You’re Singing for Yourself
By Sadira Sittampalam
The Boys in the Band is a 2020 film based on the 1960’s Off-Broadway play of the same name. The play was revived for its 50th anniversary in 2018, comprising of a cast of exclusively, openly gay actors who reappeared as the same characters for this film adaptation. This film takes place in 1968 before the big politicisation of homosexuality in America with the Stonewall riots and the AIDs epidemic - and as Gore Vidal put it, a time where homosexual acts existed, but not homosexual people.
Thus the film follows a group of gay ‘friends’ who reunite to celebrate one of their birthdays at an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, when the host’s straight college roommate shows up, throwing the entire evening into an increasing level of turmoil. The play intends to show gay culture openly, in a time where everything was kept under absolute secrecy. While it might have been unnecessary to adapt this into another film, considering that the original production was also adapted into a film in 1970, this film was a pretty great look at that time in history in a way that was unabashedly true about gay people and gay culture that is still relevant to this day.
The film introduces us to the host of the party, Michael, who prepares for his friend’s birthday party with one of his ex-lovers and closest confidants, Donald. Michael’s college roommate Alan then suddenly calls him in tears, asking to see him urgently. Meanwhile, the party guests slowly start to arrive. Michael warns all the attendants that Alan is straight and that he is under the impression that Michael is too, telling them to tone down their showy behaviour. While you would have certain ideas for how this sort of encounter would happen, it happens in a way that is entirely unexpected, with so much unravelled about the attitudes of the time, as well as the resentment gay people had with how they were expected to behave, simply to make other people feel comfortable. The entire film wasn’t just about the issue of homosexuality though, as it was more of a dissection into the lives of these characters and how they ended up the way they are. They all have their flaws, they all have their merits - it all just felt entirely true.
There was constant chatter throughout as this is a pretty dialogue-heavy film (understandable since it’s a play), and there isn’t a lot of opportunity to make the film very cinematic as essentially everything takes place in Michael’s apartment. Nevertheless, the film did take the opportunity to take us out of the apartment whenever it could with flashbacks and other such sequences. The apartment also got increasingly more claustrophobic as the atmosphere in there got more and more hostile and uncomfortable, so any break we could get from there was a big relief, and relieved a bit of tension as otherwise it might have been a little unbearable to watch. However the way the atmosphere was set up was so deceiving, slowly building up as the guests start to arrive. You expect there to be one person to come in and make everything fall into place, to try and help us understand why these people still hang out together even though they aren’t really even friends, but that person never arrives. The tension lingers and while it is really awkward and uncomfortable to watch at times, you can’t stop.
All the dialogue was still really intricate, individual to each character in a way that gave even the least seen person a great deal of depth. The most interesting portion of this was seeing
the evolution of Michael as he begins the day with some friendly verbal sparring with Donald, and later as he breaks his relatively short sober streak, unleashing his inherent sadness and self-loathing on everyone at the party. This points to the terrific performance of Jim Parsons as Michael, from whom I definitely did not expect this much. There is no doubt he is a good actor, but I was unsure at whether I would be able to be able to watch something with him in it and not think of the iconic Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. He exceeded my expectations to a great degree, performing in a way where you can’t see him as anybody except Michael. The way he captured all that inner turmoil and the complexity of the character by essentially avoiding it and projecting himself on everyone else was perfectly achieved while also maintaining our sympathy for this conflicted being. While everyone else in the film were also great performers and worked together with such a raw familiarity, Parsons still took the cake.
With the film taking place mostly in Michael’s apartment, the production was pretty limited, but it was still great at creating a clunky impression of Michael and all the random knick knacks he has procured over the years. The cinematography succeeded at keeping us consistently claustrophobic, confining us in this apartment, making us wait for a breath of fresh air from some different scenery.
Overall, this film is an important adaptation that never feels like any type of cash-grab, simply wishing to show of gay culture in a way that is not often shown. While it does occasionally get a little slow with the constant onslaught of dialogue, it quickly recovers with its coverage of interesting topics such as love, relationships and life philosophies. With some excellent chemistry and rapport between all the characters and an especially exceptional performance by Parsons, this film is a superb adaptation and revival.