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Will the Netflix Generation Understand ‘The Boys in the Band’?

Famed Broadway director Joe Mantello tells MEL why his adaptation of the 1968 classic meets the moment in 2020

Fifty-two years after its premiere Off-Broadway, the classic gay play The Boys in the Band by late playwright Mart Crowley is coming to Netflix. Now, though, without the trappings of a bright marquee and a Tony for Best Revival, director Joe Mantello must convince a young, entirely new, non-New Yorker audience his play isn’t just worth watching — it’s meeting the moment, too.

The Boys in the Band chronicles nine gay men over the course of one wretched 1968 dinner party on New York’s Upper East Side. Mantello’s film is a close adaptation of the 1970 original film by William Friedkin (The French Connection and The Exorcist). Mantello directed the 2018 Broadway revival, and he brought back the entire cast — all out gay men — to star in the Netflix film: alcoholic and Roman Catholic writer Michael (Jim Parsons), self-pitying dandy Harold (Zachary Quinto), neurotic Donald (Matt Bomer), non-monogamous Larry (Andrew Rannells), his monogamous partner Hank (Tuc Watkins), affable rent boy Cowboy (Charlie Carver), definatly eccentric Emory (Robin de Jesús), married man Alan (Brian Hutchison) and tender Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington).
Produced by longtime collaborator Ryan Murphy (Mantello recently appeared in his miniseries Hollywood), The Boys in the Band and its high-gloss veneer certainly looks like a Murphy production, though it’s unlike any of his other projects, like American Horror Story or The Politician. So it’s plausible to think this might be the first time a new generation of queer people — who can thank Murphy and his shows Glee and Pose for the affirming, joyful queer characters they grew up watching — will engage with this classic tale of gay self-loathing, biting one-liners and fraught friendships.

Critics seem split on how timely the new Boys feels. To some, it’s “dated and formulaic” and “of-its-moment“; to others, “brilliantly uncomfortable” and “anything but a relic.” (MEL‘s Tim Grierson called it poignant.) To Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson, it’s a missed opportunity and a sign we still have a long way to go: “There’s something awfully depressing about the fact that Hollywood (and Broadway before it) mustered up a troupe of gay actors for one of the few times in its sorry history only to toss them into such an acrid idea of the past, forcing them into this liturgy of pain.” The casting has been questioned as well: Can the barrier-busting 1968 classic be considered progressive in 2020 when seven of the nine actors are handsome, industry-established white men?

In a wide-ranging interview with MEL, Mantello makes the case for The Boys in the Band’s relevance in 2020, including why he rewrote the character of Emory as explicitly Latinx — and why you shouldn’t scroll past the predominantly white cast photo on Netflix.

Photo via Brian Bowen Smith/Netflix. ©2020 Netflix, Inc.

This is your second film. Your first was Love! Valour! Compassion! I just watched it for the first time yesterday. 

You did? It’s hard to find. 

I found it online. Probably not in a way you’ll see any money from, though.

I’ve never seen any money from it. That’s okay. [Laughs]

I was struck by its similar themes to The Boys in the Band — exploring fraught gay relationships. How did you look back at that film? It came out in 1997, over 20 years ago now.

You know, I haven’t seen it in a very, very long time because I don’t know a way to access it. But it shared some similarities with Boys in the Band. It was the first big mainstream project that I’d done that was successful. I was just at the beginning of my directing career. Gay films, or gay-themed films, at that time were very niche. There was a small audience for them. And the budget that you got reflected that limited audience. So we made that film for very, very little money. We shot it outside of Montreal in a little town. I think we shot it in 24 days. 

Where it shares a real similarity with Boys in the Band is, my gratitude to both sets of actors is enormous. They were so able to be flexible and go with the flow. The making of Love! Valour! Compassion! was very, very stressful. And making of Boys in the Band was an absolute joy from beginning to end. 

I want to talk a bit about the genesis for your revival. You’ve mentioned having wrestled with Boys relevance and legacy; you told Deadline earlier this week you decided you found it “less problematic” than you originally thought. What became less problematic?

My experience with Mart’s play over the years had more to do with where I was in my life. As someone who is 57 years old, I allow for and I’m interested in nuance and not being reductive. It’s why I think I am so… skeptical of social media. I certainly understand its benefits, but it doesn’t make sense to me because it doesn’t allow for nuance.

My understanding — perhaps you can disagree with me — is, I think for a long time I just subscribed to that [gay self-loathing] theory of the play. Since working on it, I’ve been amazed at how three-dimensional these characters are. We didn’t change a word of the script, but I would say to you that I think that if you watch the Friedkin version and our version back to back, tonally they feel really different. Yet we were working from the same screenplay. I love the Friedkin version. But it’s just 50 years on, and we’re doing something different. Part of my task was to excavate what else was there. [And] I think I see real tenderness there. I see forgiveness. I see loyalty. All of those things that I love in my friends, I tried to — or we tried to — excavate in these characters.

Like you, I’m a lapsed Catholic. Both big Italian-Catholic families and gay friend groups (like in The Boys in the Band) have strong familial ties — these close-knit communities where there is a lot of love, but within that love, sometimes you only see anger.

Yeah. The thing that I look for in my friends is loyalty. If you want to betray me, you will be disloyal. I really struggle with that. I can forgive anything. I hope my friends allow me to have moments where I stumble and where I’m not the best version of myself that I could be. But I stand up for my friends. You know, maybe it is that Italian part of me that I have that expectation of them.

It’s an ability to show up. There can be fights, but you show up.

I’ve had boyfriends before who have not understood that. You could have what seems like fiery argument, and then about a minute later you’re like, “So what are we gonna have to eat?” [Laughs] And they’re reeling from what’s happened. I don’t know. I think I’m temperamentally the very definition of the Italian cliche.

How else is the new Boys in the Band different?

We are looking at it from the luxury of being 50-plus years old, right? So we know that the story didn’t end there. And you’re looking at this cast of nine actors, and they are the beneficiaries of the last 50 years. So of course their approach to the material is going to incorporate all of that, and there are going to be other aspects of the play that we find interesting. There’s a kind of an eroticism that we can bring to it. That just wouldn’t have been possible in 1968. And we’re comfortable with that.

That makes sense now as a completed product, but was this nuance something you were aware of when you first started working on it?

No, it was instinctual. I hoped, and I trusted that by making really smart choices in terms of collaborators that something else could emerge because I thought the play was sturdy enough that it could withstand another kind of approach.

If I can be honest with you, one of my concerns is that both Netflix and Ryan Murphy have many young adult and teen fans. They may not have that understanding or, even in some cases, know that it is an adaptation. 

Mhm.

Are you worried that the nuances won’t be clear for them?

Say more about that. I want to understand your question.

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not the film fits this current moment. For a younger audience who doesn’t know the history of The Boys in the Band, is there a concern that they might take it on face value without really knowing that it’s part of a bigger history?

Well, but doesn’t that make sort of the case for it to exist? That kind of historical amnesia is not something that serves anyone. But by having a fuller picture of our history, it allows us to appreciate what we have now and understand the cost of oppression. I have to say, interestingly enough — and this is based on the play — it was not the younger audience that had an issue with it.

You mean the response to your revival?

Yes, the subject matter. In fact, the younger audience was much more willing to draw parallels to their own lives. The number of times a young person said to me, “That’s just like my group of friends.” Obviously it’s not scientific, but I’d say I don’t worry about that.

Well the reason I asked is, there is the original 1970 film. As a director, how do you make sure your version is not just a museum piece? That it’s not just a retelling for the sake of having an artifact — that it’s still an interesting film for 2020. I believe it is, but I’m wondering, from your perspective as a director, how you manage to do that. It still has to have a certain amount of entertainment value.

Right. What you’re identifying is one of the challenges of taking on the material. You have to have one foot firmly planted in the past in some way. You have to say, this is a story that exists in a very specific time with this specific group of actors. But you also have to look at it from the perspective of what the intervening 50 years have brought. It allows you a couple different things. You can contextualize the anger, the shame and the self-loathing and know that it isn’t necessarily a permanent state. Right? 

Yes.

But you have to see it in relation to — and one of the things that I hope we show in the film is, in little ways — what they were up against. What were the messages that were being sent to them about who they were? So when they arrive in this little oasis of an apartment and they’re able to kind of just freely be who they are, and there’s a performative aspect of it as well.

It’s why we added a little shot about 20 or 30 minutes into the film. I’m hoping at that point the audience is having a good time and enjoying the party. Then the buzzer rings, and it’s the delivery boy from the bakery. Emory makes a joke, and you see that [elderly] couple pass through the doorway. His line is “Lily Law. Everybody’s six feet apart.” [Meaning], we can’t be dancing, that’s against the law, right? I don’t know that that’s going to resonate with a contemporary audience, but that couple kind of looking in and everybody freezing — it was meant to be a little reminder of the stakes.

As you mentioned, you keep it almost pretty identical to the script of the original. Why not do a 2020 version?

I, frankly, don’t think that there could be a 2020 version. First of all, I don’t think there’s any need for it to be 2020. I think people in 2020 are capable of writing brilliant plays and movies. And bring it on. We need more of it. But this is a very, very specific story, and there are certain things that are built into the fabric of the story that are so specific to the time period. The minute you introduce a cellphone, the story is just different. 

Right.

That ticking time bomb of the phone being passed from person to person is one of the things that gives the last third of the film its tension, I hope. I also think, in 1968 for one man to say to another man, “I love you,” it’s enormous. It’s an enormous risk. Does the same hold true today? I’m not sure. The stakes just aren’t the same.

Another concern, again from a younger perspective, is that on the surface Boys may seem like it’s just another Ryan Murphy production with a bunch of white gay actors.

Well, I think I think if you’re looking at a poster and you have a knee-jerk response, I understand that response. But if you’re divorcing it from the context of the plot of the play, that I don’t understand. That’s what I’m talking about when I say nuance. [The response is] just, I’m going to see a poster and I’m going to register my disgruntled opinion about who’s in it. Right?

Well that’s the fascinating thing about the medium. Unfortunately, that is how a lot of people consume Netflix: You just get the banner, and you pick the thing that looks the most interesting.

Right. But I think that if one were to, god forbid, try to do some research and understand the plot of this movie, [the criticism] doesn’t work. 

One of the things — this was Ryan’s original idea — was, let’s look at the character of Emory. Who’s probably, in 2020, super-problematic. He said, this is a chance for us to really re-examine this role and to bring a different spin to it. He said, can we cast it with an actor of color? I said, I think it is an amazing idea, and I know the perfect actor, Robin de Jesús. But you can’t have another Black character in it. Or it doesn’t make sense because of how it affects the character of Bernard. That really cruel moment that’s acted out on him. If there are two Black men in that room, it’s a different thing. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does. My favorite thing about the adaptation compared to the original is how Emory interacts with Bernard — it has so much more substance now. The same words have a different weight in this version when they’re said by a Latinx person and a Black person.

Yeah, I don’t like to give a lot of credence to critics. But I read something the other day where someone said we took a character that was Caucasian and made them Latinx to alleviate the white racism that’s in the play. Well, first of all, we haven’t alleviated the white racism. [Laughs]

Also, aren’t you arguing… there is nothing in Mart’s script that says the character of Emory is Caucasian. Aren’t we at a time in our history where we want to make those kinds of choices because of how it can illuminate the script? I think by having Emory be Latinx and Bernard played by a Black actor, it does something really remarkable to that relationship that’s deeply complicated and did not exist in the original film. This man seemed to be making a case against… It was mind-blowing to me. I thought, Someone needs to call you on this.

Who are you speaking about?

I don’t remember his name.

But the critic is what you’re mentioning?

Yes. 

That was Ryan’s idea to make Emory Latinx?

It was Ryan’s idea to explore a different way into the character of Emory. One of which was, is he a person of color? I said, well, I don’t think he can be portrayed by a Black actor because of the [previous] reason. But I knew Robin because I had just seen him in Broadway plays. 

I do want to ask, though, in addition to your explanation, why just that one character? Someone like Cowboy could have been a person of color. Maybe you disagree. Why just the Emory character? 

Well, can you think of someone else in the play that could have been a person of color?

I think Cowboy as depicted in the movie could have been any race really.

Well, it’s just that I think that when someone is hurling slurs around the room, you just have to be mindful of how much you are disrupting the storytelling. In some way, that perceived hierarchy of that room is an important component in the story. And just broadening it to broaden it, I think is doing a disservice to… Now, perhaps someone can prove me wrong. I’ve been wrong before, and would be happy to be wrong about this. It’s just, somehow, [changing the race of other characters] would seem to soften or change the storytelling in a very profound way. 

Have other people expressed these issues with you? Or is this something that you’ve found has not been a talking point?

Well, we live in a world now where people have lots of opinions, so I don’t go looking for them. But obviously, you hear things. But I do really think that if I went down that rabbit hole, I would never make another thing in my entire life. 

I see what you’re saying: The film works because the power dynamics in the room are so specific. Moving on to how you broaden the story from the stage to the screen: One of the things that I really loved is at the end, you get to see that they live in a bigger world beyond the apartment. 

Are you talking about specifically the ending of the movie?

Yes. Jim Parsons’ character, Michael. There’s the mystery of where he’s running. Was that intentional? 

Isn’t that an interesting question to talk about after you see it with your friends?

It was just instinctual. Something that I wrote down when I was working on the script … Michael runs. I forgot about it. We were shooting the scene that night. It was chaos because there were hundreds of people around looking at Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. We knew it was the ending of the movie, so we were trying to stay focused. We did the scene a couple of times. He just walked away, and that was the ending shot. I said to him, “Do you want to try anything else? I think we’ve got it.” And he said, as a joke, “Well, I suppose I could run.” 

It’s open-ended, but I instinctively think he went to the church. He was running to catch mass, as you do when you’re late.

Ryan, when he first saw it, said, “Why do you have that shot of him running back to Donald?”

Oh, is that… You’re not gonna say.

I’m not trying to avoid the question. But to me, it’s a metaphor for this man’s life. He says it early on. He’s always running, running, running. Is he running toward his future or running away from his past? I don’t know, but to me it’s a nod to what’s around the corner.

You said in an interview with Deadline that it’s important to consider this is 50 years after the original play. I’m curious what you think, or hope, will be the reception to your play in 50 years.

I don’t know. I was thinking about that original cast in the Friedkin film. There are two surviving members of that cast who I think are just in shock at the wide reception that it’s about to receive. What you’re seeing is a cast of actors who are the beneficiaries of those men who came before — straight and gay — who were willing to risk their careers for the story. 

And maybe that’s what we’ll say again?

Yeah, in 50 years from now, who knows what the world [will] be like? But I do think the play is a classic, and I think other people will take a swing at it and find other things. I do believe the play is that deep.

Regardless of the time period, there are some sort of resounding truths to The Boys in the Band?

Yes, about human beings and humanity. I do think it’s there. I think I’ve said this before. My admiration for the play has really grown in the three years that I’ve been working on it.

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