Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1970. Cinema Center Films, Leo Films. Screenplay by Mart Crowley, based on his play. Cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz. Produced by Mart Crowley. Production Design by John Robert Lloyd. Costume Design by W. Robert La Vine. Film Editing by Gerald B. Greenberg, Carl Lerner. Golden Globe Awards 1970.
Mart Crowley’s hit stage play reaches the screen relatively intact, taking place over the course of an evening with nine friends celebrating the birthday of one of their group. All of them are gay men with the exception of one (and we’re left to wonder about him too), as Michael throws a party for Harold that gets off to a great start with his birthday present (in the form of handsome Cowboy Tex) but devolves into vicious arguments and accusations as the night continues. What is shocking when watching this vibrantly acted film is how much it still bursts through barriers: I don’t know that in the decades since the film version was produced we are getting that many more major releases that encourage gay men to reveal their frustrations or that relish the conflicts that exist between friends and lovers. The writing has barely aged a day, the power plays between characters alternating between dramatic and sweet as these guys ride the line between the comfort of knowing each other and the grating difficulties of intense intimacy. They have come to this familiarity from a world that has rejected and/or abused them, which in a pre-Stonewall America makes perfect sense but isn’t exactly off point today either, which means that reading their characters as bitter or negative is not quite giving them a fair shake. When it’s funny, it’s hysterically so (with Leonard Frey throwing one-liners from the cheap seats with delicious candor), but when it goes dark it is engaging because of how appealing all these characters are. William Friedkin directs with as much emphasis on character richness as visual finesse, the film edited with great energy and shot with radiant colours. The only drawback is that at times it does feel stagier than it should, and could use a slight trim. Look for future Bond girl Maud Adams as a photographer’s model.