The Queer Issue
In 1970, The Boys in the Band—Mart Crowley's darkly comic psychodrama chronicling a night in the lives of nine gay friends in then-contemporary Manhattan—burst onto the big screen, bringing a deeply edgy theatrical work from off-Broadway into American cinemas, and engraving countless gay men's psyches with the line: "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse."
Two years earlier, Crowley's play had galvanized the New York theater scene, thanks to an ace cast and Crowley's mercilessly acerbic script, which captured pre-Stonewall gay life with unprecedented depth and precision. There wasn't much precedent to compete with—before Boys, theatrical depictions of homosexuals were primarily restricted to insider code (the various brilliant machinations of Tennessee Williams) and grim, simplistic moralizing (the well-hung dyke of The Children's Hour). But The Boys in the Band put gay life center stage, and in 1970, Crowley's anal-warts-and-all saga became the gayest film in history—a title it holds to this day. (Sorry, Top Gun.)
Directed by William Friedkin (who'd later helm both Cruising and The Exorcist), The Boys in the Band tracks a booze-fueled party gone horribly wrong in real time, with Albee's bourgeois academics replaced by Crowley's embittered queers. The entire off-Broadway cast reprised their roles on film—most notably, Kenneth Nelson as the lapsed-Catholic-alcoholic Michael, and Leonard Frey as the brutish wit Harold.
The Boys in the Band paints a resolutely bleak portrait of gay life, where the closest thing to happiness any queer could hope for was a group of similarly afflicted friends, whose reciprocal cruelty makes self-loathing a communal affair, and who occasionally perform choreographed girl-group lip-synchs with you; the film probably drove more gay men into reparative therapy than Jesus and John Paulk combined. Still, facing off with The Boys in the Band is a key rite of passage for all gays and those who love them; in this ongoing age of destructive sex and meth abuse, Michael's anguished closing plea—"If only we could learn to hate ourselves a little bit less"—remains tragically relevant.