In 1968, when Billy Friedkin first saw “The Boys in the Band,” he felt the play was “funny and poignant and, in its own way, a love story.” He decided to adapt it as a film, not to make a statement, but because “it was a damn good story.”
As it turned out, it was also relevant. At that moment in time, gays were starting to come out of the closet, Friedkin recalls, and, on one level, “Boys in the Band” was about the closet.
Despite its relevance, the director did not get much encouragement in the marketplace. None of the studios wanted to finance it.
Friedkin finally got a greenlight from Cinema Center Films, then owned by CBS, but the company did not have the funding to distribute or market the film widely. While the movie got good reviews, it did not find a wide audience.
In casting the film, Friedkin approached straight and gay actors. While the roles were rich, there was concern among actors about the price they might pay for playing gay. Tensions came to the fore over a scene in which two of the players would kiss. “This would be the first time a scene with two males kissing would be portrayed in a mainstream film,” Friedkin says. At the moment of truth, the actors reluctantly agreed. Their agents, however, vigorously protested.
After much negotiation, the scene was finally shot, but was not used in the final cut. “We didn’t need it, and I felt it would only sensationalize the piece,” Friedkin recalls. “It was a bad decision,” he adds. “I think we should have kept it.”
In retrospect, none of the straight actors in the cast suffered career damage, the director states. Larry Luckinbill, for example, who is married to Lucie Arnaz, has had a solid career in stage and film.
A decade later, Friedkin shot “Cruising,” a much tougher look at a gritty part of the gay scene. The film stirred more controversy than “Boys in the Band” and was maligned by critics. And like “Band,” it did not find a wide audience.
Friedkin believes movies have played a key role in bringing awareness to gay issues, but notes that this is hardly a new phenomenon. Over the generations, the gay lifestyle has periodically been depicted in live theater, only to encounter a wall of censorship. In 1927 Mae West wrote and starred in a play called “The Drag,” a cross-dressing show that was promptly banned.
In choosing his material, Friedkin insists he has always been motivated by the quality of the script itself, not by the opportunity to seize the soapbox. “I truly don’t believe anyone needs to go public with their sexual preferences,” he declares. “It’s really no one’s damn business.”