I don’t understand any of it. I never did. Michael, played by Jim Parsons, utters these words towards the end of the film. In many ways, the entirety of The Boys in the Band hinges upon this statement. The film lays bare the tensions between the desire to live authentically and the need to conform to societal norms and it does so, by weaving vulnerable stories of love and anguish together. All in all, The Boys in the Band is a brilliant and must-watch film to understand queer identity and struggle pre-Stonewall.
Set in 1968, the cinematic adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play is an unfolding story of a birthday party that eventually goes awry. Each of the leading eight characters is forced to confront twisted truths about their pasts and who they are because of it. While some feel the pangs of unrequited love, others struggle with their inner demons. Tears, pain, and insults hang heavy in the air as the characters fight against the brutal strain of social rejection.
Performing a heterosexual identity:
Donald, Larry, Hank, Bernard, Emory, and Harold meet at Michael’s to celebrate Harold’s birthday. Cowboy, a sex-worker and Harold’s gift from Emory, arrives as well. All is fine and well initially. All the ingredients to a good party- music, food, alcohol, dancing, and gifts are present. However, an unwelcome visitor turns the party topsy-turvy. Alan is Michael’s old roommate from college. He represents precisely how the society at large felt about homosexuality at that time. He states that he doesn’t have an issue with people’s personal lives as long as they don’t make things public.
A few hours before the party is set to take place, Alan, crying on the phone to Michael, asks to speak with him urgently. Michael turns him down politely as he does not want to put Alan in an uncomfortable position. For the most part, he does this to make sure that the party remains a safe space for their authentic selves. However, it is apparent that his discomfort also stems from his personal dissatisfaction with being homosexual.
When Alan shows up despite saying he is busy, one after another, things go askew. Initially, Michael asks everyone to “cool it” and try to not betray that they aren’t straight. In retrospect, it is because he is embarrassed by who he truly is. Alan insults Emory’s flamboyance and ends up punching him after the two engage in a squabble. Michael does everything possible to control the mess. He gets embarrassed when any of his friends display stereotypical homosexual traits in Alan’s presence and tries to subdue them. He even sends Emory, the most effeminate of them, to the kitchen. Essentially, he tiptoes around Alan because he hasn’t come to terms with his homosexuality himself.
Self-hate and internalized homophobia:
Eventually, however, Michael starts drinking and Harold and him trade insults rooted in deep insecurities. Harold delivers eloquent yet casual jabs at Micheal about his age and debt-ridden lifestyle. The back and forth goes on for a while and with each passing minute, Michael gets more and more hostile. Michael stops Alan from leaving and forces him to play a party game. Each of them needs to call someone they truly loved and confess to earn points. He is the catalyst for most of the hatred that runs rampant as they start playing.
Bernard and Emory are brought to tears when they are forced to confront, yet again after years, that their love wasn’t returned. Hank and Larry makeup after a fight as Larry calls Hank to confess his love. Before ending the game, Michael confronts Alan about his ambiguous sexuality and brings up his relationship with a college friend- Justin. While Alan denies that he is a homosexual, Michael continues to taunt him. Since Michael’s insults towards his friends were based on truth, his taunts towards Alan take on new meanings. At that moment, Alan and Michael are quite like each other. Both struggle to deal with their sexuality and are homophobic, albeit in different ways.
As the film draws to a close, Michael sobs in Donald’s arms and asks him who was it that said- Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse. Much of who Michael is revolves around this statement. The more he attempts to seek refuge in God, alcohol, and therapy, the more he ends up having to confront his demons. Not being able to bear the brunt of societal shaming, he has internalized homophobia and hates himself for it.
Why the film moves us today as well:
The film is a window to how queer people in the past paved the way for the current generation. Much of the struggle that they underwent and fought against, especially through movements like Stonewall, changed the course of history. The film is akin to a time-capsule that captures the dissonances between society and sexuality pre-Stonewall. Not only does it do that, but it also portrays the tensions between self and sexuality and that is precisely why The Boys in the band is a brilliant, must-watch film.
The incessant spewing of hate and casual racist remarks towards Bernard, the only Black character, might be highly displeasing to today’s viewers. However, addressing matters of racism, homophobia and ultimately, intersectionality is still just as relevant. A raw and real approach helps to look back authentically while shedding light on today’s problems. All in all, the film paints pride and pain in many different hues ranging from anger to hatred- some bygone and others, more relevant than ever.