‘The Boys in the Band’ and the Art of the Artifice
Artifice. That is the word that’s been stuck in my mind for a week or so now. “Artifice.” I have not really allowed myself to think too critically about anything in that time. I have been in and out of school and family responsibilities, and I have hardly had any time to myself. And those times that I do have to myself, my thoughts always circle back to that word. “Artifice.”
It’s hardly an unconventional word. “Artifice, noun: a clever or cunning device or expedient, especially as used to trick or deceive others.” That’s what Google says. Seems right, if a bit on the nose. The word just feels so graceful. Artifice. Like a gossamer curtain — effortless, thin and frail. The artifice usually is. Even when you are confident you have kept your secret, you can’t keep it concealed forever. Sometimes, secrets don’t want to stay hidden. Sometimes, the secret isn’t a secret at all. Sometime an artifice that has been imposed on you holds back an essential truth. If you pull back the gossamer curtain, you’re right back to living a lie.
But oh, to be behind that gossamer curtain as it still hangs. To be living the truth, where no one else can see it. Isn’t that something, in and of itself? Not enough, but something?
The Boys in the Band, William Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation of the 1968 play of the same name, starts simply with a montage. We see all manner of men walk about the screen, living their daily lives. One is a photographer, one is a librarian, and one is an interior decorator. All regular men, living regular lives. Well, not quite. One walks with a swagger in his hips. He carries his arm delicately at his side. Something’s off with that one. We, as the audience, are meant to immediately sniff him out — ah, that one. That’s the fruit. The one with the effeminate voice and the fuck-me eyes. The rest of them? Straight as an arrow. But that one? He’s the fag.
But that’s just the thing. The montage concludes, and we settle into the scene—Harold ’s birthday party in an upscale New York apartment. As the guests pour in, the viewer starts to recognize the faces. One, after the other, after the other.
That’s right, you bigoted fuck. They’re all fags.
Well, except for one. His name’s Alan. You see, Michael — he’s the host — Michael invited Alan over when the latter made a pitied phone call, begging for a drink and a conversation. Alan wants to confide something in him. The two were roommates in college, you see. But Michael was apprehensive, because he’s hosting Harold’s birthday party tonight, and he knows all of his friends will be at his place. All of his gay, gay, unapologetically gay friends. But Alan’s straight, and he doesn’t know what he’s getting into. But how can Michael turn him down? He sounded terrible. And what is so important that he can’t just tell Michael over the phone? Perhaps we should just have him over, just for a drink, as long as everyone promises to play it cool. Play it straight.
Curtain up, ladies. Time to put on a show.
Alan walks in with a quiet air of the past about him. Antiquated, as Michael says. His face says Orson Welles, his attire says Humphrey Bogart. He makes quiet companionship with Hank — oh, Hank! How could I forget? You see, Hank is playing two roles tonight. He’s Larry’s lover, but their relationship is not doing too well. Hank is married to a woman, so this whole artifice thing is his bag. He plays it up with Alan really well. They bond over a drink, while Emory — the obvious fag — makes jabs at them from across the balcony. Michael brings him into the kitchen to argue, but it does nothing. The tensions are already so high. How could it fix anything?
Alan has his drink. The queers stare at him in anticipation for his departure. Did we just get away with it, they no doubt must be thinking. Was our act a hit? Alan heads towards the door, ready to leave. A thank-you to Hank, a thank-you to Michael, and — Emory makes a few snide remarks. The two exchange insults for a second, then —
A punch flies across the room. Emory falls to the ground, screaming bloody murder. His nose is bleeding, god it must be broken. Bernard — he came with Emory — Bernard moves in to see if he’s okay. Hell, they all move in to try and break it up. There goes Alan, shouting “faggot! faggot!” at the top of his lungs. The scene is a horror show of ripped gossamer curtains stained red. The reviews came in, babes, and they are ugly. How the hell are we gonna salvage this?
And just then, Harold shows up. Fashionably late, as always, the bitter fuck. And to his own birthday party, no less. His guard is down immediately — the THC in his system doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Well, I guess there’s no more curtains. Let the night proceed as usual.
Alan recovers in Michael’s bedroom, and the two former roommates try to talk it out. They fail, inevitably. Remember, Alan is the antiquated straighty. The fag beater. There’s no way he’s pulling back that curtain without a fight. And goddamnit, Michael is prepared to give him that fight. If only he had a miracle scenario…
Just then, lightning strikes! Literally. The party moves from the balcony to the living room when things get rained out. Now, it’s just eight homos and a straighty are trapped in a living room. Michael, ever the one to capitalize on a shitty situation, decides now is the perfect time to play a little game. A dare, of sorts, played with a telephone. Players can make a call to their one true love, and you win if you tell them you love them. Come on, fags! The show must go on!
Well, who’s gonna pull back the curtain that easily? It’s not just something you can do on a whim, right? And here, in front of all my friends? In front of that straighty? Not a chance, Michael. Nobody’s giving into your game. Well, except Bernard. Bernard is the first to give in. He calls an acquaintance — someone he’s had feelings for, for a long while. The acquaintance’s mother answers the line, and — said acquaintance is on a date. With a woman. Bernard chickens out. Next!
Emory pours his heart out over a dentist he had a crush on when he was in high school. He calls, but the dentist hangs up. Emory seems torn up about it, but hey, he’ll pick up, right? He’s the queen, remember? The limp-wristed queen with the fuck-me eyes. He’ll manage! Find another cock that’s just his type. Meanwhile, Bernard is in the corner sobbing. You know, you really did a number on him Michael. Maybe you ought to stop —
Next up, Hank and Larry! Roommates and tentative lovers. It is at this point that Alan has to come terms with the fact that Hank might not be his straight buddy. Hank makes a call to Larry; Larry makes a call to Hank. It’s a whole thing. Not lovey-dovey, mind you, but enough. It’s getting harder for Alan to deny the situation. He’s surrounded on all fronts. His turn.
Michael accuses Alan of having a relationship with one of their friends in college — Justin, I think his name was. Alan makes a big fuss of calling his one true love — never revealing the name. He tells this person that he loves them very, very much. Michael rushes to the phone, overjoyed at the thought of hearing Justin’s voice on the other line — but it’s just Alan’s wife. Alan leaves. Everyone leaves. Curtain call.
Well, not quite. Harold, that fool unbothered by artifice, tells Michael a few parting words. He says that Michael will always be a homosexual, no matter how hard he tries to deny it. That Michael’s Catholic guilt will only get him so far. It’s at that moment, that one effortless moment, that everything finally makes sense. Michael wasn’t trying to pull the curtain on Alan — he was trying to close the curtains on himself. Return to the artifice. Make sense of himself.
He can think he’s a heterosexual all he wants. But he’ll always be gay.
Michael attends Mass. Incidentally, we never learn what it was Alan wanted to confide in Michael. Maybe Alan’s curtains really were gossamer thin.
Maybe mine are, too.