Netflix, you doubtlessly know, is airing a remake of the 1970 film adaptation of the infamous play, “The Boys in the Band,” an off-Broadway hit by Mart Crowley. It is great motivation to vote this year, but I’ll get to that after some background.
I was barely 20 when I saw the original film with my 18-year-old wife. We had married a few months earlier after I fled my life as a closeted hippie and New Left activist who had been awarded a fellowship to Yale. I gave up everything to burrow deeper into the closet after having only one real-life, actual, semen-drenched, panic-inducing sexual experience with a man. My closet was paper-thin, of course. My mother had “clocked” me when I was five, but in those days, adults were generally presumed to be straight no matter what, because, after all, being homosexual meant you were a psychopathic, criminal sinner. Who would choose to be that?
We saw “The Boys in the Band” less than a year after 1969’s Stonewall Rebellion, which came to symbolize the effort to sledgehammer the closet out of existence. Completely disassociated from any positive value to my repressed sexuality, I had already dragged my wife to “Fellini’s Satyricon” and a bunch of underground Warhol films, including “Lonesome Cowboys,” which was raided during its showing at Ansley Mall’s Film Forum. I remember sitting through “The Boys in the Band” in a cold sweat, feeling scared shitless. It was full of funny lines, but the overwhelming impression was tragic — a complete justification of my effort to hide from the reality of the way of loving that, five years later, I came to regard as a profound gift.
This new version of the film was produced by Ryan Murphy, whose projects like “Pose” always mine the gold in our perversion. I told a friend that watching it was like attending the second week of an ancient Greek theater festival when all of the plays were parodies of the first week’s tragedies. I laughed a lot, surprisingly anticipating many of the original’s lines. However, I was also aware — and maybe only old people feel this way — that the remake substitutes nostalgia for the original’s impression of otherness and defiance as well as empathy. I’m not blaming the script. I think it’s about us, the audience, and our times, and that brings up politics and voting.
In 1970, the country was, like now, extremely polarized. Americans were arguing about the Vietnam War, the Black Power Movement, the domination of the Republican Party under the unprecedentedly corrupt leadership of (the eventually resigned under threat of impeachment) Richard Nixon, and the ongoing “socialist” programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation like Medicare, subsidized housing, and even endowment of the arts. The KKK resurged. And then there was the Stonewall Rebellion that produced a movement, the Gay Liberation Front, that was in the youthful radical style of the times (and the Georgia chapter began the Pride movement here).
“The Boys in the Band,” although filmed through a tragicomic lens two years after the play’s sensational debut, projected great defiance in 1970, just by the fact that it appeared a few months after Stonewall. But as the perspective of the Gay Liberation Front took hold, the play and film came to be seen at best as a sympathetic pathologizing of inherently weak but self-amused homosexuality. Like that song, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” the task was acceptance, not celebration of our existence. This tragic view long endured. Please see “Brokeback Mountain.”
Still, for old-timers, the remake connects through memory to the original’s revolutionary occurrence and reminds us that we really do live in a time at least as destructive — personally and collectively — as the ’70s. We take our acceptance for granted now, ignoring the very real effort to cancel all our legal gains. To make a long story, short: Vote your ass off, Mary.