The importance of Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band cannot be overstated. When Crowley wrote his debut and most famous work, homosexuality was still illegal in the majority of states in the US, and police harassment was a very real fear for LGBTQ people.
Ironically, mid-way through the original run of this first major piece of gay theatre — which was playing to a packed house every night — the raid on the Stonewall Inn took place. It was a time of social and political upheaval.
However, not everybody was overjoyed by the play’s raw take on gay relationships, which many viewed as problematically self-loathing. “When I was researching the society in which the characters were living in, I read a front-page article in The New York Times from the time, where they referred to homosexual men as ‘deviants’ and ‘perverts’,” director Joe Mantello told Attitude earlier this year.
"These characters would have been bombarded with these kinds of words every day, so I object to people who see these characters as self-loathing without contextualising the world in which they were living in, the images they were being shown, and how they were being framed in society.
"Once you see that, it’s easier to forgive them their foibles."
First adapted for the silver screen by William Friedkin in 1970, the play has experienced multiple revivals in the decades since. With each outing, it finds a new audience who either relate to its complex characters that are doing their best to survive in an unforgiving society, or see it as a window into the past, the shadow of which still looms large on the gay community.
The most recent Broadway revival in 2018 with its stellar cast of out queer men inspired uber producer Ryan Murphy and director Mantello to bring the hit play to the screen once more. The latest film delivers a tender, if at times uncomfortable, exposé of life in the 1960s for this group of gay men, and shares insight into how those experiences shaped the generations to come.
The movie was released in September on Netflix to rave reviews. “An invaluable record of the destructive force of societal rejection, even in a bastion of liberal acceptance like New York City,” wrote David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. “This consistently engaging film provides a vital window for young queer audiences into the difficult lives of their forebears.”
“When I look at it, I see all sorts of instances of bravery, tenderness, and grace,” says Mantello. “Shame isn’t front and centre — although it’s certainly part of the story, given the world these men live in. And let’s face it — a film about nine saints isn’t terribly compelling.”