It is important to know: I watched the 2019 Tony Awards live and I physically stood up and cheered with tears of happiness in my eyes when The Boys in the Band, complete with the cast of openly gay all-stars, took the Best Revival Tony home; I’m sure a lot of theatre fans did. However, if that was in any way interpreted as our need for a new film adaptation of this acclaimed play, I’m afraid I must differ, because no one asked for this.
The Boys in the Band (2020) has recently been released on Netflix. The movie was directed by Joe Mantello of theatre fame and stars Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto and Andrew Rannells (to mention a few) who each appeared in the stage version in 2018. The basis of the movie, Mart Crowley’s play of the same name, which played 1001 performances off- Broadway during its first run in 1968, is a beloved New York classic and an important LGBTQ piece, that has influenced a wide variety of theatre and other art. The new movie also appears to have been decidedly inspired by the 1970 first ecranization of the play, directed by the astonishing William Freidkin and produced by Crowley himself.
As is traditional in a respectful stage to screen adaptation, the script saw little change between the 1968 play, the 1970 adaptation and the 2020 remake. The famous lines, “One could murder you with very little effort” and such, were present and accented. The set was also a close recreation of the predecessor, although lacking in detail the original film had, including but not limited to Man Ray reproductions and Marlene Dietrich film posters, which were instead replaced by cliche 60s-esque furniture and art. Such close, yet unfortunately inconsiderate resemblance to the original poses a big question about the 2020 film: did we really need to see the same precise thing once again, especially being done so poorly in comparison?
The plot of The Boys in the Band takes place in just one evening: it’s Harold’s (Zachary Quinto) birthday and Michael (Jim Parsons) is throwing him a big party with “six tired, screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer”. Unexpectedly, Michael’s old college roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchison), shows up to the party in distress; the timing is bad, as Alan is straight and not aware of Michael’s lifestyle. Michael and the colorful group of his friends must now cope with dramatic personal relationships, mutual history and each other’s prejudices as the evening progresses.
Mantello’s direction can be described shortly as a (not particularly outstanding) imitation of Friedkin rather than any sort of an original take on the story. For instance, the 2020 film opens with a montage of characters’ errands prior to showing up to the party, same as its 1970 predecessor; only instead of exploring the characters at all, it serves, if anything, the purpose of making the viewer realize just how sick they are of all the fake 60s visuals modern day movies offer. The cast appear to follow not just Mantello’s direction, but his tendency to imitate the original as well, making for some unprecedentedly disappointing performances out of the acclaimed stars. In fact, the actors seem to have been cast based on physical or stylistic resemblance to original players more so than their take on the characters.
Andrew Rannells, as just one example, gave a performance that stroke me as good, at least at first glance…only, Andrew Rannells had an excuse: he’s played almost that same role before, over 100 times, in Falsettos just two years prior. Between that and his added benefit of playing opposite his real-life husband, one may feel the urge to reconsider whether Andrew Rannells was actually good — it is shocking how little pensiveness and consideration (which are both things the relative unknown, Keith Prentice had) he brought to his Larry, managing to turn a complex character into another entitled diva of the movie. Speaking of divas, Leonard Frey of the 1970 cast originated the dramatic entrance of the film as the first Harold; his glasses were pinker and his face was way more scared, so how come it was clear Zachary Quinto was going to be a bigger diva even before he entered that door? The same may be said for most of the cast: Bomer, who exhibited unexplainable overconfidence as the anxious Donald; Parsons, who was somehow cold even as the lead screaming fairy queen; and Hutchison who, against all reason, played the heterosexual Alan as a villain and a square.
Upon watching the 2020 movie, I was made to feel very silly for having expected more of it — the original had a more outstanding director, was shot in an era that did not need to fake its resemblance to the late 60s and featured the cast who seemed like they were born to have this as the centerpiece of their resume. However, considering the new director and cast have their own proven talents, the whole ordeal begs a question: were they simply doomed to fail?
The script was identical, just as well as the set, everyone looked like their 1970 counterpart and was dressed the same — it had to either be much better or much worse. It would be a lie to say the 2020 version did not try to be much better; it did its best to keep the beloved elements and add onto them, going as far as adding extra dialogue, nudity and visual reenactments of what was originally spoken stories told by characters throughout the film (which were all atrocious elements, but certainly not attributes of the luck of trying). To try and determine, with any certainty, which of the two productions had more going for it would be senseless trouble, but, whatever the case, the 2020 The Boys in the Band clearly failed to become the much better version. Perhaps there are movies, especially among adaptations of theatre plays, that are meant to be made just once. Out of the two, the original is an easy pick.