing my life was destined to be drunken and pathetic.

It was the theatrical opposite of an It Gets Better video.

In the insightful and appropriately melancholy new documentary Making the Boys, the remarkable journey of the groundbreaking play and movie adaptation is discussed by playwright Mart Crowley and a host of gay cultural voices, old and new.

makingtheboyssplashWhen The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway in 1968, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. The play’s behind-the-scenes peek at gay men in their natural habitat was fascinating to audiences and greeted with enthusiasm from the gay community. Yes, they were maladjusted, self hating fags, but they were our maladjusted, self hating fags.

But in 1969, as the movie version was being filmed only blocks from the Stonewall bar, a riot occurred at the club in response to constant police harassment. The modern gay rights movement was born. Seemingly overnight, New York gays stood up for themselves and demanded some respect — from others and, more importantly, themselves. By the time the film version of The Boys in the Band opened in 1970, the story and its sad characters felt like a politically incorrect relic. We wanted nothing to do with these old, bitter friends anymore. They didn’t reflect our “pride.”

Opinions about the show vary wildly, as evidenced by the interviews in the documentary. Gay playwright Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?”) always hated the show and still does. The surviving actors (the theatrical cast all recreated their roles for the film) staunchly defend the humanity of their characters. And younger gays interviewed about the show have no idea what the hell we’re talking about. “I don’t really know about any boys in the band,” states perplexed fashion star Christian Siriano. “Honey, I’ve got dresses to make!”

The Boys in the Band has become a litmus test for how you view our ability to love ourselves. And those boys continue to reverberate and reflect our attitudes and tribulations as gay men, and that includes the AIDS crisis.

LA la-et-making-the-boys.2.jpgWatching the film today, I’m struck with an odd compulsion. I see these characters laughing and bitching, and I want to reach through the screen and shake them and warn them, to tell them about something coming, something too awful to describe, of a plague they can’t possibly comprehend that is coming to kill them all.

Indeed, at one point in Making the Boys, we are shown photos of the actors, of the men who played these iconic characters we loved and then hated and then, finally, simply accepted. And listed under each of the actors’ names is the year he died of AIDS. 1984. 1985. 1988. On and on it goes, through what appears to be a majority of the cast.

The moment brings about such emotional confusion, of regret and interrupted affections. It’s like hearing of a death of a long lost friend with whom you had a troubled relationship.

Our boys continue to live on through the film, performing their roles on that screen exactly the same way, defiant in their stereotypes, no matter how many times we revisit the movie.

What has changed, for better and for worse, is us.

—————————————————–

PLUS…

Hope Takes ActionHVTN 505, also known as the HIV vaccine clinical trial, continues to struggle to find study participants, and that’s a shame. You know I never miss an opportunity to encourage HIV negative gay men and engage them in the HIV/AIDS arena, and this is the best possible way in which they can make a difference to public health. But… maybe they just aren’t sure what is involved. Well, Kyle Bella outlines his experience as a trial participant in great detail in a recent Bilerico Project posting — from the criteria to the risks to his physical exam — and it’s great information for anyone who might be interested. And be sure to visit Hope Takes Action to browse the list of trial sites.

Elton PetitionThe ADAP Advocacy Association (aaa+) has a new petition that is easy to access and sign — and it adds your voice to all of us who are horrified about this national disgrace. Most recently, Sir Elton John joined the chorus of advocates demanding that Gov. Rick Scott of Florida do something to alleviate the waiting list (there are more than 3500 patients in Florida alone who are waiting to participate in this program). So… just click here to sign a petition at the Elton John AIDS Foundation, asking that ADAP get the funding it desperately needs.

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11 Responses to “Why Are We Still Haunted by the Boys in the Band?”

  1. Charles Says:

    June 21st, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    In 2002, the Crowley’s sequel, The Men from the Boys, premiered in San Francisco. The play takes place in the same apartment 30 years later, after a memorial for Larry, who has died of pancreatic cancer. All the original surviving characters are present, plus a set of young gays. The interplay of younger generation vs. older generation, makes the debate between the gay men of today and the boys of 40 years ago who made their lives possible one of the core elements of the play.

  2. Drew Edward Hunter Says:

    June 21st, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Mark — This is a fascinating article. I saw the same production at the Port Players in Shreveport way back when. It did indeed shock the 98% conservative, highly religious, white audiences who dared come see the scandalous and controversial play.

    I, of course, knew the play, had read it, had seen the movie — and knew what to expect. My frame of reference, real world-wise, was a series of Friday night socials at a wealthy young gay man’s apartment on Fairfield Avenue in Shreveport. A cross section of young gay men always showed up and the mix was often volatile, especially when the booze flowed, egos were inflated and shredded and everybody wanted to do everybody. It was my own personal experience of “The Boys In the Band”, except that there was no script and nobody had learned any lines and there was no clean, tidy and snappy exit line to wrap things up at the end.

    It was all fascinating, really. The host was a real-life “Michael,” all the way down to the razor sharp wit which sliced of his guests emotional wrists. Fortunately (for me, anyway), I never found myself at the receiving end of any of this nonsense. I was more of an observer. And I learned a lot. So — TBITB didn’t shock me at all — it only capsulized what I’d experienced. I always found it quite true to life.

    Now, of course, the gays of the new century often disown this learning lesson and dismiss it as overstated, overly dramatic and just a bad dream. We’ve moved on… or have we? I still know a lot of those folks — the ones in real life who COULD be in a new incarnation of TBITB.

    We all feel better about ourselves than we did in the late ’60s / early ’70s. But — in some of us — deep down inside — there’s a “pot marked, Jew fairy” just trying to climb back out…

  3. Lewis Gannett Says:

    June 21st, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Mark,

    “Why Are We Still Haunted”? Who’s haunted? Oh well, I’m sure that icy, cutting, self-loathing wit endures among some younger gays. But the Crowely (sp?) scenario is so old hat. I question the premise of the title of your piece. Here’s one reason: high-school culture here in Massachusetts has become defiantly pro-gay. Astonishing but true. Yes, occasional instances of bashing. But meantime, swishy boys are getting elected president all four years of their class. Brilliant, charismatic boys. But swishy. Unembarrassedly fem kids. Nobody around them is haunted.

  4. Eric James Says:

    June 21st, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    When Boys first opened in NYC, an argument was advanced in the press to draw the general theatre audience to the show. The argument stated the show was an intense exploration of individual self-loathing versus self acceptance, more so than it was a depiction of gay life. With no other New York show to compare Boys to, that was some hard core marketing.

    In the 40 years since, that promotion has become fact. Today. the show and its premise about destructive and self loathing individuals enjoys better acceptance among straights than gays. The difference is, a straight person can discount or ignore the gay element of the play. Gay people cannot.

    In years of talking about the show with people, I’ve found one exception to this rule. I’ve met numerous people who were both gay and alcoholic, or drug dependent. They had no difficulty in accepting the show in that perspective. For most of them, Boy in the Band was a revelation that made it possible for them to deal with their addiction and its attendant self-destruction, as long as they had accepted themselves as being gay. If they had not, the show was still a confliction.

    If the play still haunts, it is because people are still suffering.

    ERIC JAMES
    Replacement for Kenny Nelson as Michael in the NYC production

  5. Rich Says:

    June 21st, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for the coverage about the documentary. I’ve always felt the film (I’ve never seen a production of the play) reflects gay men as much as George Cuckor’s THE WOMAN 1939 reflected the interactions and personalities of woman.

    Both films while vastly different in era and subject do reflect a kind of stereotype hybrid. When I’ve shown THE WOMAN to a modern day female, I get “oh that’s silly, woman aren’t that bitchy and cruel to one and other” but there is that residual “well now I can see a kernel of behavioral truth in this and some reality when woman get together.” Sound familiar?

    Sometimes looking truthfully in a mirror can be a scary experience. I’m looking forward to the documentary when it comes to my town.

    As for Russo, his book has always been a favorite of mine, I understand Mr Adnum’s criticism but I don’t agree with his “weak as water” synopsis

    Keep up the great blog !!

    Rich in Boston

  6. Diana Says:

    June 21st, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    We are still haunted because we can all relate to one or more characters in one way or another, whether we are straight or gay….we are all human.

  7. Sean Strub Says:

    June 21st, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Mark,

    Thanks for the post about Boys in the Band, but I have to tell you that I think your interpretation of Vito could not be more off the mark.

    Read Michael Schiavi’s excellent new biography of Vito or check out the documentary about Vito coming out this fall or winter and you’ll come to a very different conclusion about his legacy.

    Vito is one of the truly authentic heroes of our movement and an incredible inspiration to me and thousands of other activists. And, in terms of quick wit and effective use of camp, you and Vito are two peas in the same homosexual pod.

    xxSean

  8. Mark Adnum Says:

    June 22nd, 2011 at 1:09 am

    @ Sean: Woah! god forbid someone should try and scrape some of the fool’s gold off of one of your sacred cows. what interests me is your use of plural pronouns eg “our movement” and the vague roll call of “thousands of other activists”. exactly who are you talking about there? and since when, from a gay rights point of view, did majority make right anyway?

  9. Sean McShee Says:

    June 22nd, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I had avoided the movie for years because when I was first coming out, it was considered oppressive (and I think there was a boycott). Ten years after it was released I saw it in the Castro Theater and loved it for the bitchiness. For lack of a better term “recreational bitchiness,” like anonymous sex, is one of those things some of us love but most people (regardless of their own behavior) tend to put down. Both “recreational bitchiness” and anonymous sex can be done well, and safely, but it takes effort.

    Also I remember the cast members going on the Tonight show with “wife and kids” in tow, talking about how they were straight. Later many of these ‘straight’ guys died of HIV. The guy who played the hustler (name?) had the saddest story of all. He couldn’t get another acting job and became a hustler and died of AIDS.

  10. @Jims_Whim Says:

    June 25th, 2011 at 11:47 am

    It’s good to see some discussion about this film. After seeing it a few months ago here in NYC, I wrote this:

    “First: It’s disturbing to realize how little attention is paid to Gay history — MY history. Edward Albee comments in this film about how he really despised (but respected) the play, and I can relate. The first time I watched it (‘Boys In The Band’ movie) as a teen, I was mortified & sat in a constant state of cringe. But it was the first instance in our culture to show Gay people AT ALL — all of the current representations of the LGBTQ community that we see in movies, TV & theater owe their very existence to the ground-breaking play. To think about all of the Gay people who don’t even know of its existence is truly sad & frightening.

    The other thought that’s actually haunting me after seeing this film is just how much we (I mean ALL of us, as a society) lost to the decimation caused by AIDS. Think about it…thousands of gay men were erased from the world within a relatively small frame of time, along with all of the potential life-changing contributions they might’ve made. When I see such strong youth obsession in the LGBTQ community (specifically Gay men), I can’t help but wonder how much of it is owed to this gaping hole in our cultural development left by AIDS’ devastation. The ability to look at an older generation to lead us and learn from was stolen from those of us coming of age in the ‘post-AIDS’ world. Those men who made it through that nightmarish period deserve a lot more respect than they get, that’s for damn sure.”

  11. The Sound of Stigma | Daily Queer News Says:

    July 11th, 2013 at 6:25 am

    […] we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.” — The Boys in the Band, […]

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