Reviewing a remake is walking a tight wire. Some readers will be fans of the original for whom nothing can ever equal it. I enjoyed Tom Hanks in 2004’s Ladykillers, for example, but there’s nothing to compare with Alec Guinness in the 1955 original. Others will be fans of the remake who have never seen the original. And then there are the two movies, each with its own merits, each deserving of fair consideration.
Mart Crowley wrote Boys in the Band as a play, and it premiered off Broadway in 1968. It was notable for its frank depiction of gay life; because of the subject matter, Crowley had difficult finding an agent, a theater, and actors willing to play gay characters. The original movie, produced by Crowley and Dominick Dunne, was released in 1970, less than a year after the Stonewall riots. While it was fairly well reviewed, the movie also suffered because of its content: The Los Angeles Times, for example, wouldn’t run its ads.
At the time, gay sex and cross-dressing were illegal in New York (and virtually nationwide), and same-sex marriage was nowhere on the horizon. Gay men and women lived double lives, passing as straight by day if they could and living a secret life by night. If their identities because known, they faced ostracism and ruin. Bars and other social venues that catered to a gay crowd did so on the sly, under the ever-present threat of police raids.
This need for secrecy is a transparent feature of the script, in which seven gay men gather in a private apartment to celebrate the birthday of a friend, Harold. Here, in the privacy of Michael’s apartment, they are free to be themselves, with no need to pass for straight. But then an interloper arrives in the form of Michael’s straight college roommate, Alan, paying an unexpected visit. Alan bursts their bubble, forcing them to police their behavior (however ineffectively), and he eventually confronts them about their behavior.
When the original movie came out, few films or other works of art explicitly addressed homosexuality, so not only was the subject matter subversive but the act of making of a play or movie about it was itself subversive. The movie has all the tautness and immediacy of an act of protest. But since then gay has gone mainstream, and this shows itself in the remake, which opened as a play on Broadway in 2018 and then as a movie via the ultra-mainstream venue of Netflix. The remake is a more polished movie, but for all of its polish it cannot match the tautness of the original.
The performances are, however, excellent. Michael seems even more himself in the remake, where he is played by Jim Parsons, than in the original with Kenneth Nelson. Zachary Quinto is very good as Harold, but he cannot match the velvet-suited big-haired late-1960s grooviness of Leonard Frey in the original. And Robin de Jesús is also very good as a somewhat updated Emory.
At the end of the script, Michael laments, “Show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” The line would prove tragically prescient, given that most of the original cast would later die of AIDS, whose terrible impact was magnified by the dismissive attitude of the Reagan administration toward what it called a gay disease.
For the moment, at least, LGBTQ folks can have sex and marry legally in all 50 states, but, with today’s inevitable confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, we are living once more in a perilous moment. Let the remake of Boys in the Band serve as a reminder of what life once was and inspire us to fight that it never be so again.