By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The film is nearly always mentioned with modifiers such as "landmark," "milestone" and "a watershed moment." Fans and academics alike — in surveys such as the book The Celluloid Closet and the film "Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema" — continue to cite it as the single turning point for Hollywood's depiction of homosexuals, a swift and sure abolition of swishy cliches. Retailers specializing in gay cinema are weary from continuous customer requests for the film.
Yet after nearly 40 years, it remains out of print on VHS and unavailable on DVD.
The movie is "The Boys in the Band," a dramatic ensemble play faithfully adapted for the screen in 1970 and starring the complete stage cast, and the first screen success for Chicago-native director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "Bug"). It's poignant, it's catty, it's vicious and, as the New York Times described it, it "makes 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' look like a vicarage tea party."
But to see it — or to see it again, in a clear, crisp print with better sound than your ancient, worn-out VHS copy from its last, late-'80s release — set your DVRs for 1:15 a.m. Tuesday (Monday night) on Turner Classic Movies. It airs as part of the cable channel's "Screened Out: Gay Images in Film" series this month — and coinciding with this weekend's gay pride celebrations in Chicago.
"For me, this will be the film's television premiere," says Mart Crowley, "Band's" playwright and screenwriter, from his Los Angeles home (though he's in the process of moving back to New York). "Once upon a time in New York City years ago, five or six years after the film was released, one of those errant channels showed it. The language and such was so that they couldn't broadcast it, and they didn't bother to bleep it — they just cut the frames out in which there was any obscenity. The picture would just jump around. I couldn't watch it."
Thirty-nine years after his play debuted, Crowley is still answering for its impact. "Nobody knew what hit 'em for a while [after it was produced] — not even me," he says. "I was as surprised as anyone else. I was just writing about myself and my friends. I mean, once upon a time it was just referred to as a play. Now it's the 'first gay play' or the 'first out play.' And I still don't even really know what that means."
"The Boys in the Band" was controversial in its day, and remains so still. It's the story of a rather dismal birthday party — or so it becomes — among Michael (Kenneth Nelson), the quick-witted but steel-hearted host, and his fellow gay friends: a flamboyant queen, Emory (Cliff Gorman); a Jewish pothead, Harold (Leonard Frey); a mopey analysis patient, Donald (Frederick Combs); a hustler, "The Cowboy" (Robert LaTourneaux); a dapper black man, Bernard (Reuben Greene); a mysterious old friend, Alan (Peter White), and the couple of Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice).
The first act is all wisecracks, the second act is all barbs. Life in the closet was dreary and desperate, and the self-loathing nearly eats some of these characters alive.
"It's hard for anyone, straight or gay, who grew up post-Stonewall to relate to these poor quivering queers," the New York Post wrote when the film was restored for the Tribeca Film Festival in 1999. "But most will also have compassion for these sad sacks, living in a deforming straitjacket of shame, misery and contempt. 'Boys' is a useful yardstick of how far gay men have come, and how far they have yet to go."
Crowley, to an extent, agrees with these assessments of his work. "I understand why the new movement doesn't want these negative images. They're gay and proud, these boys today, and they don't want to admit that some of us felt miserable at times or that we didn't all arrive at this point in history in a golden chariot. ... We weren't encouraged by anyone's parents or religious leaders or friends. I was a devout Catholic, and I was going to hell. Michael's character reflects that. But now they can see these images and re-evaluate their history. Because it really did start out in a different key."
Today we see Oscar nominations for straight actors in gay roles, but Crowley had a hard time finding actors to take on the challenge of "Boys," which is why he held onto them from the stage to the screen.
Luckinbill's agent, who also represented Crowley, tried to discourage him from the role of semi-macho, bisexual Hank. "She said it would kill my career," Luckinbill said in 2002. "I said, 'It's a great play, and how is being in a great play going to hurt my career?' ... It did everything in reverse of what my agent said, except for one thing: I lost a True cigarettes commercial. They said, 'No fags smoke our fags!' "
A DVD soon?
The film certainly made its mark, at least on gay audiences. TLA Entertainment, a video retailer with a popular gay and lesbian catalog, wishes it had a DVD version to hawk. "Would it sell? Absolutely," says TLA's managing editor, Scott Cranin. "We get requests for it all the time. I get several e-mails asking for 'Boys in the Band' virtually every week."
So does Crowley. "They bug me in the Virgin Megastore, asking, 'When, when, when?' I have a standard form letter to send to people who write and ask about it. I tell them to write letters to CBS [Consumer Products]."
The history of "Band's" ownership is a tortured one. Suffice to say CBS confirmed this week that they do own the film through their partnership with King World.
"CBS maybe just discovered that they own it," Crowley says. "I'm told it'll be showing up on DVD next year, in 1908 ... no, it's 2008!" That would be the 40th anniversary of the play's first production in New York. (Calls to CBS to confirm a DVD were not returned.)
Dominick Dunne was an executive producer on the film. In a letter posted on the "Band" message boards at IMDB.com, Dunne says, "CBS is finally aware that they own the picture and they are releasing a DVD for the 40th anniversary as a two-disc piece with interviews with Mart, me, Billy Friedkin, etc."
In addition, a documentary about Crowley's work is under way, with the working title "The Making of 'The Boys in the Band.' " Filmmaker Crayton Robey, 34, has gathered all kinds of source material and interviews about the play's genesis and the movie's impact. He hopes to release his film independently or include it as an extra feature on the DVD.
He pulls no punches in his assessment of "Band": "It's the most significant cultural creative breakthrough the world saw," he said last week in an interview from his New York home. "It was so important, people don't often realize. It was the 'Brokeback Mountain' of its day."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.