[Warning: the following contains quoted homophobic and racist slurs from the films in question.]
It’s Pride Month, which means it’s time to celebrate the progress the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights has made, and plan for the massive strides our country still needs to make. As such, you can probably expect to see a lot of press from the It Gets Better Project, which is dedicated to helping LGBT+ youth through showing them that happiness and success are not as elusive as they may think.
It Gets Better could be considered a real-world application of many queer activists’ desires to see more positive, happy portrayals of LGBTQIA+ people in media, which has been a concern for much longer than the current age of internet campaigns over fridging queer characters on TV shows. This desire originates from queer writers’ reactions to the censoring of books that contained same-sex relationships that were not depicted as immoral, ending in death, or “fixable.” For instance, Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian novel The Price of Salt (later adapted to film as Carol) was incredibly controversial and unusual for its happy ending, while pulp novels where women had lesbian affairs but “repented” by re-discovering heterosexuality (which were often written by queer writers as a way of circumventing moral codes to achieve the slightest amount of representation) thrived and practically formed their own industry, albeit a niche one not granted much literary merit.
Eventually, the narrative of gay characters meeting tragic fates was co-opted by straight writers, usually for the purpose of educating other straight people about homophobia, and instead of being regarded as “trashy” or “pulp,” was elevated to the realm of prestige pieces. Naturally, gay writers weren’t pleased with this development, and started creating their own works in response to this trend, two of which I’ll examine here: the 1970 film version of the play The Boys in the Band (written by Mart Crowley) and the 2000 film The Broken Hearts Club (written and directed by Greg Berlanti).
Rather than the empowering war cry might expect from such works, however, both Crowley and Berlanti chose to tell stories from within a gay community about the issues they saw therein, particularly with self-loathing. This can attract its own set of problems and controversy, as gay people tortured by their own sexuality is a negative trope that’s also old as dirt (see: The Children’s Hour). The two films are significantly different in their tone and conception of a quintessentially “gay” story about self-loathing, but despite its flaws and the controversy it’s attracted over the years from numerous queer writers, I vastly prefer The Boys in the Band’s approach over Broken Hearts Club’s.
The Boys in the Band centers around Michael, a mostly-unemployed Catholic gay writer who’s also a recovering alcoholic, as he plans a birthday party for his friend Harold along with several other gay men. It’s established fairly early on that Michael has very deep-seated self-loathing about many parts of his identity, particularly his alcoholism but slightly more subtly with his sexuality. One of the first conversations we see him engage in is a casual put-down of gay culture:
Michael: [Mockingly sings a few bars of “Get Happy”] What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland impression?
Donald: A queen doing a Bette Davis impression.
As the events of the evening, including the unexpected arrival of one of Michael’s straight friends from college, Alan (which results in Alan attacking one of the gay guests), and Michael resuming drinking again, Michael becomes more unhinged and his self-loathing becomes much more pronounced, though usually in the form of attacking the other party guests with slurs and projecting his issues onto them.
Michael: [Regarding Emory] [You’re] a falling-down-drunk nellie queen.
Harold: Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle ‘beige.’
Michael: [Clearly intoxicated] I AM NOT DRUNK!
Michael: [Singing at Harold] Oh, you really gotta figure, it’s tough to be a n—-r, but it’s tougher to be a Jew.
Donald: My God, Michael, you’re a charming host.
Harold: Michael doen’t have charm, he has counter-charm.
The Boys in the Band came under fire for these exchanges, which are littered throughout the script, but where it manages to redeem itself is in the surprising compassion it has for all of its characters except Michael. For instance, Emory, the most flamboyant of the group, is the subject of most of the group’s ribbing, but he’s clearly very comfortable in his own skin, and only addresses himself negatively after being horribly goaded by Michael. Harold even repeatedly calls out Michael for his bigotry and projection, concluding his stay at the party with a speech tearing down Michael’s façade.
Harold: You’re a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve go left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you’ll always be homosexual as well. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die.
While the film doesn’t end with Michael having a grand revelation about himself and his attitudes (in fact, the ending seems to indicate his life will stay more or less the same), he does at least seem to realize that his view of the world is heavily distorted by his own prejudices towards both himself and others.
Michael: As my father said to me when he died in my arms, ‘I don’t understand any of it. I never did.’
And that’s why The Boys in the Band shines: it makes Michael almost as much of a villain of the piece as the heterosexual Alan, and offers counterpoints to his attitudes in the form of an actual philosophical debate, rather than straw-manning. Michael seems like a gay man that actually could exist in the real world, and while he’s definitely not the kind of person who should be held up as a positive icon, there’s a lot of value in allowing gay characters to be flawed and damaged just like straight characters are allowed to be. It treats his internalized homophobia as its own sort of plague on the gay community nearly equivalent to Alan’s outsider homophobia.
Broken Hearts Club, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction by making every major member of its cast have some sort of internalized homophobia, with no real counterpoint to it. Where the character of Harold in particular in The Boys in the Band was crucial in that film’s message by counter-arguing with Michael, Broken Hearts Club has no such character. The entire ensemble has the same gripes about casual sex, appearance, fitness and practically every other aspect of gay life, which they voice so loudly and so often that they blend together.
Take, for instance, the film’s stance on casual sex, which it regards as nothing less than The Worst Thing You Can Do Ever and is hardly subtle about it.
There’s many a speech dedicated to railing against “gym bunnies” and how their sex-having ways are ruining gay culture for everyone, even though there’s only one “gym bunny” character in the entire film who doesn’t really seem that bad at first…until it’s revealed that he’s a drug addict, which leads to one of the minor characters, Benji, who was in a relationship with him, overdosing. Because, you know, we hadn’t hit all the slut-shaming points yet. Don’t have casual sex, kids, or you’ll wind up nearly dead.
Or take, perhaps, this “charming” scene, where Dennis, ostensibly the film’s main character (and the target of a running “gag” where his friends keep giving him the same book about finding one true love), kicks a man out of bed due to his own reservations about casual sex. This could have been a semi-reasonable road to take had the film contextualized it properly, but it ruins it by making the tone glib and superficial, making the conflict hinge around Dennis’s bedmate not liking The Carpenters and ignoring that Dennis not knowing his name should be part of the joke rather than a footnote. As such, it completely fails to seriously acknowledge Dennis’s issues with himself.
The Boys in the Band had a similar subplot about casual sex within the gay community and the emotional challenges it poses, but it far outshone Broken Hearts Club’s take by presenting both sides of the issue fairly rather than having every character be an anti-sex mouthpiece. Hank and Larry are a couple on the rocks due to Larry’s opposition to complete monogamy, and both Hank and Larry are given speeches to detail their feelings about the relationship and why they feel the way they feel about commitment. The subplot ends with both Hank and Larry re-affirming their love for one another in spite of their differences of opinion and each trying to understand the other.
More importantly, The Boys in the Band doesn’t contextualize Hank’s opposition to casual sex in the gay community within the play’s broader framework of self-loathing: it’s presented as a personal struggle for him and Larry specifically to deal with. Broken Hearts Club, on the other hand, does just that with something approaching relish: The characters hate themselves for having sex drives that push them to casual sex, they hate everyone else for the same reason, and the cycle just continues and continues without anyone ever pointing out that maybe this is a bad idea. It’s best summed up in this exchange:
Dennis: If Larry Kramer knew this is how gay men in America spent their time, he’d defect.
Howie: He probably would.
Patrick: Larry Kramer can blow me.
Howie: He probably would.
Both films discuss the representation of gay characters in media, brief as that discussion may be, but the conclusions they draw are remarkably different for as similar as they sound. In The Boys in the Band, when Michael says “It’s not like it is in plays. Not every faggot bumps themselves off at the end of the story!” it’s both in defiance of his own self-hatred (the last time he really does so in the film) and a meta-texual refutation of a dangerous trope. Broken Hearts Club, meanwhile, has this to say:
Howie: There isn’t a movie in the cinema canon that depicts a gay character that we would aspire to be. What are our options… noble, suffering AIDS victims, the friends of noble suffering AIDS victims, sex addicts, common street hustlers and the newest addition to the lot, stylish confidantes to lovelorn women. Just once I would like to see someone who is not sick, hasn’t been laid in about three months and is behind on his student loans.
Beji: And that’s someone you’d aspire to be?
Glib little barbs like these, which Broken Hearts Club applies liberally to its script in an attempt to be the Boys in the Band of its time, are ironically its downfall. Since the film doesn’t treat its own themes with any kind of seriousness, it completely misses the chance to try and refute its own characters’ regressive attitudes on sex and love and become a powerful work about combatting internalized oppression like The Boys in the Band. Instead, Broken Hearts Club merely reproduces negative tropes regarding gay men, acknowledges them as such, and completely forgets to do anything else besides. It’s a sad little failure of a film that only serves to highlight how displaced modern gay men are from the movements that shaped their lives today.