An all-star cast began previews this week in “The Boys in the Band,” Mart Crowley’s 1968 play about a group of gay men who throw a party — and plenty of bitchy zingers.
So it seemed fitting to catch up with William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director who made the 1970 movie.
The actors in the Broadway revival — Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells and Zachary Quinto, among them — are openly gay.
Fifty years ago, that would have been unthinkable.
“When we made ‘Boys in the Band,’ you couldn’t say you were gay and get a job,” says Friedkin, who also directed “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.”
But Friedkin, who’s straight (wife No. 1 was Jeanne Moreau, wife No. 4 is Sherry Lansing), didn’t think twice about making the movie.
“I didn’t give a flying f–k into a rolling doughnut about any of that,” he says over lunch at the Carlyle Hotel. “And you know why? Because the play is brilliant. The characters are finely drawn and there is wonderful wit. It’s a bit reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. It can be mentioned in the same sentence.”
Crowley wrote “The Boys in the Band” at a low point in his life. He was “down on my ass and dead broke,” he once told me, and was house-sitting for actress Diana Lynn in Beverly Hills. He’d gone through a heavy period of drinking and, trying to keep his head clear, rattled off the play in four days by the pool.
“A great combination of anger and despair,” he said, fueled the writing.
The play opened off-Broadway and was an immediate hit, propelled in part by an exceptional cast, including Laurence Luckinbill, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Peter White and Keith Prentice.
When Friedkin saw the play, he made a key decision.
“I loved those guys,” he says. “And I told Mart, ‘We’re not going to cast anybody but them.’”
Theater buffs cherish the movie because it’s a record of the original production, though Friedkin says he didn’t shoot “The Boys in the Band” like a stage play.
“I moved it around like it was a Luis Buñuel film,” he says with a laugh.
He shot the opening in Greenwich Village, and it’s fun to see what the neighborhood looked like in 1969, decades before Marc Jacobs stores lined the streets and luxury apartment buildings shot up along the Hudson.
While the play is set in the Village, the apartment in the movie is on East 68th Street. At the time, it belonged to the actress Tammy Grimes.
“Mart knew her, and he brought me up to look at her place,” says Friedkin. “She was very open to it. The scenes where they’re hanging crepe paper and getting ready for the party were shot in the daylight on her deck. We moved into a studio to shoot the night scenes.”
Frey has an unforgettable turn as the lethally bitchy Harold, who was based on Howard Jeffrey, a Broadway choreographer who died of AIDS in 1988.
Frey also died of AIDS, as did some other members of the original cast.
The straight members of the cast — Gorman, Luckinbill and White – took a risk to be in the movie. Their agents warned them that they would lose jobs if they did. Luckinbill, in fact, was dropped from a tobacco commercial.
“They did the movie because the roles are just so damned good,” says Friedkin, who also directed “Cruising,” the 1980 Al Pacino thriller whose gay-themed violence touched off a controversy.
Written a year before the Stonewall riots, “The Boys in the Band” is a time capsule, to be sure, but Friedkin says it meant a great deal to a generation of gay men.
“I hear from guys all the time that this was the film that helped them come out of the closet,” says Friedkin, now 82. “It gave them the courage not to be ashamed.”
You can hear Michael Riedel every weekday morning on “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on 710 WOR radio.
Source: Read Full Article