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Taking Another Look

English professor reflects on the varied aspects of ‘The Boys in the Band’

As a teenager growing up in southern California, Dr. Matt Bell had yet to come out as gay and was struggling to find images in the world of people who looked like him.

One day, while deciding upon a movie to rent at a local video store, he came across the 1970 film, The Boys in the Band. Little did he know how that decision would impact his life.

The film, based on the play written by Mart Crowley, portrays nine gay men at a party in a New York City apartment in the late 1960s. Each character depicts a gay stereotype.

“I was shell shocked,” Bell said, after first viewing the film. “I had a powerful negative reaction…those characters were not what I wanted to become.”

Throughout his life Bell, who is an English professor at Bridgewater State University, specializing in queer studies, film and critical theory, kept coming back to the film. Ultimately, his opinion of it changed.

“I could see more of the positive qualities in it…there is a sense of power in some of the conversations,” he said.

In 2012 the idea of a book started to form, one that would challenge academics to re-examine the film. Bell took his idea and ran with it, and in 2016 edited and contributed to The Boys in the Band: Flashpoints of Cinema, History and Queer Politics.

The timing was ideal, as the play recently celebrated it’s 50th anniversary with a Broadway revival, and this year Netflix released an adaptation of the film starring Jim Parsons, of television’s Big Bang Theory, as well as other well-known Hollywood actors.

“I think (why there is a revitalization) is because of the lesson (The Boys in the Band) might have for us, it’s useful to reflect,” Bell said. “The idea is to look back 50 years, to see a different world and how far we have come.”

However, Bell said, with all that’s going on in the world right now it forces the question: How far have we really progressed?

“There is nothing inevitable about the arc of the universe bending toward justice…there are plenty of forces that want injustice and inequality, we have to make it happen if we want a just world, we have to come forward and fight for justice,” he said.

There are 11 contributors in the book, each tackling issues portrayed in the film, including the history and politics surrounding The Boys in the Band.

And while he doesn’t require his students to read his book, he does encourage them and other members of the BSU community to consider taking a look.

The book also helps Bell show his students that it’s possible to get published and to be a working scholar.

“It’s important for students at Bridgewater to see that being a working scholar isn’t something that happens in outer space, it’s not that far removed from their world. I like to show students examples of my writing to make that clear,” Bell said.

He hopes his students can draw inspiration from him, just like he did from Crowley, whom Bell was fortunate enough to meet before the playwright died earlier this year.

After their encounter, the BSU professor sent Crowley a copy of the book.

“He read it and sent me a very lovely note,” Bell said. “He was such an important pioneer of the 1960s and kind of person who made my life possible and I realize that now.”

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