When playwright Edward Albee objected to his drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? being performed by an all-male cast, his injunction prevented the catastrophe now on view in Netflix’s The Boys in the Band. It’s a film version of a stage play in which nine men gather for a birthday party that collapses into funny-bitter clashes showing off their insecurities. As a Millennial version of the 1968 play that Mart Crowley already slyly derived from Albee, this film doubles down — four-fold — on the too-obvious idea of gay men bitching among themselves. Albee knew that would grossly politicize the exploration of human illusions in his theatrical landmark.
Ironically, Netflix’s The Boys in the Band is conceived to be a landmark like the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, using Crowley’s Albee knock-off to make superfluous, overly knowing political commentary on Millennial gay consciousness. The cast, headed by Jim Parsons as the party host Michael, Zachery Quinto as birthday honoree Harold, and Robin de Jesus as their most effeminate friend Emory, go about promoting the film by acknowledging their own experience as gay men (ethnically diverse, too). Their idea of art as psychotherapy (“I feel seen,” says Parsons) adds little to the film’s dramatic meaning but, instead, works as cultural intimidation. Netflix inflates Crowley’s subculture curio, insisting that it be given the same dominant culture reverence as Albee’s masterpiece.
This modernized Boys in the Band is yet another example of Netflix’s political program. It emphasizes the spectacle of a stigmatized group acting out its oppression to sustain the progressive social engineering practiced by Netflix and other competing streaming services. But it’s also cultural engineering from a now-privileged group of industry professionals, starting with producer Ryan Murphy, who adds this adaption to his unsavory brand: TV’s Glee, American Horror Story, Feud: Bette and Joan, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and the miniseries Hollywood.
Murphy has altered mainstream media’s mindscape about gay sensibility; what used to be known as camp is now suspiciously politically correct. His finger-wagging, often horrifying methods are also humorless. Murphy and Broadway director Joe Mantello reboot the 1970 film version of The Boys in the Band that William Friedkin directed by making the characters slightly less pathetic — essentially the 50-year difference between actors’ body language and physical image.
Friedkin’s film was not homophobic; in his typically unsubtle way, he worked against homophobia by opening up the play, providing the context of a pre-Stonewall, closeted society. (His 1980 Cruising was similarly unsubtle.) Friedkin’s time-capsule authenticity included stagey performances. The ones in the Netflix version are less forced: Parsons’ pixie specialty is not so broad as Kenneth Nelson’s was, but Quinto is trapped re-creating the impossible bitch-queen truth-teller, which isn’t a character but simply Leonard Frey’s show-stealing legend. The difference, again, illustrates how Albee wrote poetry while Mart Crowley manufactured shock theater — no wonder Ryan Murphy thinks The Boys in the Band is a classic.
The character revelations offered by Murphy and Mantello are no longer shocking, but the gay male showing-off that their actor-activists consider courageous has limited effect. Think of how Robert Altman’s adaptation of Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean gave more than context; he brought out the play’s subtext, which made its story rich, resonant, and not just gay. The Boys in the Band now exhibits the typical Millennial segregation of race, sex, and class experience.