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Theatre / The Boys in the Band

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"I don't understand any of it, I never did."

Michael: What's so fucking funny?
Harold: Life. Life's a goddamn laugh riot.

Michael, a gay recovering alcoholic, along with friend and sometime lover Donald, is throwing a party for his buddy Harold's 32nd birthday. The guests include flaming queen Emory and his best friend Bernard, seemingly straight schoolteacher Hank and his monogamy-impaired lover Larry, and "Cowboy", Emory's gift for the guest of honor. However, their fun is cut short by the arrival of an unexpected party guest - Alan, Michael's questionably heterosexual college chum. This, along with Michael falling Off the Wagon, leads to a night of soul-searching and all of the guests being forced to confront the most uncomfortable aspects of themselves.

The Boys in the Band is an off-Broadway play written by Mart Crowley which premiered in 1968. It was faithfully adapted into a film (starring the original stage cast) by William Friedkin in 1970. When it first opened, it was notable for the being first mainstream play (and film) to treat gay people in a direct and realistic way rather than cloaking it in subtext or portraying the characters as freaks. Furthermore, to quote Vito Russo, "The internalized guilt of eight gay men at a Manhattan birthday party formed the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form."

As it turned out, it was gay liberation itself that made The Boys in the Band go from being groundbreaking and revolutionary to a being a nasty relic of the Bad Old Days™ in the near instant, thanks to its bad timing. While the play was released in 1968, the Stonewall Riots occured in 1969 — and the film had the bad sense to be released in 1970 during the height of gay liberation. For years, it was often demonized as being not only dated, but flagrantly offensive. Over time, however, it's been re-vindicated by history, with more and more people recognizing it as a classic, eventually leading to a stage revival in 1996, a long overdue DVD release in 2008, another stage revival for the 50th anniversary in 2018, and a Netflix film remake starring the 2018 Broadway cast.

Tropes used:

  • Accidental Misnaming:
    Michael: (to Alan) My name is Michael. I am called Michael. You must never call anyone called Michael "Mickey". Those of us who are named Michael are very nervous about it.
  • Always Camp: Emory is an interior decorator and Harold's a former figure skater.
  • Ambiguously Bi:
    • Hank has an ex wife and kids and is described as swinging both ways but preferring men. However, it’s not entirely clear if this preference means he's gone the other way and it didn't work or if he's genuinely attracted to women but legitimately likes men better.
    • Alan is adamant that he only likes women, but the text has enough backing for him to be played as a man who’s attracted to both sexes and is only open about one of them.
  • Ambiguously Gay:
    • Alan, although he says that he's straight.
    • Bernard says that he fooled around a little with the son of his and his mother's employer, and when he calls, she tells him that her son is getting divorced again, indicating that he can't hold relationships with women.
  • Author Avatar: Michael is Mart Crowley's self-admitted Author Avatar. All of the characters represent Crowley, according to an interview.
  • Badass Boast:
    Harold: You're warning me? Me? I'm Harold. I'm the one person you don't warn, Michael, because you and I tread too heavily with each other, and we both play each other's game too well. I know this game you're playing, I know it very well and I play it very well. You play it very well too, but you know what? I'm the only one who's better at it than you are. I can beat you at it so don't push me. I'm warning you.
  • Berserk Button: Let's just say that Alan doesn't like Emory's "kind of talk."
    • For Bernard, anyone but him and Emory making racist cracks about black people.
  • Big Entrance: Harold's arrival at the party. His deadpan facial expression and dark glasses make him seem like a rather sinister character, until he sees Cowboy's card and starts giggling.
  • Bisexual Love Triangle: Hank left his wife to be with Larry. According to both his own comments and Michael's, Hank really did love his wife, but his desire for men was far stronger than any feelings he could have for a woman.
  • The Cameo: The fat woman in black Emory shares a glance with during the opening was Elaine Kaufman, owner of the then-famous celebrity restaurant Elaine's. Also Maud Adams as the fashion model during Larry's photo shoot scene.
  • Camp Gay: Most of the characters to varying degrees, but especially Emory. Done in a "laughing with" way rather than the usual "laughing at", and the characters are treated as people rather than as simple caricatures.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Michael has quite the craving for scenery.
  • Coming-Out Story: Hank, who's in the process of divorcing his wife that he cheated on to be with Larry.
  • Country Matters: A Running Gag.
    Michael: Sunt! That's French, with a cedilla.
    • Later:
      Michael: Donald, you are a real card-carrying cunt!note 
  • Darkest Hour: Most of the second half.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Harold. Extra emphasis on the "snarker" part.
    • Michael also is an artist at "the read", but Harold out-snarks him.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Harold is featured in the film's poster and tagline, but only makes his first appearance midway through the movie, at which point Michael had long been established as the main protagonist.
  • Dramedy: With quite a bit of Mood Whiplash between the comedic and dramatic aspects.
  • Dysfunction Junction
  • Establishing Character Moment: Harold has quite the memorable entrance.
  • Fire-Forged Friends / Odd Friendship: Emory and Alan, which is snarked drunkenly at by Michael.
    Michael: Christ, now you're both joined at the goddamned hip!
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: While the first half has drama and the second half has comedy, the show gets much more serious midway through.
  • Five-Token Band: As noted by Pauline Kael, the characters are like a "40's movie bomber-crew."
  • Flaw Exploitation: Michael and Harold are experts at what is known as "the read" in the gay community. Unfortunately for the former, the latter is better at it and gives him one hell of a "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
  • Gallows Humor: Michael declares that the lasagna the group are eating is actually Sebastian Venable. The Cowboy doesn't know the reference - told, he remarks, "Jesus..."
  • Gayngst: By the truckload.
  • The Heart:
    • Harold, all of it hidden beneath his Deadpan Snarker and Gallows Humor persona. It takes several viewings to realize this about Harold. On first viewing, he looks more like a Stepford Smiler.
    • Emory. He cares deeply for people, and does his best to be a good hostess, even though it's not his duty. He's the closest to Bernard, and genuinely cares about Alan's trauma, despite being attacked earlier.
  • Hidden Depths: "I may be nelly, Michael, but I'm no coward."
  • Informed Judaism: Harold.
    Harold: How could his beauty ever compare with my soul? And although I've never seen my soul, I understand from my mother's rabbi that it's a knockout. I, however, cannot seem to locate it for a gander, and if I could, I'd sell it in a flash, for some skin-deep, transitory, meaningless beauty.
  • Insistent Terminology: Emory calls everyone a "she", including Alan. Harold does the same.
    Harold: (meeting Alan) Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?
  • In Vino Veritas: Michael's one nasty, self-loathing drunk.
    Harold: (on Michael) Beware the hostile fag. When he's sober, he's dangerous. When he drinks, he's lethal.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses. Harold, though he literally wears purple glasses.
  • Jerkass: Michael, once he gets drunk
  • The Lancer: Harold to Michael.
  • Less Embarrassing Term: "Notice nowhere is it called hair spray — just simply, 'Control.' And the words 'For Men' are written about thirty-seven times all over the goddamn can."
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title comes from A Star Is Born.
  • Lovable Alpha Bitch: Harold. He is in many ways the group's Team Mom: He reassures Emory about his cooking when no one else does, makes sure Bernard will be taken care of, defends Cowboy from moments of bullying — all while remaining the master Deadpan Snarker. He even demonstrates Tough Love with Michael.
  • Love Hurts: A key theme throughout the play/movie, especially during the harrowing telephone game.
  • Manly Gay: Hank. Speaks in a deep voice, introduces himself with a firm handshake, used to play college basketball, and is shown shooting hoops in the film's opening montage. He is also married with two children, though in the process of getting a divorce.
    Emory: Who has beer before dinner?!
    Hank: Beer drinkers.
  • The Masochism Tango: Emory and Bernard, Michael and Donald. Michael and Harold? Is there a Sadism Tango?
  • Mr. Fanservice: Robert La Tourneaux as Cowboy.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Michael''s "icks" attack at the end.
  • Noodle Incident: Something happened between Alan and Justin Stewart, but exactly what is never learned.
  • No-Sell: Michael attempts to read Harold ("You starve yourself, all day, living on coffee and cottage cheese, so you can gorge yourself on one meal, and then you feel guilty... And this pathological lateness... standing in front of a bathroom mirror, for hours and hours before you can walk onto the street, and then looking no different...") but Harold turns right around, unfazed, and lands a critical shot on constantly in-debt Michael, who pays for everything on credit:
    Harold: What you're saying may be true. Time will undoubtedly tell. In the meantime, you left out one detail: the cosmetics and astringents are PAID FOR, the bathroom is PAID FOR, the tweezers are PAID FOR, and the pills are PAID FOR.
  • Not That There's Anything Wrong with That: Alan's unconvincing attempt to tell Michael that he has nothing against being gay.
    • Of course, the theory that Alan is a closet queen adds an interesting subtext.
  • N-Word Privileges: Emory, literally, (though ironically once Bernard openly addresses this it causes Emory to swear to never do it again) but all of the characters have no trouble calling each other "fags" and other slurs - with no malice at first. Lampshaded by Michael when he drunkenly rants at Alan some dated gay slurs like "sodomite".
    • Invoked by Bernard at Michael.
      Michael: Well, that’s a knee-slapper! I love your telling him about dignity when you allow him to degrade you constantly by Uncle Tom-ing you to death.
      Bernard: He can do it, Michael. I can do it. But you can’t do it.
      Michael: Isn’t that discrimination?
      Bernard: I don’t like it from him and I don’t like it from me – but I do it myself and I let him do it. I let him do it because it’s the only thing that, to him, makes him my equal. We both got the short end of the stick – but I got a hell of a lot more than he did and he knows it. I let him Uncle Tom me just so he can tell himself he’s not a complete loser.
    • However, when Bernard is on the phone with his crush's mother, he tells her, "It's Bernard. Francine's boy." Emory injects, "Son, not boy."
  • Off the Wagon. Michael has stopped drinking for five weeks, to prevent anxiety attacks, but falls off the wagon - hard - during Harold's birthday party.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Michael remarks that something must be really wrong with Alan for him to break down and start crying on the phone.
    Michael: [Alan] was crying on the phone, and that's not like him at all. He's so pulled together he wouldn't show any emotion if he was in a plane crash.
  • Parallel Porn Titles: Boys in the Sand, a landmark gay porn film.
  • Parlor Games: Michael pressures the guests into a playing a game which involves calling the one person they truly believe they've loved and telling them how they feel. This does not go down well.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: The play was revived in the UK in 2016, with Mark Gatiss as Harold. While promoting the production on TV, he said that gay men often quote lines from the play without realising it.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: "Anything Goes" in the film; however, since it was performed by Harpers Bizarre, it was a licensed version.
  • Real Time: The play is all one long continuous scene
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
    Harold: Now it's my turn, and ready or not, Michael, here goes: 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 got 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.
  • Recycled In Space. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? WITH GAYS! Or at least ones that aren't ambiguous, outside of Alan.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • The inscription on Michael's gift is enough to cause a genuinely heartfelt thank you from the usually cold Harold, but he won't tell anyone else what it said.
    • Basically everything about Alan.
      • What did he want to tell Michael?
      • What causes him to flip flop on telling whatever it was and attending the party?
      • Did he really have an affair with another man in college?
      • Is he straight, gay, or bi?
  • Schiff One-Liner: "As my father said to me when he died in my arms, 'I don't understand any of it. I never did.'"note 
  • Self-Deprecation:
    • Many examples to go around, as the characters are just as quick to make fun of themselves as they are each other.
    • The entire character of Michael counts since he was based on playwright Matt Crowley. While he's not without his good qualities, he still partakes in some nasty behavior and is rightfully called out for it.
  • The Stoner: Harold. "What I am, Michael, is a 32 year-old, ugly, pockmarked 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 goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?"
  • Straight Gay:
    • Hank. The very first shot of him is playing street basketball with friends.
    • Donald also has no stereotypical gay affectations (at least until openly discusses gay sex with Michael).
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Larry and Hank in the movie - especially to Alan who compliments the latter on his good looks. Alan himself is very good looking in the film as well — but is blond. There's also Donald who plays this trope as straight as can be be.
  • Tall, Dark, and Snarky: HAROLD. Michael is this too, but he's a far second to the queen bee himself.
  • Three-Way Sex: Hank and Larry experimented with it. Neither likes it. Cowboy gets confused about what a "menage" is — Michael's reply provides the page quote.
  • Token Minority: Bernard. The sequel The Men From the Boys adds an Asian named Rick.
  • Tough Love: Harold's "Reason You Suck" Speech isn't born of any actual malice. Rather, it's intended to defuse Michael's increasing destructiveness (which includes a healthy dollop of self destruction. The speech was Part One of Harold's "therapy"; his promise to call the next day is Part Two.
  • The Unreveal: The inscription on Mike's gift to Harold is never revealed. Harold only says, in a choked-up voice, "It's personal."
  • Unusual Euphemism: Michael refers to anxiety attacks as "icks".
  • Verbal Tic: Emory says "Oh Mary" constantly, to the point Crowley just wrote "O.M." in the script. It would be a Catchphrase except it's not exactly an uncommon phrase that a Camp Gay queen would say.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Michael and Harold. While it isn't clear they are best friends, two moments reveal their deep relationship: Michael's gift to Harold, and Harold's quiet assurance after giving him the above "The Reason You Suck" Speech "I'll call you tomorrow."
    • Emory and Bernard are a type two example. Emory is apparently the only white guy allowed to make black jokes about Bernard, because to Bernard it shows that Emory views him as an equal.
  • Village Bicycle: Greenwich Village, that is — Larry, much to Hank's frustration.
  • Volleying Insults: Put a room full of dramatic and sarcastic men together, and you have this trope in spades.
  • Where da White Women At?: A variant of this is done with Bernard, a gay black man in love with a wealthy, straight white man that his family worked for.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The question of whether Alan is straight or closeted, and what he was sobbing about when he called Michael early in the film is never answered - deliberately.
  • With Friends Like These...: To call this group of friends dysfunctional isn't doing them justice.
  • You Are What You Hate: An interpretation of Alan. He doesn't care for Emory's Camp Gay nature, at first keeping it to himself and Michael but later having a freak out where he drops a slur and attacks Emory. If you believe Alan is gay, then this could be his self homophobia reacting very poorly to being so close to a man whose as out of the closet as possible.

Alternative Title(s): The Boys In The Band