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Column: For director Joe Mantello, ‘The Boys in the Band’ is a ‘scar’ Trump’s SCOTUS could reopen

Jim Parsons, Brian Hutchison and Tuc Watkins in the Netflix film of "The Boys in the Band."
Jim Parsons as Michael, left, Brian Hutchison as Alan and Tuc Watkins as Hank in a scene from “The Boys in the Band” on Netflix.
(Scott Everett White / Netflix)

“I really don’t know. I felt duped four years ago when we were led to believe the outcome was assured.”

Honestly, to ask anyone the simple question “How are you doing?” is a total crap shoot these days. Even benign responses — ranging from “Oh, we’re good” to “OK, I guess?” — have become shorthand for, “No one in my immediate circle is currently stricken with COVID-19 and our general anxiety levels still allow for basic human functioning.”

Ask director-actor Joe Mantello and he goes straight to the point: the upcoming election and the snowballing hope that President Trump will be out of a job come Jan. 20.

Not that he’s on the phone to talk politics, at least not presidential politics, at least not precisely. Ever since the pandemic shut down his revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — along with the rest of Broadway — the prolific Mantello has devoted himself to finishing and then publicizing “The Boys in the Band,” a Netflix film he directed, just as he directed the play’s hit 50th-anniversary revival on Broadway in 2018 at the behest of producer Ryan Murphy.

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The film debuted to universally positive reviews, making it Murphy’s second successful resurrection of a classic LGBTQ groundbreaker after the 2014 adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” in which Mantello starred. (As closeted studio executive Dick Samuels, Mantello also was one of several scene-stealers in Murphy’s recent miniseries “Hollywood.”)

Like Murphy, Mantello has spent a fair amount of his career dealing with politics without seeming overtly political, and there is simply no way to discuss “The Boys in the Band” now without getting into presidential politics. This is, after all, an election year and one candidate, President Trump, owes much of his success to evangelicals, who, while a small minority of Americans, are among the most vocal in their objection to the strides the LGBTQ community has made in the past decade, including the legalization of gay marriage and the expansion of transgender rights.

“The Boys in the Band” — Mart Crowley’s landmark gay story that’s at once dated and timely — captures the bonds of friendship, even when it gets ugly.

More immediately, Trump has used the recent death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to hustle through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, yet another conservative justice who has publicly defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman and who served for three years as a board trustee for a group of private Christian schools with anti-LGBTQ policies.

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In all likelihood, the Senate will confirm Barrett’s nomination on Thursday — and with Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito recently signaling their willingness to overturn the Marriage Equality Act, the 50-year-old “The Boys in the Band” seems suddenly, and shockingly, relevant.

“How fascinating is it that the same year this play debuted, 1967, the Loving case made Clarence Thomas’ second marriage legal,” Mantello says, referring to Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting interracial marriages were unconstitutional. “You would think that would bring a kind of understanding. Or a president who has had three marriages — I’m always just baffled by the hypocrisy; it’s just beyond me.”

When Mart Crowley’s play originally debuted in 1968, there was exactly no theater (or film or television) that portrayed the lives of gay men and women. The Stonewall uprising, which would give birth to the modern gay rights movement, was still two years away, and the notion of legal gay marriage all but unthinkable. Chronicling the interactions among nine men during a birthday party, “Boys” creates a microcosm of fury and allegiance as the men deal with a panoply of issues — racism, classism, the nature of love and commitment — under the enveloping oppression of internalized self-hatred and denial.

It would be nice to view the film as simply a period piece, an origin story for the rise of LGBTQ activism and acceptance, a story in which the screaming outrage of enforced “otherness” feels contemporary only as a universal theme.

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“It is a time capsule to a very precise moment in our history,” Mantello says. “The characters couldn’t conceive at all of Stonewall, or AIDS, or gay marriage. In that way, the play is a scar — when you look at a scar you can feel the wound but you can say, ‘Yeah, we survived that.’”

But for many around the world that wound is still being inflicted, and even in the U.S. it is still bleeding.

“When the film finds a global audience, it might feel very real if you live in a community that reviles love that doesn’t occur between two heterosexuals,” Mantello says. “Because of hard-fought battles, we’re lucky.”

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As a director, Mantello has two Tonys, a slew of nominations and a wide-ranging Broadway and off-Broadway oeuvre — “Wicked,” “Assassins” “Take Me Out,” “Three Tall Women,” “Other Desert Cities” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” — but he also has been involved, in one way or another, in a series of plays that have championed the LGBTQ community, particularly through the prism of the AIDS crisis. As an actor, he played the original Louis in Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking “Angels in America”; he directed the stage and film version of Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!”; and he starred as Ned Weeks in the 2011 Broadway revival and, three years later, the HBO film of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.”

“The only character I ever really wanted to play was Ned Weeks,” he says of the writer-activist who struggles to get the American public to recognize the horror of the AIDS epidemic in “The Normal Heart.” “Something about that character spoke to me.

“I came to New York in 1984, at the height of the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “I was a volunteer at the GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis]. It was heartbreaking; four years into it before Reagan said the word [AIDS].”

Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks in "The Normal Heart" on Broadway.
(Joan Marcus)
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Having just left New York in the midst of another pandemic, he says that with COVID-19, “The biggest distinction was that people were actually talking about it, we all had a lot of information — though not all of it correct at the beginning.” Fear and anxiety were not the only things the two plagues shared. “What was eerily similar was the rumors and speculation. ... I remember working at GMHC and people who delivered food were not required to bring it into the rooms [of AIDS patients]. They would show up in hazmat suits, and I’m like, ‘I’m sitting next to this guy.’ This felt like that — the information was all over the map.”

Mantello was not immediately thrilled when Ryan Murphy asked him to direct “The Boys in the Band,” which many people felt, years later, caricatured gay men. The first film version, directed by William Friedkin, was criticized by many for its focus on the cynical self-loathing main character, Michael, played in the Netflix version by Jim Parsons.

“I was really skeptical,” Mantello says. “I had just done ‘Hillary and Clinton’ and had committed to doing ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and I had a lot of my own feelings about ‘The Boys,’ which were vaguely negative.”

Murphy encouraged him to see the play less as a depiction of gay men, with all the baggage that entails, and more as a piece of drama. To read it, Mantello says, like Albee’s “Virginia Woolf,” a lacerating depiction of a 1950s marriage that no one considers an indictment of intimate relationships in general. “Looking at that marriage didn’t make me embarrassed or ashamed,” says Mantello, “which made realize how much reductive understanding I had brought to ‘The Boys in the Band.’”

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Once committed, Mantello wanted to give the story a more hopeful ending — which he does through a wordless epilogue following the characters as they recover from the fateful night — but he did not shy away from the self-loathing. Nor did he downplay the often painful “fag”- and “fairy”-filled banter among the men.

“Painting a rosier picture of gay men back then serves no one,” he says. “There was never a question of softening because I am not a believer in softening.”

Director Joe Mantello and star Jim Parsons explain the process of transferring their Tony-winning Broadway revival of “The Boys in the Band” to a Netflix film.

He did, however, spend a lot of time figuring out how to do a scene in which Michael teases his friend Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) by singing a song that includes the n-word.

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“The n-word exists in Mart’s play and there was a conversation about removing it. We tried that, and we tried alternate phrases, but the moment it occurs is such an escalation of what was happening in that room that I thought the play would lose without it. You never hear the word but Jim singing a ditty that rhymes so you know what’s coming and you think you’ve heard it.”

Even so, “You don’t want to cause pain to anyone,” Mantello says. “So I sent a cut to Michael Benjamin Washington to see how he felt and he said, ‘You have the camera cut to me [when the word is about to be uttered] — and my question is: ‘What are the other guys doing?’ So I added cuts to the other men; you see the blow land with [Washington’s] Emory but you also see the other characters react.”

Still, Mantello adds, “Mart did not write the play to make any audience comfortable, and I think that’s why it’s lasted so long.”

And while Mantello did not expect the themes of this 50-year-old play to be quite as resonant as they remain in 2020, when contemplating the current landscape, he feels, polls and conspiracy theories aside, generally hopeful. The reach of platforms like Netflix mean stories like “Boys” are traveling wider than ever before to audiences now well-versed in the many dangers of homophobia and other forms of oppression.

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“A lot of the problem is literally dying out,” he says. “We have a new generation that just doesn’t feel that way. People who grew up with gay parents, or whose friends have gay parents — and you can’t unring that bell.

“The thing I think about all the time,” he says, “is the epilogue of ‘Angels in America,’ where Prior says to the audience, ‘The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.’ I do believe that. The world only spins forward.”


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