Monthly Archives: November 2009

Well, THAT’S the pot calling the kettle “beige”


I thought “The Boys in the Band” would be a campy ridiculous movie, redeemed only by its groundbreaking status as one of the first mainstream films that dealt with homosexuality.  Instead I found it to be thoughtful, serious, well-written, and brilliantly-acted.  Its dubious reputation is the result of homophobic film reviewers (the dark side of Pauline Kael) and the fact that, as gay liberation blossomed, the gay community felt a need to distance itself from the subject of self-loathing.

In terms of camp, many primetime t.v. shows now feature outre gay characters for comic effect.  Every “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” owes an immense debt to Mart Crowley (writer, producer) and William Friedkin (director).   The point to this campiness in 1970 was to establish that this was not going to be a film about assimilation, about how gay people are just like anyone else except maybe more sad.  Instead this film would show a (literal) walled garden where gay men acted as they would were nobody watching.

The result was pathos, similar in tone to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). in which the reigning heterosexual king and queen of the movies, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, exposed a self-loathing just as deep.

The plot is strikingly similar, an outsider arrives and witnesses the reality that lies beneath surface appearances.  In “The Boys in the Band” Peter White, as straight college chum Alan,  plays the naif role that belonged to George Segal and Sandy Dennis in “Woolf”.  Both movies started as stage plays and feature strong acting ensembles.

Leonard Frey, as Harold, the “thirty-two year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” is particularly compelling.  And I just don’t see performances like Kenneth Nelson’ as Michael – breaking down at the end of the movie when the reality of his situation hits him – in movies today.  Maybe I am watching the wrong movies.  The movie ends with a note of hope: after Harold verbally demolishes  hypocritical, abusive Michael, he leaves and as he is going says “Call you tomorrow…”  underscoring that their friendship will survive even this .  I have to admit to envying the depth of their connection, most friendships between heterosexual men, mine included, seem mannered and fearful in comparison.

“The Boys in the Band” highlights for me the terrible treatment gays have received up until a short time ago.  As I’ve mentioned before,  the good old days weren’t so good for gays, blacks or anyone different.  Which causes me to think about which groups are marginalized today in a way that we won’t acknowledge as a society until decades hence.  I think certainly animals: Jonathan Safer Foer’s “Eating Animals” seemed to me to be a necessary call-out to Michal Pollan’s evasive “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. I struggle with this issue practically daily and haven’t been able to convert to vegetarianism.   Other groups might include the physically ugly –  the greatest most-unspoken discrimination ever I think, the aged, and, in terms of sexuality, BDSM practitioners, acceptance of whom is slowly becoming more mainstream, at least if you go by porn as a leading indicator.

Most of the actor’s in “The Boys in the Band” died in the first part of the AIDS epidemic.  To me they were brave, and their work showed us a glimpse into “real” life,  often I think art, movies, films, culture are the only true public glimpse into what’s actually going on people’s heads.  To dismiss “The Boys in the Band” as campy self-loathing says more about the reviewer than the film.



In the Woody Allen film “Whatever Works” a tone-deaf Larry David plays a Woody Allen manque and falls flat.  It doesn’t help that he’s plugged into a poorly-written formula comedy.  I love Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” but he appears to be one of those supremely successful orchestrators who, like Madonna, cannot get outside themselves, or rather, can’t get inside themselves.

The character he plays “Boris Yellnikoff” is crueler and more astringent than Alvy Singer or any of Allen’s previous protagonists.  When the adoring Evan Rachel Wood appears with snowflakes in her eylashes, I literally cringed.  I did the same when Mariel Hemingway’s character appeared in “Manhattan”.  I can’t suspend my disbelief that these attractive young women are attracted to self-congratulary old farts.

A far more realistic scenario played out with the relationship between Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters”.  Hershey, although younger,  doesn’t play a noble innocent, and Von Sydow, although bitter, is gritty and truly wounded.

In order to be successful, “Whatever Works” should have been written as a broad, character-driven comedy.   In that case the lack of realism wouldn’t have mattered.  They key is “broad” though, think early Woody Allen.  An alternative would have been to go for realism – to make Boris Yellnikov a serious person, someone more like Sherwin Nuland’s old-world father in “Lost in America” (the book, not the Albert Brooks movie), someone who has seen their beliefs fail.  This would raise the stakes tremendously when the character finally goes against all his fears and falls in love, only to be abandoned.  Von Sydow and Hershey approached this in “Hannah”:

“Lee, you’re my whole world….Good God.   Have you been kissed tonight?  Yes, you have.   You’ve been with someone!

Stop accusing me!

I’m too smart. You can’t fool me!  You’re turning red!     Leave Me!  Oh, Christ! What’s wrong with you?

I’m sorry.

Couldn’t you say something?  You slither…”

Tough stuff and I liked it a lot better.  “Hannah and her Sisters” stopped there though, it tacked on a sentimental ending with a pregnant Hannah and all the main characters neatly paired up.   I wonder if Woody Allen subconsciously put Larry David, in some ways his spiritual heir, into a movie he can’t have helped knowing was a weak imitation of earlier work.  On the other hand he has put out a lot of weak imitations.

Most of the reviews I’ve read for “Whatever Works” have praised the “sunny” performance by Evan Rachel Wood is the best thing about the movie.  To me this is an intellectual shortcut because Wood was in fact playing a “sunny” character, it’s like saying someone gave a “tired” performance when they were playing a fatigued character.  Argh, like Boris Yellnikoff sometimes I hate everyone.

If there is a positive aspect to this film, it’s to put in sharp relief what an original, strong and interesting character Allen Stewart Konigberg created in “Woody Allen”. Woody Allen, more than any other public figure of the time,  broke through the dominant American “Gunsmoke” culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-semitism.  He snuck in through the back door of comedy and soon could not be ignored.

It’s no suprise then that growing up, Allen Konigsberg was an capable athlete, musician, magician and all-around non-schlemiel. These days I can’t keep up with the churn of his mediocre movies.  It was only because of Larry David that I watched “Whatever Works”and I was disappointed on all counts.