The Boys in the Band 2020 remake is a thrilling suspenseful two hours of self-discovery, self-doubt, tension, and a whole lot of sass. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the original from the 1970’s, both films are based off Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band. Written and on-stage in 1968, The Boys in the Band revolutionized the industry by representing gay characters and their lives fully and wholeheartedly.
The play follows seven friends who gather at their friend Michael’s New York apartment. Michael, played by Jim Parsons, is a recovering alcoholic struggling with his own inner demons. As we meet him, the character is charming, sassy, and relatable. But as the play moves on and Michael is forced to reckon with the trauma that defines queer people’s experiences, we watch him unravel as he deals with homophobia, externally and internally.
And that’s really what the rest of the play is all about—six men stuck in a room, forced to confront their positions in not only hetero society, but queer society as well. Seeing as the play is written in 1968, just a year before the Stonewall Riots, and with all the hate queer men experienced during those times, I did feel a sense of guilt going into the play. It made me ask a very important question in contemporary times—how far have we really come? By the end of the play I had my answer: not much has changed from 1968 to 1970.
The play contains a character for everyone. One for the masculine gays, one for the more effeminate gays, one for the proud gays and one for the not so proud gays. All of that comes to the table as these characters are forced to reckon what is the price to pay being an unapologetically queer man. A lot, apparently.
In the first act of the play, we see these characters come together for their friend Harold’s birthday. We see the full banter and sass of the gay community, fun, witty, and sarcastic quick liners, effeminate dancing, and a whole lot of limp wrist. The play seems fun and you’re wondering, how could this possibly go wrong? When Michael’s straight roommate unexpectedly drops by, assaults their friend Emery, the most effeminate and unapologetically gay character in the group, and Harold arrives late for his birthday party, things quickly turn sour. Michael begins to drink and smoke again, transforming his quick wit and sass into vicious attacks against his friends, which, by the end of the play, is revealed to be internalized homophobia and a desire to be normal. They play a game where the participants must call someone they loved, tell them their name, and tell them they love them. In most cases that loved one is usually straight. By the end of the play, vicious truths are brought out and nasty shade is thrown and for a few, tense moments it seems this group of friends’ relationship is irredeemable. But that’s not quite the message, really.
The story is all about confronting trauma, moving on and discovering yourself and a sense of self-love in the process. It goes to show that self-love in the gay community comes at a heavy price, and not everyone can reckon with the societal pressures of being queer in a hetero society. But the end result, if you can get through it, is an unapologetically unconditional love for yourself and for others, as we see through three specific characters: Michael, Harold, and Emery.
At first Michael appears charming and cute, his sass comes off as playful and fun. He’s a character who audiences member can quickly like. But as the play progresses, his sass turns from charming and fun, to vindictive and jealous. As he lashes out at his friends, mostly Harold, it becomes obvious he seems to be holding some form of resentment for his friends, a type of jealousy and hate that they have moved on past their traumas while dealing with coming to terms with their sexuality. He takes pleasure in bringing up these traumas. Afterall, misery loves company.
Jim Parsons, mostly known for his portrayal of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, plays this delicate balance of hate and sadness within the character of Michael well. Through Parsons’ acting there’s something obvious bubbling under the surface of all this anger and that’s really what the play rides in—trying to figure out why Michael has transformed from this charming, sassy, goody two shoes, to a vindictive angry queen. At first, I thought Michael once had a crush on his roommate Alan and he’s projecting the hate of never having a chance with Alan by trying to brew up that hate within his own friends while also shaming Alan into doubting his own heterosexuality.
But that’s not the case. We learn, through Harold, that Michael, more than anything, wishes to be heterosexual. He loathes himself and his constant teetering of wanting to be normal and wrestling with his experience as an obviously queer man. Despite this hatred he has towards himself and his friends, and the jealousy of being unable to love himself and find love and meaning like his friends have, I didn’t hate Michael by the end of the play. In some ways, I found I pitied him and feel sorry for him, because no matter how confident we are as queers, at some point in our lives we might have wished for some modicum of normality. But the play offers a lesson, a lesson of love and healing. Through Michael the play cautions us from allowing that hate to fester, lest we end up alone and scared as Michael did by the end of the play all while his friends, who have confronted these traumas in order to heal, end up with some form of peace in the form of a friend. Harold with the Cowboy, Emery taking care of Bernard, Larry with Hank, and Alan with his wife Fran. So, we forgive Michael by the end of the play, because we understand his pain by the end of the film.
Then there’s the interesting character of Harold, a suave, confident, but aloof friend of the group who feels the world should come to him, as opposed to him seeking out the world. He’s played by Zachary Quinto, who positions the character as someone who’s indifferent, not because he doesn’t care for his friends and their feelings, but because he cares too much. Harold acts as Michael’s mirror in some ways, as hinted through a few lines of dialogue. If Michael is to be believed through his vindictive attacks against Harold, specifically, at the end of the play when Harold tells Michael he’s warning him, Harold either feels the same way as Michael does, a yearning for normality through heterosexuality, or he’s felt the same in the past and either has accepted his position as a homosexual in society or still struggles with his sexuality but has accepted it to some extent.
I did have the opportunity to watch the original 1970 film, although it was through vimeo with no real way of slowing down the film, and I have to say that I enjoyed the 2020 remake more than the 1970 original film. I felt the all gay cast of the 2020 version brought a complexity and nuance to the performances that wasn’t all that there in the 1970’s version. I found the only convincing performance to be Leonard Frey as Harold, though I don’t think it was as good as Zachary Quinto’s performance. With Frey there is more of a confidence to Harold’s character, whereas Quinto’s performance as Harold brought a confidence at the surface of the character but a certain sadness bubbling under that confidence. And same goes for Jim Parsons Michael compared Kenneth Nelson’s Michael. While Nelson made his Michael feel only angry, Parsons was more nuanced and complicated.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. To the performances, the set, and the history of the play made it hard to peel my eyes away.