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Why 'The Boys in the Band' still resonates after 50 years

Netflix’s adaptation of the landmark gay drama comes five decades after it was an Off Broadway sensation.
The cast of "The Boys in the Band."
The cast of "The Boys in the Band."Scott Everett White / Netflix
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES - Five years ago, Charlie Carver, who appears in the upcoming Netflix film "The Boys in the Band," was at an Emmy party when a gay man he worked with chastised him three separate times for acting too effeminate.

"I was told that I needed to 'get it under control' around people in the business," Carver says, sharing the story for the first time with Variety.

Later, while Carver was waiting at the valet, he ran into his co-worker again and asked him for clarification. Instead, the man slapped Carver across the face. "It wasn't playful but intentional, pointed and meant to be instructive. A slap," says the actor. "I told him that if he ever touched me again, I would name him."

As upsetting as the night was, Carver, now 32, says, "That was the moment when I said to myself, 'I can't do this. I cannot police myself in that way.'"

A few months later, in January 2016, he came out publicly in a series of Instagram posts.

It's not lost on Carver that revealing his sexuality wasn't an option for the gay actors who appeared in the 1968 Off Broadway production of "The Boys in the Band," Mart Crowley's landmark play about a group of gay men who gather to celebrate their friend Harold's birthday. Even though "Boys" was a hit, attracting audiences that included Jackie Onassis, Marlene Dietrich and Groucho Marx, both the straight and gay actors were warned that appearing in the show amounted to career suicide.

Coming out publicly? Unthinkable.

By the time of the 2018 Tony-winning revival of "The Boys in the Band," in which Carver made his Broadway debut, all of the actors were openly gay. The starry ensemble included Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, Robin de Jesus and Tuc Watkins.

Now the cast has reunited for the Ryan Murphy-produced film adaptation for Netflix. The play's director, Joe Mantello, returned, and Crowley and Ned Martel co-wrote the script.

Like the play, the film takes place over one night in one apartment. "I kept saying, 'I don't want to apologize for it being a play,'" Mantello tells Variety. "Plays are about language, and I think film is about pictures, and the strength of this piece I think is the language. The amount of dialogue in this film is probably two or three times what you have in a contemporary film. I think it's got as many quotable lines as 'All About Eve' — amazing lines that people are still quoting after more than 50 years."

"The Boys in the Band" has always been polarizing, first during its original stage run and then when William Friedkin directed a film adaptation in 1970. Fans hail it as a courageous work of art that is unapologetically gay, warts and all. Critics dismiss it as applying a narrow lens that portrays gay men as bitchy queens who languish in misery and self-hatred.

"There's a kind of laziness when someone describes the play with a broad brush in the sense that it's entirely about self-loathing," Mantello says. "I don't feel that's true at all. It's a specific story about a specific time. I don't think there's anything useful about historical amnesia and pretending that [the problems] didn't exist or it wasn't difficult. I would say that what is uncomfortable about the play and problematic about certain characters is because of what they were up against. It's not some sort of failure of who they are or who gay men are."

Love them or hate them, Crowley's "Boys" have resonated for half a century. "We know those guys," says Quinto, who plays Harold. "The circumstances around them have changed somewhat, externally — socially and politically for the most part — but the internalized feelings that they are wrestling with, are those that different? I don't know."

While the Broadway production introduced "Boys" to a new generation, Netflix will bring it to a worldwide audience.

"This film premiering on Netflix upends the presumption that LGBTQ narratives should be limited or niche — or worse, restricted," Mantello says. "There is an undeniable appetite for these stories that surpasses the wildest imaginings of the brave men who starred in the original film."

Jim Parsons as Michael in "The Boys in the Band."
Jim Parsons as Michael in "The Boys in the Band."Scott Everett White / Netflix

The film drops on the streamer on Sept. 30 — five weeks before the presidential election. "A lot can change right now for the worse," says de Jesus. "Maybe the movie coming out this month is actually perfect, because it could provide the inspiration to be radical and to f--ing fight." De Jesus warns that the oppression dramatized in "The Boys in the Band" may not be rooted in the distant past. "My message to young people is let this movie guide you, to clock you, to remind you of who you are, who you came from, what the ancestors went through and why we all need to work our tails off, to not ever go back," he says.

"The Boys in the Band" is also being released in the midst of the coronavirus. The play, too, is a snapshot of a time just before a different deadly pandemic. By 1984, five of the actors in the original production were dead from AIDS, as were director Robert Moore and producer Richard Barr.

"I'd like to think that they are having the last laugh in the sense that this has survived for over 50 years and has gone on to be not only a sacred text in the history of gay theater but an American classic," Mantello says. "I'd like to think they are proud of what we've done."

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