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Echoing through three decades of gay male circle-of-friends movies--from The Boys in the Band to Punks--is a common chorus: Friends are family

Thirty years separate the film version of Mart Crowley's landmark play The Boys in the Band from the upcoming "boys in the West Holly-hood" features Punks and The Broken Hearts Club--A Romantic Comedy, And on their wisecracking surfaces, the movies come from different sides of a wide generation gap: Crowley's camp followers joke about Judy Garland and Belly Grable, Belle Davis and Maria Montez, while the Broken Hearts boys banter about Karen Carpenter, John Boy Walton, and Julia Roberts, and the Punks gang fixate on Janet Jackson, Ricky Martin, Sister Sledge, and, most especially, the venerable Miss Diana Ross.

But while the name-dropping may have changed, Band's take on group dynamics among a circle of 20-something gay men has proved surprisingly resilient, It's no coincidence that both Hearts and Punks (each appearing at gay film festivals this summer, then opening in the fall) borrow Band's birthday party premise for their opening scenes, Crowley's play--an immediate hit when it first opened off-Broadway in 1968--serves up a veritable roll call of timeless gay types: the self-pitying party host, Michael; his bookish, self-reliant confidant, Donald; the flamingly nelly Emory; the sharp-tongued Harold; "straight-acting" teacher Hank and his sometimes--straying lover, Larry; sexy, black Bernard; twinkle-hustler Cowboy; and married closet case Alan.

Yet as vivid as the individual characters are, Band remains very much a group portrait, This particular party ends badly--Michael's self-loathing, criticized by both Donald and Harold, drives the other guests away--but there's no doubt that once their hangovers pass and their cutting remarks fade, this bickering group will be getting together again soon to practice their Fire Island dance routines.

"I was from Mississippi, I left home at the tender age of 17," Crowley recalls of the play's genesis, "Once I got to New York, little by little my gay friends became my family, Sortie of the characters in the play were based, spot on, on people I knew.... the models for Harold and Donald were very close friends--while others were more compilations."

The 1969 Stonewall riots and the rise of gay liberation may have turned Band into a period piece, but Crowley created the mold for the gay buddy movies to follow. In contrast to the archetypal straight buddy flick--say, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid--which generally revolves around two guys, often battling for the same girl, the typical gay buddy movie embraces a whole circle of pals whose group identity is often stronger than ties between passing tricks or even coupled lovers.

"When we were making Parting Glances, Bill [Sherwood] would say he was not making a gay film but a film about relationships." recalls actor Richard Ganoung, who starred in the late director's 1986 film, one of the first studies of the post-Stonewall general]on and recently re-released on DVD. Ganoung's Michael doesn't exhibit any of the isolation of Band's Michael: In fact, he's juggling a tangle of emotional connections involving his boyfriend, Robert (John Bolger); his first love, the AIDS-stricken Nick (Steve Buscemi); and his gal pal Joan (Kathy Kinney). "Bill's focus was always on friendship," continues Ganoung, who went on to play the wiser, older man in 1998's Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss. "And, in fact, we all became good friends. Even to this day, though we're all in different circles, we still keep in touch."

The times may change, but gay buddy movies keep depicting the lies that bind, decade after decade: The 1993 miniseries Tales of the City, based on the Arm]stead Maupin novel, captured the polymorphously perverse zeitgeist of '70s San Francisco, with the gloriously transsexual Anna Madrigal presiding over a rainbow family of mixed sexual orientations; 1990's Longtime Companion bore witness to the toll of AIDS on a Fire Island circle of friends in the '80s, while 1996's It's My Party paid similar tribute to a West Coast clan; and Terrence McNally's play and 1997 feature Love! Valour! Compassion! updated Band's formula to the '90s--Buzz, his musical-quoting queen (played onstage by Nathan Lane, on film by Jason Alexander) seemed a direct descendent of Band's Emory.

"Some people have been gracious enough to acknowledge [their debt to The Boys in the Band]--Terrence, for example, has personally talked to me about it," says Crowley, who's written a new, yet-unproduced play, The Men From the Boys, which looks in on many of the same friends 30 years later. "But I've also felt ripped off by cheap things like Party"--a gay nudie play that might as well have been called The Boys in the Buff--"I was right next door to a lawsuit about that one, but figured, Why bother?"

Understandably, young gay filmmakers, eager to define their own generation, find themselves talking back to Crowley's play. "I watched Boys in the Band when I first came out, but I found it sort of terrifying," says Greg Berlanti, who wrote and directed The Broken Hearts Club. "I recognize that in broke marvelous new ground at the time, hut I still find in an angry film. And a lot of the subsequent movies about gay friends just didn't speak to me." Still, in capturing his own experience, Berlanti found himself gravitating toward yet another group portrait of a light-knit circle of friends: "I knew I wanted to show a group of friends, where one character is trying to break away and one character is just entering the group, Some of the characters are autobiographical--I had an on-again, off-again [romance] like the Howie character myself, But I really borrowed the design and structure from movies about straight friends like Parenthood, Breaking Away, Diner, and Hannah and Her Sisters."

While overall Berlanti's movie is much more optimistic than Crowley's, Band's melodies linger. Like Michael, Learns Patrick (Ben Weber) suffers from low self-esteem, while the movie's main spokesman, aspiring photographer Dennis (Timothy Olyphant) worries, "I'm 28 years old, and the only thing I'm good at is being gay." Like Hank and Larry, there's a couple (Mall McGrath and Justin Theoroux) who can't quite break up, and, hearkening back to Bernard, there's a token African-American (Hilly Porter).

"African-Americans have usually been marginalized in gay movies," says writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk, whose Punks, also set in West Hollywood, is the first movie to allow gay men of color to lake center stage. "And as good as I think Broken Hearts Club is, its one person of color is, for me, its weakest character. I wanted to look at a segment of the gay community that bad never been fully explored before."

Some things are universal, though: Like Hearts, Punks features a main character (Seth Gilliam) who's an unabashed romantic who expresses himself through photography and another guy (Dwight Ewell) in the midst of an off-again, on-again relationship. And, again, friendship conquers all, as when drag queen Chris (Jazzmun) abandons her boyfriend to come to the aid of the drugged-out twinkie Dante (Ronoly Santiago), proclaiming, "Sometimes being a friend is way more important than being a lover."

Polk explains, "I think friendship is important to all of us as we enter adulthood. Especially for young gay people who don't have the luxury of discussing their lifestyle with their families, friendships take on an even greater significance." Berlanti's film endorses that view, beginning and ending with Dennis's testament that "the moment I first realized [it was OK to be gay] is when I first met these guys, my friends." Says the filmmaker: "When we played al Sundance, one mother came up to me in tears, saying she had a gay son and she just hopes he has friends like [those in the movie]."

Kilday is the Hollywood correspondent for Salon. coin and also contributes to Variety, Premiere, and TV Guide.
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Article Details
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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 6, 2000
Previous Article:Making it count.
Next Article:Broken Hearts Club.

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