This week I revisit two films from the “gay friends hang out” genre: Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! and Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club. McNally’s soap opera features a community of gay men who support each other through tragedy. Berlanti’s sitcom imagines a low stakes world where gay men can simply hang out and be themselves. These films scared me when I first saw them. They seemed like cautionary tales about the gay world I was trying to enter. Since then I’ve grown more forgiving. You can dismiss them for their predictability or embrace them as comfort food in a time when gay cinema had only just found its footing.
Let’s compare and contrast with some spoiler filled recaps.
Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997)
“I think I wanted to write a play about my experience of being a gay man in the last part of the twentieth century.” ~ Writer Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally’s play opened Off-Broadway in 1994 and transferred to Broadway in 1995. It won the Tony Award for Best Play and Featured Actor Award for John Glover. Director Joe Mantello was able to transfer most of the cast to film with the exceptions of Nathan Lane, who had a conflicting project, and Anthony Heald who had taken over Stephen Spinella’s role during the transfer. McNally’s screenplay shaved at least 30 minutes off the stage script and received mixed reviews.
DANCER (Steven Bogardus): Welcome to my lake side house! I invite my friends over every holiday.
CAMPY (Jason Alexander): I use musical theater trivia to mask my depression.
BRAINY (Stephen Spinella): I’m neurotic and racist.
HAPPY (John Benjamin Hickey): I’m friendly unless you say something racist.
SWEET TWIN (John Glover): I love everybody and I’m dying of AIDS.
GRUMPY TWIN (John Glover): I hate everybody. Not sure why I was invited.
VANITY (Randy Becker): I’m eye candy. I came with the Grumpy Twin but now I’d like to cum with the Dancer’s blind boyfriend.
BLIND BOYFRIEND (Justin Kirk): Sure.
DANCER: I’m going to end you Vanity. (Tries to stick Vanity’s arm in the garbage disposal.)
A Goodbye Dance
DANCER: You can dance in my Swan Lake if you tell the audience how you die.
(The cast tells the audience how they die.)
GRUMPY TWIN: This story says friendship is useless because we die alone.
DANCER: No. This story says life is hard but friends can support each other along the way.
(The cast goes skinny dipping.)
The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy (2000)
“It was born out of wanting to write a film that to me was about maybe the silent majority of gay men that I knew who weren’t like a lot of these men on the screen.” ~ Writer/Director Greg Berlanti.
It’s more of a buddy comedy. Greg Berlanti is best known today for Love, Simon and his string of successful CW shows. His film debut, The Broken Hearts Club, benefits from a likable cast playing not-so-likable roles. Reviews, again, were mixed but the film holds up two decades later.
ANGSTY (Timothy Olyphant): I love my terrible gay friends. I treat everyone else like garbage.
CAMPY (Billy Porter): I whine about my ex.
VANITY (Dean Cain): I seduce vulnerable men.
JUNKIE (Zach Braff): I take drugs.
BRAINY (Matt McGrath): Why are so many gay characters on film stereotypes? Nobody even knows I’m gay.
GRUMPY (Ben Weber): Everybody knows you’re gay.
VANITY: I slept with a closeted baby gay, then broke his heart. I’m so cool.
BABY GAY (Andrew Keegan): Being gay is terrible.
ANGSTY: Don’t be sad. I’ll date you Baby Gay.
VANITY: Later losers. I’m seeing a closeted movie star!
MOVIE STAR: We banged. I’m done with you.
VANITY: He broke my heart!
BRAINY: Stop asking for a date. We’re just F. Buddies.
F. BUDDY (Justin Theroux): Then I’ll date someone else.
BRAINY: PLEASE TAKE ME BACK! I LOVE YOU!
Birth and Death
RUDE LESBIAN SISTER-IN-LAW (Nia Long): Give me your sperm you piece of trash!
GRUMPY: No. You’ll make a terrible mother.
PAPA GAY (John Mahoney): Stop being cynical Grumpy. Life’s over before you know it.
(PAPA GAY dies of a heart attack.)
CAST: Junkie! Stop taking drugs at Papa Gay’s funeral.
JUNKIE: I hate you all. (Overdoses. Almost dies.) I’m sorry. I love you all.
A Goodbye Party
ANGSTY: I’m dumping you and moving to Europe. You can have my friends.
BABY: Well you treated me like a used condom. Is this film saying friends are disposable?
ANGSTY: No. It’s saying lovers are disposable but friendship is forever!
BABY: Sure. I love my terrible gay friends.
With Friends Like These…
“It was very different back then. You could get arrested for doing the things they do in this play.” ~ Playwright Mart Crowley
Mart Crowley passed away this weekend. These films owe a debt to his 1968 play and 1970 film The Boys in the Band. Eight gay friends gather for a birthday party filled with gossip and zingers. When a surprise guest arrives the drunken host subjects them to a cruel party game. The downbeat finale caused many to dismiss the work as self-loathing. Subsequent productions have revealed more layers to the story. L!V!C!’s Joe Mantello directed a starry revival in 2018 that felt like a celebration. The triumphant A-gays in this cast used the party game to exorcise some demons. It was clear that they would bounce back fast, where the sadder gents of 1970 might never recover. Ryan Murphy is producing a remake with that cast now. I look forward to seeing it.
Each of these stories share types including the player, the cynic, the squabbling couple, the sad clown (!?) and the underwritten person of color. You can trace those tropes, and others, through friendship stories like The Big Chill, Steel Magnolias, The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, Queer as Folk and The L Word. Not to mention countless sports, war and heist films. What are some of your favorite films about groups of friends?
Roger Ebert’s Review of Love! Valour! Compassion!
Charlie Rose’s interview with Nathan Lane and Terrence McNally about Love! Valour! Compassion!
An interview with John Benjamin Hickey about Love! Valour! Compassion!
Roger Ebert’s Review of The Broken Hearts Club.
A 2019 interview with the cast of The Broken Hearts Club.
A 2018 interview with Mart Crowley about The Boys in the Band.
For more reviews of LGBT media click here.