Friday, August 18, 2023

Notes on Film: A Coming Out Party of Sorts

 by Anthony King

With a little help from The Boys In the Band.

I'm pansexual. These are words I've never said aloud (or typed) until a few days ago. This isn't me being “brave,” and this isn't necessarily breaking news. It's something I've known for as long as I can remember, and it's something I've alluded to (privately and publicly) in the past. But this is the first time I'm using the language to express my sexual identity. And why am I writing about this here, you ask? This has nothing to do with movies, you might be saying. I'm here to tell you that, in fact, it does have something to do with movies.
Like so many I was heartbroken over the passing of William Friedkin and, like so many, I wanted to watch a couple of his movies to celebrate a one-of-a-kind artist and human being. Friedkin's adaptation of Mart Crowley's 1968 highly charged and bleak play, The Boys In the Band (1970), is an early effort from a director mostly known for his genre film work, but solid nonetheless. I'd go so far as to say it's even a great film. The film follows a group of gay men in Manhattan gathering to celebrate the birthday of one of their friends in the late '60s. The contrasting personalities and hidden agendas of these men come exploding onto the screen (or off the stage) like the eruption of Krakatoa. I'd always wanted to see the play and movie but knew next to nothing about it. For a long time, actually, I thought it was a musical. What I got instead was a startling character study of queer men replete with hissing and scratching and song and dance. That evening my wife and I watched the 2020 remake, an almost shot-for-shot, word-for-word remake of the 1970 film. Pointless as it may be, I loved it nevertheless.
Throughout the film, there is an undercurrent of a tension so fierce it threatens to swallow the party in a murderous rage. As more characters are introduced – some friends, some not – it only adds to the roiling madness that seems to be lurking just off camera. The friends are all waiting for Harold, the birthday boy (Leonard Frey in 1970, Zachary Quinto in 2020), and as soon as Harold arrives, he brings with him an unstable quality that all but promises violence. Our host, Michael (Kenneth Nelson, Jim Parsons), has been caddy all night, leaving an aftertaste of bitterness in the viewer's mouth. As soon as we're introduced to Harold, whose icy cold contempt cuts deep, Michael all but becomes unhinged. Friendships are tested, relationships are sent through the ringer, and nothing but an ambiguous ending will do for such a story fraught with scorn and spite.

Each character has been meticulously crafted, representing, one can only assume, people in Crowley's life he has known intimately. Bernard (Reuben Green, Michael Benjamin Washington) is the lone black man, meek, soft spoken, and caring. His best friend is Emory (Cliff Gorman, Robin de Jesus), flamboyant, fun, and racially abusive to Bernard. Donald (Frederick Combs, Matt Bomer) is the first guest to arrive, friend and part time lover of Michael's, a peacekeeper. Larry (Keith Prentice, Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Lawrence Luckinbill, Tuc Watkins) are a couple in the middle of a fight. Larry is the jealous type who can't have just one lover, and Hank recently left his wife and kids for Larry, and is still learning about his newfound identity. Michael's college friend from Georgetown unexpectedly shows up. Alan (Peter White, Brian Hutchison) is married but is in the city alone and “needs” to talk to Michael. Closeted or not, Alan says some very hateful things that deter any empathy afforded him earlier.
This rich tapestry of characters woven together creates at once something beautiful and bitter. The love these men have for one another is something I can only dream of. They are gay men at a time when homosexuals in this country were looked down upon, if not altogether shunned (or much worse). They only have each other. The “progress” made from then till now is laughable. During a particularly intense scene, Emory (rightfully) provokes Alan by acerbically saying, “I have such a hard time with pronouns.” This line appears in the play and both films. Crowley wrote this dialogue in the '60s, meaning the discussion and refusal on many peoples' parts to not acknowledge one's pronouns have been around for at least 55 years (and you know it's been much longer than that). The film is heavy on personal identity and what it means to be a queer person in 1968. What is (not so) shocking is that it's as relevant today as it was then.
It was because of the original film that I had my epiphany. I decided I was going to tell my wife that I was pansexual. I'd told her about my crazy (and probably wrong) theory of everyone being bisexual, and I'd always been open about being attracted to other people regardless of gender, but I'd never said the actual words. The Boys In the Band is a story dedicated to identity. Sexual identity, gender identity, personal identity. Where do we belong in the world? How do we belong in the world? Gay, straight, pan, whatever. Everyone, no matter your age, is in a constant struggle with identity. I spend a lot of time with people over the age of 70, and I can tell you for a fact that we never stop trying to figure out who we are and where we fit in this world. On one hand, it's comforting to know that our great-grandparents still ask these questions. We think, “Hey, I'm not alone in this thinking!” On the other hand, it's depressing as hell to think that we'll be asking ourselves on our 80th birthday, “Where's my place in this world? Who am I?” Along the way, though, it's an adventure where we can make the choice to never stop exploring, discovering, and growing. The unexpected relief I felt when I told my wife that I was pansexual was jarring. I didn't want to make a big thing out it, because it's not a big deal to me, and it's something I've known for a long time. But like my brother's partner told me, “It's always worth a little celebration when we get to know and claim ourselves a little more!”

1 comment:

  1. Hey Anthony! I'm proud of you for embracing yourself fully! :) I haven't seen either version of The Boys in the Band, but now I want to check them out. Thanks for always making the movies personal.