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This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on June 23, 2007.

The opening montage in William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band: an appreciation

By Sarah Boslaugh, PhD, MPH

There may be two or three old ladies in Brixton who haven’t heard about it yet, but everyone else knows the story of Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band. It was a groundbreaking theatrical work which focused on a group of gay friends in New York and ran for over a thousand performances. The Boys in the Band was then made into a movie directed by William Friedkin in 1970, using a screenplay written by Crowley: the film enjoyed mixed critical and popular success but is the format in which most people are likely to experience Crowley’s work today1

Usually when a stage play is adapted for the screen, critical opinion focuses on how “true” the film is to the play, and the film is often viewed as a sort of secondary experience for people not able to see the “real” show, meaning a theatrical presentation. In the case of The Boys in the Band, this is not a useful approach. In the first place, as groundbreaking as the play was, it was hardly a work of perfection, and slavishly reproducing the original play on film would not have been a service to either the author or the audience. In the second place, the Friedkin film works very well as a film, and that is how it should be judged.

Both the play and the movie focus on a birthday party for Harold (Leonard Frey). Harold (all the characters have first names only) is a thirty-two-year-old gay man. The party will be attended by six of his gay friends, an uninvited guest in the form of the sexually confused college roommate (Alan, played by Peter White) of Michael (Kenneth Nelson), and a young hustler (Cowboy, played by Robert La Tourneaux) whose services have been purchased for the evening as a birthday present for Harold. Friedkin largely retains the real time format and restricted location (Michael’s apartment) of the play, and preserved the ensemble drama feel of the original as well. However, he did make one major addition which was a stroke of genius: the film opens with a montage which introduces each of the characters individually, in the context of Metropolitan New York.

As the film begins, the first sound we hear the voice of Cole Porter2 singing his 1934 hit Anything Goes as the Cinema Center Films logo is drawn on the screen. Friedkin then introduces the characters in a rapid succession of cuts:

 The play’s text begins here, with Michael answering the phone, and from this point onwards the film adheres closely to the text, mainly editing out material for length. Anyone who as sat through the play, with Donald and Michael’s interminable discussions of their analysis and how their parents ruined their lives, will appreciate the omission.

This entire montage takes only about 4 minutes of screen time but accomplishes several purposes. One is simply to open up the play, to make use of the additional possibilities of cinema rather than remaining confined to a single stage location. A second is to introduce the characters one by one, so we have a better chance of keeping them straight (no irony intended), not a small task considering that eight of the nine cast members are white men of a similar age. The credits do not appear until the end of the film, so this montage also plunges us immediately into the world of the characters and stresses the ensemble nature of the performance.  

The choice  of music is significant. Cole Porter was an extremely popular song writer in the American musical theatre, known for his biting wit and double entendres, and also for being what the glbtq database describes as an openly closeted gay man. There is no dialogue throughout the montage: the first words spoken in the film occur when Michael picks up the phone in his apartment.  Anything Goes is a meaningful choice of song, with its implication that these men don’t live in their parent’s world, sexually or otherwise. Not wishing to invoke the wrath of Cole Porter’s estate, I will just quote  a brief selection of the lyrics:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as  something shocking
But now God knows
Anything goes.

It’s a brave new world out there, the song seems to be saying, and it’s a world in which gay men claim their place, however oppressed they may be by homophobic laws and societal prejudices. 

The opening montage also serves the more important function of introducing each character in their milieu, which for most of them means how they live when they are not gaying it up. The montage underlines how different the characters and their lives are: yes, one is a stereotypical antiques dealer with a poodle, but another is a schoolteacher who plays pickup basketball with the guys and a third makes his living taking pictures of beautiful women. We also see how they look and behave when they are out in the straight world: and yes, many of them could pass, in fact they look and act just like people you see and interact with every day. The montage plays against the charges of stereotyping and negativity frequently leveled at the film of The Boys in the Band3. However much these gay men have their problems and suffer from discrimination, points which are spelled out in even more excruciating detail in the play, the montage presents them as people who have found a way to live in a sometimes hostile world, more importantly, have formed a community of friendship and support.

The opening sequence continues a bit longer: we see a comical exchange of glances between Emory and a woman waiting for a traffic light to change, and Larry and Hank sharing a cab and picking up Emory on their way to the party. These added scenes serve the same purpose as the montage: they place the characters in the larger context of New York City and underscore their sense of community, so they are both part of the larger world of New York and have relationships with each other which are not necessarily based on sexual attraction. 


  1. For a fuller review of the film and its relationship to the play, see Gary Morris,”Sweet Music: The Boys in the Band,” Bright Lights Film Journal (1999), Issue 24.
  2. Segaloff, Nat. Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990).
  3. See for example Joe Carrithers, “The Audiences of The Boys in the Band,” Journal of Popular Film and Television (Summer 1995), 23(2):64-71.

Works cited