Having already discussed the 1970’s version on the Pod I struggled to figure out how I wanted to address the new Netflix version of The Boys in the Band.
Rather than review the movie (which script-wise is basically the same as the 1970’s) I wanted to touch on key elements of the story and my takeaways. Yes, let’s do that.
Though the original film came out in 1970 the play first premiered off-Broadway in 1968; about a year before the Stonewall riots. Watching these two versions, and reflecting on the story and characters, I had to really do my best to keep that in mind. Though ALL of the elements that I’m going to touch upon in this piece very much still exist today, I acknowledge that the experiences of these characters were much more intense… Ok, here we go.
The Harold and Michael Dichotomy: Self-hate is a real thing across the board for all people from all walks of life. Specifically, the experience of self-hate as a gay man, is something all too familiar and you recognize it immediately in Michael (Jim Parsons).
This character is moving deeper into his 30s, he’s losing his hair, the firmness of his skin isn’t quite what it was and he knows they’re all additional challenges added to a heavy pile. All these natural changes are happening and he radiates the awareness that he is still very much alone. He tries to suffocate those feelings of isolation and lonliness with buying things and wearing nice fabrics from name-brands as he expresses to his friend Donald (Matt Bomer). Yet, in all of it, he knows that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t fill up the void. Many people manage these uncomfortable feelings differently but when it comes to Michael he chooses to induldge with this, religion, and up until recently- alcohol.
Michael demonstrates that place where you are gay- you know it and those closest to you know it- but it never leads to happiness. Michael’s frustration and bitterness ultimately erupts outwards for the game in the second half of the film. He can’t surrender to his circumstances and if he has to be victim to the prison of his life then he wants, at least on this night, for everyone around him to sit in it with him. There is noone he wants in there more than his college friend Alan(Brian Hutchinson) who he suspects (and hopes) is a closeted gay man.
Harold on the otherhand, my favorite character from the story, seems equally hurt by the world as Michael. He too is not the prettiest in the bunch, has facial scars that have made it even more difficult, and is also inevitably aging as the stage of the evening is his 32nd birthday.
The key difference between the two is that you notice that Harold has surrendered to the hand life has dealt. He appears at his party (late) while chaos has broken out between Emory(Robin de Jesus) and Alan; masculine and effeminate. Rather than be offended, scared, or bothered by what he has walked into he sees his beautiful young gift, reads his card, and has a laugh.
From there on Harold and Michael have an acute tête-à-tête; resentment vs. surrender. Despite the cruelty that Michael throws at Harold because of the frustration for his life and not being able to be what he really wants (straight) Harold continously let’s it roll off of him. Even at the end of the night when everything has gone to complete s*** Harold turns around and tells him, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
There are two interpreations for this; one is Harold knows Michael’s true wish is to get away from all that surrounds him in that life but there is no escape. Harold is it. This is it. Telling him he’ll call him the next day is a passive way of driving the dagger deeper- this is the reality.
A second interpretation is a little kinder; Harold walks into his own birthday party as homophobia is exploding. This is still a year away from Stonewall and this man has lived thirty-two years in a world where these types of actions, expressions of hatred, and self-loathing are the norm. He may say those words to Michael at the end of the night because he truly does forgive him. The world has done a number on them all and some wounds need more forgivness than criticism; regardless if they are self-inflected.
Bernard and Emory’s Loss: During the game we have these two characters recount their memories of their one true loves. Now, in today’s day and age many would argue, “they couldnt have been in love because it wasn’t reciprocated. They were simply infatuated with those men.”
To that I say- You clearly don’t know what falling in love is.
Sure, the place from which their love was coming from was that of neglect, unhealthy development of vulnerablity, and a desperate desire to be seen and matter; trauma. Yet, this doesn’t make their love any less true. What is love or the desire for a partner if not the pursuit of a companion who can see our wounds and stand with us as we try to recover from them?
My own experience, and I believe the experience of many, mirrors Bernard’s( Michael Benjamin Washington) very much; there was a person, there was something, there was a moment, and then there was nothing.
I believe for many people these were/are the extent of connection. Yes, public acceptance of homosexuality has grown, yes… It is nowhere near the level of hardship these characters had to endure, but what is still very much alive is the circumstance of Bernard’s thrice married ghost, Alan’s unspoken episode, and as Michael comedically put it the “Man was I drunk last night” encounters.
Homosexuality is not, nor never has been, the issue- it is the preservation of masculinity and the need to dismiss and destroy that which “seeks” to commit treason on it. A common experience with the sudtleness of this today would be, “I have no problem with gay people! I say do what you want, it’s not my business- you just better never bring that s*** around me or at me or we’re going to have a real problem”– it is offensive to think another man may want to know you.
The emphasis has to remain on “knowing someone”. The reason for this is reinforced with Emory’s story. Of course he was physically attracted to his dentist. Yet, that’s where the phobia’s attention starts and ends. Emory’s request to the dentist, as he stares off into nothing remembering, is that he asked him to be his friend; can you see me, can you hear me, can what I say matter to you?
At the core, this is what all true romances are-friendships that gradually evolved into a scary and exciting place only through the means of letting our gaurds down.
Alan’s Mystery: The big question for many in this story is was Alan gay or wasn’t he? I think Hutchinson’s performance compared to Peter White’s can sway ones vote where the former made me think, “not so much” and the latter left me at a solid 50/50.
The thing is after watching the Netflix version I realized there was a third option- it doesn’t matter. What matter’s was what he chose to live.
There is a powerful juxtapositon with Alan and Hank (Tuc Watkins). Hank is bisexual(?), was married, had children, and ultimately came from a similar life as Alan. So similar were they that Alan takes a liking towards him and gravitates towards him above anyone else at the party. This might be because he’s attracted to him or it might be that he’s offended by everyone else there- who knows.
The key to recognize here is that during the game Hank expresses how he truly felt he loved his wife, but, the element of his sexuality wouldn’t leave him alone. He had to act on it and he had to let it be.
Whether Alan has sexual or romantic feelings for other men doesn’t matter. At the end of the game when Michael forces him to take his turn he CHOOSES his wife. He CHOOSES that commitment he made. We are not our abilities, our thoughts, or our feelings we are our choices. For Alan that is where he chose to try and create happiness. Whatever crisis he was calling Michael about originally doesn’t matter. Alan saw things that night at that party and recieved all the information he needed to make his conclusion.
People fail to acknowledge that sexuality is a spectrum. For Alan perhaps there were those feelings and they weren’t as consuming as they were for Hank. Or, maybe they were, but our sexual and romantic curiousities mean different things at different times. Alan looked around and may have seen lives and experiences he had no interest of living. For that is what being openly gay was (and can still be)- not just what you do in the privacy of your bedroom it can invite attitudes, opinions, indifference, lonliness, and suffering. Whatever the struggle may have been- Alan chose his wife.
Open-ended: Unlike the 1970’s version this film ends a bit more hopeful. It shows our characters going out into the night recharging their batteries after a heavy evening. We last see Michael have a striking thought before he runs into the dark. Is he running away from something or towards something? That much is up to the interpretation of the viewer.
Because of the spirit of the story, and the time it was created, and how I saw the character of Michael, I can’t help but think this is a glass half empty moment; Michael is running trying to get away from himself and everything he cannot escape. A feeling we have all felt at one point or another…
Yet, I’m glad for Hank and Larry (Andrew Rannells) that, regardless of their relationship being outside the realms of traditional, it is real love nonetheless. Connection is possble. Vulnerablity is possible. Acceptance is possible. Love is always possible. We have to keep in mind their willingness to try, Emory’s ambition to still show the world the best of himself, and Harold’s ability to find some kind of peace in the midst of a world that often makes no sense or can be unjust.