In the packet sitting on my trunk that also functions as a coffee table, only a single cookie remained. Within five days, I was rejected for not one but two jobs and mutually decided with a very nice gentleman that future dates were no longer necessary. In the face of personal and professional rebuffs, I give myself about 12 hours to slosh around in hopelessness before it’s time to put down the cookies and embrace that backbone we were told comes with “being a man.” At moments like these, when I become desperate for a male role model, usually I turn to Katharine or Bette (Davis or Midler, pick a broad), who taught me more about male strength than any man ever could. But as I wandered towards the DVD shelf, allowing myself no time to browse, my hand seized The Boys in the Band (1970), originally a play that was adapted into a film starring its original cast members. Hiding away that final cookie in the cupboard and instead bringing to the couch a bowl of overly priced blueberries, I was ready to visit the boys once again. But thirty minutes in, I turned them off and decided instead to take a stroll down Elm Street.
A true diehard fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street series knows to queue up the fourth installment when one yearns for not only true campy horror but also the enchanting time period when the 80s became a little grungy before the 90s took hold. At the end of the fourth film, Alice, the young virgin hero of the piece, backflips her way down a church aisle and starts wailing on Freddy Krueger, who, at this point in the franchise, has developed a wicked sense of comic timing. Anger turns to rage in young Alice, but with every ferocious punch she delivers, Freddy meets them all with laughter. It’s a delicious fight scene with a gooey ending that reminds all thirtysomethings of how blessed we once were when we turned on our VCRs.
Following an urban family of friends who gather for one’s birthday, The Boys in the Band transforms quickly from zingy one-liners to the brutality of a truth-telling slumber party game, if all the slumber party guests were downing vodka and smoking weed. Sounds fitting for my particular mood that evening, one could say, at least in the allotted 12-hour period. So what the devil happened that night? First it was a beeline towards The Boys in the Band followed immediately by a second for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)? Was it the campy comparison between the two that kept me from settling in? Perhaps it was the lack of an attention span that plagues us all? An unplanned theme night with characters that focus on proper nail maintenance?
I couldn’t put my unmanicured finger on it until days later when I was watching a documentary about The Boys in the Band. While listening to some of the critics who found both the original play and film offensive and glorifying gay stereotypes, I understood why I went back to Alice’s final showdown with Freddy, and the questions seemed to scroll across my living room wall like the showtimes at a movie theatre (remember those?). Living in a century when everyone is offended by everything, and voicing outrage may get one’s name in the headlines, I began to wonder . . . when should I voice my opposition and march down the streets with signs and petitions, and when should I simply laugh at those who offend me? Is one course more astute, more mature, or more reasonable than the other? Could I one day possess the level of emotional tenacity displayed by Freddy Krueger and laugh in the faces of pain and rejection?
Oh, I was always a Freddy sympathizer – teenagers are monsters.
While mulling over The Boys in the Band and scribbling down notes about “gay” this and “don’t label me” that, I began to feel stirrings of anger that perhaps mimicked that of the 1970s audiences. While I may not feel the deep anger – and perhaps even deeper fear – that some may have felt at the time, I try to understand it. There were indeed lovers of both the film and the play from all neighborhoods (lines around the block, I hear), and I will forever envy those who saw the original cast perform in New York. But those who give negative reviews tend to roar when they give them, drowning out the courtly tones of those who shower something with praise.
One reaction to the play that stuck with me was that it gives audiences the green light to disrespect gay characters. Okay . . . I see where you’re coming from, sir, and I hear you, but did we have respect for George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Speaking only for myself, I’d have to say no, I didn’t exactly look up to them with respect and admiration. Am I wildly entertained by their drinking and verbal abuse of one another? Oh, absolutely! George and Martha may have shattered the image of the happily married man and woman, but we had to live with that stereotype for years before the world was ready for that earsplitting shatter. And some people, gay and straight, man and woman, liberal and conservative, just didn’t like it. Period. One day I’ll summon the courage to write about why I never cared for Citizen Kane (1941), but here’s the thing – at least I’ve seen Citizen Kane. If you have only heard that The Boys in the Band’s portrayal of gay characters is offensive, full of trigger words, and will cause you loads of distress and hurt feelings, I urge you to be brave enough to see it first and then decide. I’m talking to you, Basic Instinct spoilers. You know who you are!
Ultimately I come away from this film with more questions than conclusions. Why, I wondered, couldn’t those who were offended by The Boys in the Band laugh at it instead? How could they not appreciate the humor and wit of these characters, as they go from loving to hating each other and back again in a matter of drinks and hours? Then I found myself thinking, “Because, you spoiled little so-and-so, you can’t even begin to imagine the fear that festered inside certain members of a 1970s audience.” It’s 2015, and we’re in the early stages of a time when gay neighbors are becoming just neighbors and gay parents are just parents. It wasn’t just a different country when these boys came out; it was a different universe. Timing is everything, and when we take an objective, honest look at humanity, a single fact emerges – no one can be as emotionally mature as Freddy Krueger.