Monday, July 13, 2009

The Boys in the Band

Last night I took a trip down Memory Lane and watched the ground breaking movie (for its time) "The Boys in the Band." This was a movie I rented from Netflix. I was reluctant to watch it at first but now I am glad I did.

I first saw "Boys in the Band" at the Midtown Theater in downtown Philadelphia in 1970. At that time it was the first major motion picture with an openly gay story line and characters. I remember how nervous I was going to the movie theater on Chestnut Street with my lover (now called "partner") of five years, Bill (yes, we're still together.) The movie theater was right across the street from the bank where I worked. As hard as it is to believe now I remember part of my nervousness was taking a chance that someone from where I worked would see me going into this movie theater that was showing a gay movie. I decided to take the chance because it was on a Saturday afternoon and the bank was closed and thus none of my co-workers would be at work. Even though I had already come out to my family and friends five years previously, I was still somewhat in the closet at work. Maybe I had one foot out the closet door.

In the cool confines of the Midtown Theater, Bill and I anxiously awaited the start of the movie. Then it started. I have to say we were somewhat shocked because all the characters in the film were realistically portrayed. Bill and I knew people like the overtly effeminate, mincing, nellie queen Emory to the self-hating homosexual Michael. From the two "normal" acting lovers Hank and Larry. And who didn't know an regal, sharp tongued queen like Harold? We all did. It was a revelation to see people we knew in our real life portrayed on the big screen for all the world to see. The straight world. And of course there isn't a gay guy who doesn't know someone like Alan, the so-called straight guy who doesn't know what he wants. Ironically, my first sexual experience was with such a man. A married man with two children who seduced me (yes, at one time I was the neophyte.)

Looking at the movie last night I was now embarrassed by the nellie antics of Emory. Sure, there are still gay guys who act like him but there are very politically incorrect in today's gay liberation environment. Also, the overall tone of the story which is about Michael, the self-hating gay man who doesn't want to be gay but if he is he wants to drag down his closeted former college roommate down with him. Back then (the 60's) there was enough homophobia to make just about any gay man hate himself for what he was.

But what was enjoyable about watching the movie again was the perfection of Leonard Frey's character, Harold. Leonard Frey to me was one of those much underrated character actors who never got his full due during his lifetime. But he did accomplish one thing, he had the one perfect role which was of Harold, the "pockmarked, ugly, Jew fairy." Leonard was magnificent.

The main character, Michael was played by Kenneth Nelson. I never heard of him before this movie and I haven't heard of him since. I think he grossly overplayed his role but maybe that is what he was supposed to do. I found watching his acting this time to be somewhat painful. Probably the reason I didn't feel that way when I first saw this movie 39 years ago was that everything was so new that I forgave actors who chewed up the scenery during their big scenes.

This movie had so many memorable quotes. Some of which are:

Michael: What's so fucking funny?
Harold: Life. Life's a goddamn laugh riot.
Michael: What is he - a psychiatrist or a hairdresser?
Donald: Actually he's both. He shrinks my head and then combs me out.
Emory: Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?
[Looking in the mirror]
Michael: There's one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don't have to look your best.
Michael: [sings] "Forget your troubles, c'mon get happy! You better chase all your cares away!" What's more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?
Donald: A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation.
[to the Cowboy, Harold's "gift"]
Hank: Would you mind waiting over there with the gifts?
Michael: You're stoned and you're late. You were supposed to arrive at this location at eight thirty dash nine o'clock.
Harold: What I am Michael is a 32 year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it's nobody's god damned business but my own. And how are you this evening?
Harold: I keep my grass in the medicine cabinet in the Band Aid box. Somebody told me it's the safest place. If the cops arrive, you can always lock yourself in the bathroom and flush it down the john.
Hank: Very cagey.
Harold: Makes more sense to where I was keeping it: in the oregano jar in the spice rack. I kept forgetting it and accidentally turning my hateful mother on with a salad. But I think she liked it. No matter what meal she comes over for, even if it was breakfast, she says
[in his mother's voice]
Harold: "Let's have a salad!"
Harold: You're a sad and pathetic man. You're a homosexual and you don't want to be, but there's nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you've go left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you'll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die.
Michael: Let's do this again real soon.
Harold: Yeah, how about a year from Shavuos?

Well said.


  1. It is a great film. Your re-review is so well put. Love the quotes. Glenn and I are always saying to each other, "I may be turning on, but your just TURNING".

  2. Mike,

    Now I know what Harold (Leonard Frey) meant when he kept saying "Turning, turning." Funny!

    I was just reading up on the cast members. What a shame that five of the six gay cast members died. Very sad.

  3. Ken Nelson was the original "boy" in The Fantastiks way back in 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. He did a few other things including a musical version of "Teahouse of the August Moon. He took his role in BITB to London and decided to stay. He died there in 93 of AIDS related infections.
    He was a great stage actor, which is why his work in BITB seems over the top. It worked on stage. I saw it.

  4. The cajun,

    Thanks for the information about Ken Nelson. I could see where he was an experienced actor. However, a couple things I found distracting was his use of the word "Kiddo" (so 40's) and faux English accent. If he and Cliff Gorman just toned down their performances a bit, this movie would have been near perfect. As it was, their over the top performances were balanced out by the understated performances of the other actors and the flawless perfection of Leonard Frey's performance. What a shame that Leonard could not have acted with Meryl Streep or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Now that would have been powerhouse performances!


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