The Boys in the Band Ending & Real Meaning Explained
Netflix and Ryan Murphy’s new adaptation of pioneering LGBTQ play The Boys in the Band is timely and timeless take on sexual identity and community.
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Here’s what The Boys in the Band really means. Netflix’s new adaptation of Mart Crowley’s challenging, transformative play – which remains at the heart of a pioneering moment in queer theatre – was brought to the platform by Ryan Murphy and it, naturally, explores some deeply important ideas. It is, at its heart, a time capsule story, exploring truths very specifically tied to their context, that may prove difficult to watch in 2020.
The Boys in the Band follows nine main characters – Michael, Donald, Harold, Bernard, Emory, Larry, Hank, Cowboy and Alan – as they come together for Harold’s birthday party. Seven know each other pretty well (or know parts of the group well), while Cowboy is a sex worker and birthday present and Alan is an uninvited guest whose apparent heterosexuality threatens to derail the party. Every other character – played by openly gay actors including The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto – is gay and the suggestion that Alan may be wrestling with his own sexuality is at the center of an implosion that turns the party on its head.
Though it ostensibly happens in a single room (because of how closely it adapts the play), The Boys in the Band is reflective of a much wider story, not only rooted in its late ’60s moment of creation, but also in how 2020 looks back on that pre-Stonewall, pre-AIDS, pre-freedom era. And there are a lot of questions that emerge by its end. Here’s what it all means.
Why Is Everyone In The Boys in the Band So Hateful?
Right from the outset, it’s very clear that there is a lot of hate in The Boys in the Band. Even though the central characters are clearly very close and have developed a bond where the boundary between affectionate ribbing and outright meanness doesn’t really matter, there are still lots of moments where it spills over. When Jim Parsons’ Michael starts to drink, his demons are writ large across his hateful words, including in shocking moments of racism, and he’s far from the only one. Only Cowboy manages to negotiate the party without at least one insult to a supposed friend (and he’s at the pointed end of lots of abuse himself) and modern audiences may well wonder why there is so much hatred and self-loathing on show.
It’s all about dealing with trauma and it all comes out in the phone game and beyond that point. As Bernard, Emory, and Hank make their calls, there is some suggestion of the emotional traumas they’ve been through and the cost of rejection by a world filled with even more tangible hatred. As soon as Michael drops his performative host routine and slips back into his self-medicating with alcohol, his trauma, and anger at a society that hates his very existence turns into caustic mistreatment of his friends. Harold, who loves him more than anyone else calls him out as the worst type of person “a self-hating homosexual who wishes he wasn’t gay”, but the point is he follows it up with “I’ll call you tomorrow”. The affection exists there – just as it does between them all even after their most hurtful exchanges – because of their shared experience.
The Boys in the Band was always a triumph of representation because gay people on the cusp of the 1970s saw themselves on stage (and then screen) where their failings weren’t due to the fact that they were gay. Yes, there may be some challenging content in there, but this deeply political story is fundamentally about acceptance and community and the self-hatred and sanctuary of community is hugely important. When Emory is challenged on his racist ribbing of Bernard, the latter explains that he allows it because he knows he’s been through his own trauma because of who he is, what he looks like, and how he acts. There’s a beautiful, intersectional comment on solidarity in society that still rings true now, even if the danger of gay and black men being alone is supposed to be removed.
Is Alan Gay? Why Did He Call Michael? Why Doesn’t He Go Home?
Alan is probably the film’s most fascinating character because he doesn’t fit. In a microcosm of gay stereotypes – constructed almost the same way an action hero ensemble would assemble different heroic “types” – he is the lone self-professed straight man, wearing his society’s homophobia like a heavy overcoat. But his very existence in the space of the party is the mystery that drives the whole play and the catalyst for everything falling apart: so it begs the question – why did he come in the first place?
Alan is going through something, as his first conversation with Michael confirms. His dinner party plans are a ruse and he has something pressing enough to tell Michael that he comes to New York, leaving a scar of some sort on his family (confirmed by his apology and explanation on the phone). He is challenged on his past and his sexuality, and while he seems to bat it away by ringing his wife and telling her he loves her, it’s not entirely clear whether that is because he means it. It could be that his experience in an openly gay environment and the troubles inherent to self-identifying in a liminal space is too much for him and his almost brave step of coming out is crushed. Alan, it seems, is the coming out to an unwelcome society story personified.
That is also why he stays at the party when he has attacked Emory and crucially why he doesn’t go home even after leaving the party when he promises to catch the next flight home. Instead, he goes to seek solace in a bar, alone, reaffirming that whatever he came to Michael for is not quite as sewn up as his thanks to the host on his way out seem to have suggested. Is he gay? There’s certainly cause for doubt, but there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest he is what Michael believes, and there’s no stage in the film where Michael’s honestly – often painful and pointed though it is – is anything but the truth. His accusations of Alan’s past, then, are to be taken as testimony, not conjecture.
The Boys in the Band’s Use of Queer “Stereotypes”
The Boys in the Band may cause some controversy among younger enlightened audiences, because of the privilege of removal. Hot amongst those concerns will no doubt be the repeated use of limiting, homophobic and racist words and also the issue of using stereotyped character types. That was something Stonewall era activists took issue with, and it’s inevitable that such a response would come out of that time, when Stonewall sought only positive representation on screen and stage. But The Boys in the Band isn’t interested in using cliches against the gay characters it presents: it’s more an issue of reclamation of those stereotypes.
The movie is, in fact, a queer time capsule. The play fell out of favor because of fears it promoted internalized homophobia and harmful stereotypes. Dropping in “f words” so liberally and having gay characters apparently criticizing other gay characters in the same terms homophobes would is all conscious. It’s not homophobia as much as a reflection of what a homophobic world does to people subject to that abuse. If an audience is uncomfortable with the sight of the effeminate Emory or appalled by the promiscuity of Larry and Michael and Harold’s razor-sharp bitching or the limited intelligence but game sexuality of Cowboy, it’s because somewhere, that audience has been told that those stereotypes are not acceptable. The Boys in the Band isn’t interested in saying whether these characters should or shouldn’t act the way they do beyond whether they are good people, they exist as they are and it is simply a fact.
The film – just as the play – is careful to craft a cross-section of gay identities from Emory’s flamboyance through to Hank’s straight-acting machismo and Alan’s potentially closeted sexuality. All are valid and suggesting they are dangerous cliches is to believe that all of the art and shows and movies that leaned into those stereotypes were right to vilify them. Instead, Mantello’s adaptation is about reclamation, because the identities are incidental and the story instead is a hopeful, but bruised dream of a world where all of those characters can be accepted regardless of how they choose to express their sexuality. The party, in effect, is a rehearsal for when queer folx will be allowed to be themselves and on reflection it is tragic to watch the bubble exist within a wider space that wouldn’t tolerate it or its participants.
Why The Boys in the Band Is Obsessed With Appearances
A significant amount of the story is concerned with the idea of appearances and perception. Much of the catty barbs are aimed at appearance or intellect, as if such an attack is more cutting to someone constantly having to ensure they look right and act right for fear of something bad happening to them. Also at various stages, characters either talk about or show themselves performing for a straight society, or in Emory and Bernard’s cases, most poignantly, being punished for refusing to. That idea of a person’s appearance or behavior being armor against subjugation and the hard contrast to how much the group can be themselves within Michael’s haven comes up a lot, because The Boys in the Band is driven at its core by the idea of finding a space for your own identity to be accepted.
That’s inherently what the act of coming out is about as well, of course, and it’s not an accident that Hank’s backstory of trying to deceive himself into not being gay plays such a big part of the telephone game. Or that Bernard’s phonecall to Mrs Dalbeck sees him change his voice to a lower register with a more “acceptable” Southern drawl. Or that even Emory’s phonecall leads him to dismiss his own identity as “no-one… just a friend”. Alan’s very presence speaks to the same dynamic: Michael anxiously tells his friends they must not appear to be gay in case of some unspoken danger if Alan were to find out. Even within his own haven, his safety is removed because he can’t be himself. In a world where identity pride – and gay pride in particular – is such an accepted luxury, seeing it reflected from a time before is a stark reminder of the privilege of progress. And an even starker reminder that society is not so far away from slipping back there.
What The Boys in the Band Is Really About
The Boys in the Band is a story of contradiction, fundamentally, because it, at one end, speaks to how far the world has come since the society behind the play made gay existence so dangerous and actually amplifies the moments of pride in there through proximity. But at the other end, it is a stark, anxious reminder of just how close it could all be again and almost all of its issues still have relevance now. This may be a time-capsule movie from the period before Stonewall and the AIDS crisis and same-sex marriage and all manner of progress, but the concerns over homophobia, racism, drug, and alcohol use and mental health issues (deeply embedded in self-hatred in particular) are arguably all still at crisis point. The rise of ultra-conservativism and bigotry masking as “traditionalism” threatens a return to the world of the 1968 original.
In that respect, while there is progress, there is also a warning about what could still be. But for the most part, The Boys in the Band is about pride in identity (not just sexual identity, though that’s important). As Ryan Murphy has said, the film speaks to the changed world in terms of how “homosexual behavior” was treated mere decades ago. Back in the ’60s, gay people had their own spaces – they frequently talk about the baths, for instance – but being out in public was not acceptable. There are frequent, subtle reminders of that even though the story mostly takes place in a single room: the woman on the subway sneering at Bernard, the hotel lobby attendant scowling at Emory, Michael’s neighbors pausing to look with disgust at the party through the open door. Even Hank’s reinforcement of acceptable norms when Emory is “too camp” or Alan’s recognition of Hank as an acceptable model of masculinity are reminders.
The Boys in the Band is about the cost of rejecting people, the dangers of what that sort of enforced captivity (or identity suppression at the very least) and performative “fitting in” can be, and the value of progress away from that. It might be a time capsule reflecting a very specific time period – which, incidentally, ought to forgive its discomforting behavioral anachronisms – but its truths and its pride in allowing different “types” of people to exist should be universal.