After Mart Crowley's watershed play The Boys in the Band premiered Off-Broadway in 1968, dramatizations of the gay experience were never quite the same. In a galvanizing story played out in real time, zeroing in on nine men interacting at a Manhattan birthday party, the courageous playwright offered an uncompromisingly frank microcosm of myriad challenges faced by the gay subculture. The compassion and humor Crowley brought to the piece paved the way for substantially fuller portrayals of gay characters in all mediums during the subsequent four decades.
Director William Friedkin's remarkable 1970 film adaptation, featuring the original nine-member Off-Broadway cast, written and produced by Crowley, is among the most faithful stage-to-screen transplants ever. Yet it's a cinematic experience through and through — far from a photographed stage play. At long last, the film has been released on DVD, in a beautifully restored version augmented by fascinating behind-the-scenes documentaries.
Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) was tapped by Crowley after the playwright viewed the director's then-current film adaptation of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, another intimate interior drama. Crowley turned down lucrative offers from major studios that wanted to turn his smash stage property into a glossy star-driven vehicle. He felt that Friedkin could give it the gritty realism it needed. More important, as Friedkin explains in the documentaries, the director never thought the story should be told "in a gay vernacular." He says he was relaying a well-made drama rooted in traditional style, fueled by a classic mixture of comedy and tragedy, and his mission was to bring characters to life that would resonate to all audiences. He was determined to honor the integrity of the work that Crowley, the actors, and stage director Robert Moore had done, though Friedkin masterfully restaged the action for the camera and fine-tuned the portrayals for the intimacy of the medium.
Along with Friedkin, those commenting on the documentaries include Crowley; the film's executive producer, Dominick Dunne; two of the actors, Laurence Luckinbill and Peter White; and noted playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America). Kenneth Nelson's focal portrayal of volatile party host Michael remains a masterpiece of conflicting temperaments: cocky self-assurance juxtaposed to crippling insecurities, culminating in a devastating denouement. Playing the extremely effeminate Emory, the forceful and strikingly masculine actor Cliff Gorman pulls off an astonishing feat of physical and emotional transformation. Frederick Combs, an actor of supreme subtlety, provides an anchor for Michael's emotional roller coaster. Leonard Frey's interpretation of the jokingly self-deprecating yet sometimes vicious birthday boy Harold is simultaneously chilling and heart-rending. Keith Prentice as the promiscuous Larry and Luckinbill as his jealous bisexual lover Hank imbue the bittersweet story with its strongest sense of hope.
Offering impeccable support are Robert La Tourneaux as a sweet-spirited but naive hustler; White as an unexpected guest who might — or might not — be heterosexual; and Reuben Greene as Emory's devoted African-American pal. Sadly, all the actors except Luckinbill, White, and Greene have passed on, bringing an added note of poignancy to the legacy of Crowley and Friedkin's indelible work of art.
DVD Release: Nov. 11. Genre: Drama. Written by: Mart Crowley. Directed by: William Friedkin. Starring: Kenneth Nelson, Cliff Gorman, Frederick Combs, Leonard Frey, Keith Prentice, Laurence Luckinbill, Peter White, Reuben Greene, Robert La Tourneaux. Reviewed by Les Spindle