Negotiating LGBTQ+ Representations on Screen and the Social Reflectivity of Commercial Films

by Vrushali Bhavsar

ALAN: “I couldn’t care less what people do as long as they don’t do it in public or try to force their ways on the whole world” (Mantello, 37:18-37:20)

1. Introduction

LGBTQ+ rights and representations have long been a controversial issue continuously undergoing changes, particularly in the past five decades. Protests for LQBTQ+ liberation since the 1970s resulted in remarkable changes of attitude and depictions of LGBTQ+s in the social and cinematic spheres. These changes are somewhat reflected in The Boys in the Band (2020) by Joe Mantello, an LQBTQ+ dramedy revolving around nine gay individuals gathering to celebrate Harold’s (one of the characters) birthday. A seemingly normal gathering (given today’s social context) unravels into the exchange of sorrowful failed romantic endeavours and heartbreaks, that each individual has suffered as a result of how they identify. This paper seeks to analyze the film in comparison to its original release in 1970, by using scholarly journals about LQBTQ+ representation in films in the duration between the original and the remake in 2020. The focus is on the inclusion and exclusion of filmic elements from the 1970 film which form the 2020 remake, more specifically how despite portraying stereotypes of gay people, it negotiates or rather contests these images through dialogue. This makes the films what Joseph Dean terms as “gay standpoint” films which “contest normative heterosexual style […] and values to various extents” (370). Although both films are situated in New York City in 1968, given their time of release, the 2020 version is less socially reflective in contrast to its 1970 original, of the more recent changes that LQBTQ+ representation has undergone.

2. Attitudes Towards LGBTQs Pre-70s

As mentioned above, in the 70s the LQBTQ+ movement emerged in full swing. According to Connolly, activists held mainstream media accountable for circulating negative, stereotypical images of homosexuals which further marginalized them (66). Rewinding to the pre-70s social scenes which caused upheaval from the LQBTQ+ community, in “the 1920s, a stereotypical image of male homosexuality was prevalent both in the cinema and in real life: the pansy […] a term used colloquially to describe a certain type of queer man- a flowery, fussy, effeminate soul given to limp wrists and mincing steps” (Rudy, qtd. Benshoff and Griffin, 62).  Emory, an explicitly effeminate character in the film, directly addresses this stereotype when the male hustler is referred to as a midnight cowboy (hired as a gift for Harold); a possible allegory of the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy which “present[ed] male characters with fluid sexual practices,” (Dean, 379) mentions hurting his wrist due to weak grip while doing chin-ups. (S)he says “In my day, it used to be called a limp wrist” (39:43-39:46) to which Bernard responds “who can remember that far back?” (39:46-39:47) imparting that those times are long gone. Women’s rights had a long way to go at the time, hence being a female or effeminate meant being considered lower on the so-called social hierarchy and therefore enabling stigmatization of these groups. This attitude is further reflected in both the 1970 and 2020 versions of the film in question; Emory is constantly targeted far more than any other characters, particularly by Alan, a seemingly straight character who represents a hypocritical society (illustrated in his dialogue quoted at the beginning of this paper). He describes Emory as a “pansy” alongside other derogatory terms used throughout the film, including faggot, sissy, fairy and queen. He terms such behaviour as Emory’s “brand of humour,” (Mantellio, 37:15-37:19)  denying that (s)he is an out and proud gay individual.

3. Censorship and Prescriptions of Homosexuality

Terming homosexuality as comical is reflective of the emergence of the Hays Code in the 30s, which involved certain prohibitions targeting the depiction of homosexuals. It warned, “the industry to keep away from certain subjects, including drug addiction, sexual deviance, miscegenation, and nudity” (Haas et al.,69). Resultantly, homosexuals have been portrayed implicitly and as comical, erotic and inferior side characters (Connolly) in films produced during this era. Both versions of The Boys in the Band portray these stereotypes by attributing typically negative traits to its characters. Cowboy, Harold, Alan, Hank, Donald, Bernard, and Larry are portrayed as seemingly masculine gay characters, whereas Michael and Emory are visibly “coded” (Dean, 372) with moderate to highly explicit feminine nuances. Furthermore, Harold, Michael and Donald suffer from particular mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Two particular scenes highlight their despair and internalized homophobia: 1) near the beginning of the film, Donald says to Michael “It’s just that today I finally realized, I was raised to be a failure. I was groomed for it,” (Mantello, 9:57-10:09) reflecting what Rudy mentions about homosexuals being portrayed as people with no future due to being rejected by society (63).  And 2) when Michael comments on Harold’s social phobia: “You’re absolutely paranoid about absolutely everything […] And this pathological lateness, that’s downright crazy” (Mantello, 52:51- 53:18). These prescriptions to their “gayness” are emblematic of social attitudes and post-Hays Code depictions of LGBTQ+; Dean states that since the disbanding of the Code in 1968 and until the late 80s, homosexual characters were “typically presented as deviant and pathological human types, from murderers and sociopaths to victims of psychological sickness” (364). Both films strictly portray their characters as “hyper-visible tokens who are reduced to their homosexuality,” (364) the plot fully revolves around their rather tragic lives. In relation, Rudy states: “The tragic ending of the gay-themed movies obviously becomes the symbol of pessimism in gay life. Negative images such as male prostitutes, hustlers, sex addicts, and annoying, flamboyant, effeminate men are continuously used to describe gay life” (66). Since the film challenges stereotypes through dialogue, during a scene in the film Michael reprimands Harold’s presumable attempts to commit suicide; “It’s not always like it happens in plays. Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story” in a mocking tone (Mantello, 54:41-54:46). The camera in this scene is at a mid-shot level, with only Michael in focus. Despite that Harold and Michael are almost constantly bickering and neither miss a chance to be snarky, Harold remains silent after Michael’s remark, imparting that the dialogue is of particular importance; something the audience is given a moment to contemplate.

4. The Inclusion and Exclusion of Filmic Elements in the 2020 Version

Although both movies share the same narrative, majority of the same dialogues and scenes, the 2020 version includes some new elements that reflect the liberation of LGBTQ+s on screen. One such new element is the explicit sexual content including nudity, albeit that it plays on the stereotype of homosexuals being erotic, it seemingly teases the Hays Code prohibitions present until the point in time in which the movie is set (1968). At the beginning of the film, Donald comes out of the shower naked, to which there is no sexual reaction from Michael, shattering previous LGBTQ representations which repeatedly insisted on their lasciviousness. Later in the movie, a flashback is shown using intimate camera angles of Bernard sharing a  moment in the pool with his childhood love interest, both completely naked. In comparison to the 1970 film, the remake consistently uses intimate camera angles, exemplifying that LQBTQ+-ness is not a subject of concealment. In another instance, Larry is seen conversing with a possible love interest at a bar, with his arm resting on the other’s forearm; only the two of them are in focus on the camera, as opposed to the scene in the original where he is standing in a crowd of men at the bar with little to no implication of his homosexuality. The kissing scenes in the remake are more frequent and with headshot level camera angles where the audience can actually see the characters passionately lock lips, in comparison to the only scene in the 1970 film where Cowboy kisses Michael, mistaking him to be Harold. Moreover, an interesting addition is made to a dialogue at the beginning of the film when Michael attempts to figure out how to approach Alan if he shows up at the “freak show” (Mantello, 15:36) that night. He points out to Donald that “some people have different standards from yours and mine, you know? And if we don’t acknowledge them, then we’re just as backward and narrow-minded as we think they are” (Mantello, 16:10-16:16). This is perhaps the most direct attack on homophobic people in the film, marking a stark difference between the original film and its remake.

5. Staying True to Commercial Films and “Couching” Reality

            Although the films make transgressions from typical views of homosexuals through the filmic elements discussed above, it stays true to the commerciality of its execution by sticking to stereotypical visuals. This would have been an integral part of selling the film in the 70s when negative LQBTQ+ representations were only beginning to be questioned or contested in the public and intellectual discourses. In a behind the scenes documentary, “The Boys in the Band: Something Personal,” playwright Mart Crowley mentions “when I started writing this play, I had been so advised by many people, in positions of authority not to go there” (0:14-0:22). Crowley further adds that in order to make the film more viable for wider audiences, “[he] sold the play by couching it as a comedy-drama situation, and the laughs sold it, and the laughs lightened it up” (3:06-3:20). Selling an explicitly homosexual film as a comedy sticks to standard practices of homosexual portrayal at the time; Rudy explains that “gay films can attract audiences by describing gays as objects of laughter”(59). As discussed previously, the characters had stereotypical traits; Larry had multiple partners despite sharing a relationship with Hank, drawing back on a common misconception about homosexuals being highly active sexual beings with numerous partners (63). In addition, during one scene Emory states “I’m a major drunk of this or any other season,” (Mantello, 1:19:49-1:19:51) and throughout the movie all characters are seen drinking or smoking, playing on yet another misconception about homosexuals being drunks and drug addicts (Rudy, 67). Again, contestation is employed in certain scenes: as if in response to what Emory stated when Harold arrives at the party and Michael scolds him for being late, he responds “If I smoke a little grass before I can gather up the nerve to show this face to the world, then it’s nobody’s goddamn business but my own” (Mantello, 43:44-43:56). Moreover, in the scene about Larry’s multiple partners, he states “It’s my right to lead my sex life without answering to anybody […] Numerous relations is a part of the way I am […] [and] by the way I am, I don’t mean gay” (Mantello,1:27:07-1:27:23). With the latter half of the dialogue, Larry refutes any misunderstanding the audience may have about his nature. Ultimately using comedy and stereotypes, the 70s film fed the audience exactly what they were familiar already with, without them realizing the subtle contestation of those stereotypes through witty dialogues.

6. Conclusion

Given the social context of the 70s original, it was a bold step to cast characters explicitly portrayed as gay. The stereotypes employed in both versions map out various misconceptions about homosexuals which existed through the decades. The subtle changes in the 2020 version account for the rising social liberation of LQBTQ+s post-70s, but the film is not as socially reflective since people are left questioning why the remake includes typical portrayals despite positive social changes in attitude toward LGBTQs. Resultantly, one may arrive at a different conclusion: perhaps the 2020 remake assumes a more learned audience, given the rise in LQBTQ+ recognition and discourse. Hence it can be more appreciated currently, as audiences are more aware of the subtle allegories and contestations made through witty dialogue exchanges between characters in the film.

Works Cited

The Boys in the Band: Something Personal. Netflix, 2020.

Connolly, Matt. “Liberating the Screen: Gay and Lesbian Protests of LGBT Cinematic Representation, 1969–1974.” JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, vol. 57, no. 2, 2018, pp. 66-88.

Dean, James Joseph. “Gays and Queers: From the Centering to the Decentering of Homosexuality in American Films.” Sexualities, vol. 10, no. 3, 2007, pp. 363–386., doi:10.1177/1363460707078337.

Friedkin, William, Director. The Boys in the Band. National General Pictures, 1970.

Haas, Elizabeth, Terry Christensen, and Peter J. Haas. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, Florence, 2015. pp.61-88., doi:10.4324/9781315720791

Mantello, Joe, Director. The Boys in the Band. Netflix, 2020.

Rudy, Rudy. “The Depiction of Homosexuality in American Movies.” Jurnal Humaniora, vol. 28, no. 1, 2016, p. 59., doi:10.22146/jh.v28i1.11502.