Drinks, dancing, dinner, self-loathing

Director William Friedkin talks about revisiting his pre-Stonewall lightning rod "The Boys in the Band" -- and his peculiar role in the history of gay film.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published November 24, 2008 11:51AM (EST)

CBS Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment

A scene from "The Boys in the Band."

Two years before he won the best-director Oscar for his genre-shaping cop thriller "The French Connection," William Friedkin made an entirely different film, one that was in its own way every bit as revolutionary. Friedkin's 1970 "The Boys in the Band," which imported its script and its entire cast from Mart Crowley's off-Broadway dinner-party smash, wasn't quite the first gay-themed film in mainstream release. But it may have been the first one to offer an (almost) entirely gay cast of characters, and certainly depicted its specific social milieu -- creative-class gay male Manhattanites, circa 1969 -- with a frankness and intensity almost no one in the American audience had ever encountered.

The new CBS/Paramount DVD of "The Boys in the Band," personally supervised by Friedkin, is clearly an attempt to rehabilitate the picture's tarnished reputation (as well as to make it look and sound better than it has in many years). Both the play and film were long viewed in some quarters of the gay community as an embarrassment, a minstrel show of campy, queeny self-hatred staged for a straight audience's amusement. This was never remotely fair to the glittering twists, turns and dark places of Crowley's script, nor to Friedkin's bravura direction, and stemmed in the first place from an especially boring version of representational politics.

No doubt some viewers were offended that a straight director was handed the keys to the screen version of a breakthrough gay play. One can argue the pros and cons of Cliff Gorman's confrontational performance as Emory, the play and film's most outrageously effeminate character, but at the time some people had issues with the fact that Gorman was a married heterosexual. (This was long before playing a flamboyant gay character became a vital resume-builder for any straight actor longing to be taken seriously.) In fact, Gorman takes his character through one of the play's most interesting transformations, and as the evening's dinner party gets ever more dire, Emory's cartoonish self-display breaks open to reveal a noble, wounded, highly sympathetic human being.

To claim that Friedkin must be a homophobe, or Crowley a self-loathing gay, for creating such a bitter, strange and angry work is to misunderstand everything about "The Boys in the Band" -- its context, its subject, its meaning. In fairness, I should add that contemporary gay audiences and artists seem to have embraced the film. In a mini-documentary on the DVD, playwright Tony Kushner describes "The Boys in the Band" as a profoundly influential masterpiece, and I think he's right. If it isn't quite the "Invisible Man" of gay culture, it might be the "Native Son."

If "The Boys in the Band" made people uncomfortable, whether they were gay or straight (and still does so, 38 years later), that's because it was designed to. Of course the seven gay men who descend on the apartment of high-living, perennially broke Michael (Kenneth Nelson) are wrestling with self-hatred. It's the late '60s, the world has been turned upside down, straight people (or at least straight men) are celebrating the Sexual Revolution -- and they belong to a group that has been thoroughly left behind, and remains the most reviled, oppressed and ignored of minorities. That's not a situation designed to foster self-esteem.

Much of the drama in "The Boys in the Band" revolves around the unexpected arrival of Alan (Peter White), Michael's presumed-straight college roommate. No moment in the film is as telling as the scene when Michael tells his guests they've got to clean up their act to avoid shocking Alan -- basically, they can't come off like a bunch of flaming fairies in front of this respectable citizen -- and despite a little good-natured grumbling they all go along with it. These are Michael's friends (and his long-suffering boyfriend Donald, played by Frederick Combs) in Michael's house, at a rowdy private party. And all it takes is the arrival of one possible hetero -- OK, spoiler, but Michael has long suspected Alan is a closet case -- to get them all standing around awkwardly with their drinks, vaguely pretending that they just accidentally happened to end up at this party without any chicks (and then accidentally started dancing together on the patio to Martha and the Vandellas).

Alan is only one of the unresolved ambiguities in Crowley's script, which is a masterful exercise in indirection and withholding information. A still stranger one is Harold (Leonard Frey), the self-described "ugly, pockmarked Jew faggot" whose birthday is being celebrated. Harold arrives in Friedkin's film late, and roughly the way the shark arrives in "Jaws," as a terrifying and mysterious presence, who sometimes seems malevolent and at other times impersonal. There's obviously a poisoned past relationship between Harold and Michael, but we don't learn much about it, even if the sadistic telephone game Michael inflicts on the drunken assemblage -- you have to call the person you've always loved and tell them the truth -- provides some clues.

Friedkin was still a year away from making "The French Connection" and three years away from "The Exorcist" when he made "The Boys in the Band," but viewed in the context of his entire career it's easy to see what drew him to Crowley's play. He's long been devoted to pushing audiences out of their comfort zone into unexplored and unknown realms. In that sense, you might say that his interest in homosexuality, both here and in the 1980 Al Pacino leather-boy murder mystery "Cruising" -- another powerful, intriguing and unfairly demonized picture -- was generic rather than specific. Nothing was darker or more troubling in those years, in terms of mainstream American morals and mores, than what gay men did with each other and to each other in private.

Friedkin himself has had a star-studded history of heterosexuality, including previous marriages to actresses Jeanne Moreau and Lesley-Anne Down. His current wife is former Paramount CEO Sherry Lansing. At 73, he's now a part-time filmmaker (his last release was the modest 2007 indie hit "Bug") who spends much of his time directing operas for major European and American companies. He called me last week from his Los Angeles office to talk about the recent DVD restorations of "The Boys in the Band" and "Cruising," his forthcoming memoir and a certain house he used to walk past as a Chicago schoolkid.

I hadn't seen "The Boys in the Band" for many years until I got this DVD, and I had no idea whether it would seem like a relic. It's such a good film!

 You know, I hadn't seen it either. When Paramount and CBS decided to put it out on DVD, and contacted me about working on it, I looked at it again, I'm pretty sure, for the first time since I made it. I was amazed by how terrific the writing is, and how great the acting is. And I will say, I was not displeased by the work I had done. I don't feel like that about all my films, believe me.

I'm sure you've heard or read people over the years complaining about how the film portrays gay men, that it's a litany of negative and hateful stereotypes or whatever. On the DVD you say that if you were making it now you might dial back Cliff Gorman's performance as Emory a little. Does that mean you agree with those criticisms, at least a little?

I certainly didn't agree with that attitude, but in some cases i understood what they were talking about. I mean, the film came out when gay liberation was just taking hold. There were protests against police raids at a gay bar in L.A. called the Black Cat [in 1967], and about a year later there was the Stonewall riot in New York. [actually in June 1969]. We've come a long way since then. Well, at least up to the point of Prop. 8, which I found that very strange. I mean, Obama carries California by an overwhelming margin, and those same people vote against gay marriage. It doesn't make sense to me.

My initial interest in the film was that it had a great script, and fantastic actors who embodied those roles. I saw it as a love story that had great humor and finally pathos. It never occurred to me that it was up there on screen to make a statement. I never remember talking even once to Mart Crowley [who both wrote and produced the film] about trying to make a statement about gay people. The story wasn't about gay people. It was about these people that he knew, and presented and captured with great integrity.

Mart's screenplay is marvelous, it's a very underrated screenplay. I'll tell you, I think this movie did a lot to break down barriers. If it wasn't for "Boys in the Band," a lot of gay characters who appear just by the way in TV and film wouldn't exist. We paved the way for "Will and Grace." I really believe that.

It's an extraordinary job of translating a play into a film. You stick to the same claustrophobic space as the play, that one cramped, vertical apartment, but it's definitely a movie and not a filmed play. There's a lot of camera movement, but it's very elegant, very carefully paced. The way you shot it seems very well thought-out.

Again, it's all due to the brilliance of Crowley's script. Until I watched it again, I didn't even remember that i had broken it down into three different stylistic phases as the film moves along and gets darker. In the first third, I had the actors move around a lot while the camera moves with them. There are no arbitrary tracking shots. As you follow them, you follow their basic routine. I always had in mind Fitzgerald's phrase that action is character -- what a character does is who he or she is.

Then, by the middle of the film you've gotten to know the characters, and the camera settles down. There's still some movement but not nearly so much. Then, by the third part of the film the camera is almost stationary. I'll tell you, it was a real discovery to see this picture after 38 years. I didn't remember it being as well done as it is.

You took a lot of heat 10 years later for another movie with gay characters. "Cruising" is also out on DVD now, and also ripe for reappraisal. One thing I was thinking while watching "Boys in the Band" was that the characters in those two movies might be gay men living on the same island, but they'd never meet. They live in different worlds.

That's true, and for me there's absolutely no connection between them. "Cruising" came directly out of "The Exorcist," and I'll tell you how. There was this fellow [Paul Bateson] who's in "The Exorcist" briefly, in a scene I shot at NYU Medical Center when the little girl is given an arteriogram to see if she has brain damage. He actually was a technician there, and five or six years later, this guy was charged with several murders in some downtown gay bars. In fact, he was convicted of murdering Addison Verrill, who was a critic for Variety. I read about it in the Daily News and went to see him on Rikers Island. He told me, "Yeah, it's possible I may have lost it and killed Verrill." And then he told me that the cops were willing to cut him a deal if he'd confess to seven or eight unsolved crimes, murders that up to that point they hadn't pinned on anybody.

So that got me intrigued. The other thing was that I knew this cop named Randy Jurgensen, an undercover officer who had pretty much the same assignment that Al Pacino has in "Cruising," to go into the leather bars and be a regular there. He was a straight guy, a married guy, but he had experiences in those places and he came out of that assignment with a lot of confusion. Along with that, I was reading a Village Voice columnist named Arthur Bell, who was writing these revelatory articles about what was happening in the leather bars, all these deaths, all these unsolved and strange events. All of that piqued my interest. But remember, it was always meant to be the background for a murder mystery. An exotic background -- there weren't too many people who knew about the existence of those bars. But it had nothing to do with "Boys in the Band" or my attitude about gay people. I had none.

It occurs to me that what ties those movies together, and your other movies too, is a desire to go beyond what's acceptable, and push the audience into a somewhat uncomfortable place, a world it doesn't know about. Is that fair?

Yes, I think that's exactly right. It wasn't a conscious thing. You hold up a flashlight in the dark and move toward it. I've always tended to move toward the unknown and explore it as much as I can. I'm writing a memoir now, and I've started thinking about my childhood. When I was 12 years old and starting high school, every day I would walk by this house -- a well-appointed house in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago -- where there had been a dismemberment of a little girl. Every day I'd walk by and wonder who, what and where. [The convicted murderer in that controversial case, William Heirens, remains in prison at age 80, still protesting his innocence.]

It fascinated me. The whole question of what happens in the human mind. Who does such a thing, and why? All my interest in that stuff, in the unfamiliar and unknown, started there. There's no reason why a 12-year-old should be interested in stuff like that.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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