US Release Date: 12-14-1988
Directed by: Paul Bogart
- Anne Bancroft, as
- Ma Beckoff
- Matthew Broderick, as
- Alan Simon
- Harvey Fierstein, as
- Arnold Beckoff
- Brian Kerwin, as
- Ed Reese
- Karen Young, as
- Eddie Castrodad, as
- Ken Page, as
- Charles Pierce, as
- Bertha Venation
- Axel Vera as
- Marina Del Rey
Harvey Fierstein and Matthew Broderick in Torch Song Trilogy. Just for fun see how many bunny items you can spot in the movie.
In 1988 Harvey Fierstein brought his multiple Tony winning, hit Broadway play Torch Song Trilogy to the big screen. He adapted the screenplay and recreated the role of female impersonator and hopeless romantic Arnold Beckoff. I was a 21 year old gay man when I first saw this movie and it had a profound impact on me. I remember walking out of the theater with a newfound sense of belonging.
The story is set in New York City during the golden age of modern gay culture, those liberating years between the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the advent of the AIDS epidemic in 1981. As the title suggests the story takes place in three acts.
After a brief opening scene where we see a young Arnold playing dress-up in his mother’s closet in 1952 Brooklyn, the story proper begins with Arnold in his dressing room making up for a show in 1971. He delivers a monologue about love directly to the camera, and throughout the movie returns to this cinematic gimmick.
Later that same night Arnold gets picked up at a bar and begins dating Ed, a self-proclaimed bi-sexual. This prompts one of his fellow drag queens to remark, “Just once I’d like to see a bi-sexual that lives with a man and sneaks out to see his girlfriend on the side.”
During the first act we meet Arnold’s disapproving mother (Anne Bancroft playing the role Estelle Getty originated onstage but since Getty was busy playing Sophia on television’s The Golden Girls she was unable to be in the film) and watch as his relationship with Ed goes through several ups and downs. It ends with Ed’s big emotional moment in Arnold’s dressing room.
In act two we meet Alan (played by Matthew Broderick who had originated the role of David in the play). He is a gorgeous young model that falls for Arnold one night after an altercation at the club where Arnold performs. Act two ends on a tragic note.
The third act takes place in 1980 and deals with Arnold’s relationship with David, a troubled gay teenager living with Arnold and whom Arnold hopes to adopt. It culminates with Arnold’s big confrontation with his mother and hints at a possible reconciliation with Ed.
Torch Song Trilogy moves effortlessly between comedy and drama. In the third act David gets sent home from school for fighting. When Arnold asks him what he was fighting about he replies, “He called me a douche bag, so I slugged him.” “How 50s.” Arnold quips back. Then just a few moments later Arnold and his mother have a dramatic argument where she says, “You shut me out of your life and then blamed me for not being there.”
In subject matter this movie was ahead of its time. Arnold and Alan discuss wanting to get married and raising children and the topic of gay adoption is broached. It also shone a light on gay bashing and offered many straight people their first glimpse into the gay urban subculture (in fact I saw this movie with my brother Eric and he made a similar comment as we were leaving the theater). Drag icon Charles Pierce gets to do his famous Mae West and Bette Davis impersonations.
The cast is excellent. Brian Kerwin is great as Ed and Eddie Castrodad gets a few good scenes as David. Matthew Broderick seems a bit tentative playing Alan though. Anne Bancroft steals her scenes as Arnold’s very Jewish mother. Her best moment takes place at a cemetery where she and Arnold have yet another emotional outburst.
Harvey Fierstein, although not a movie star, makes Arnold a likable average guy and a rather unique leading man. He was the character I identified the most with when I first saw this movie. Given his physical appearance the story is a bit of a fantasy in the sense that he somehow gets two very attractive men to fall in love with him. But then it is his movie so why not?
Torch Song Trilogy was groundbreaking in 1988 and retains its relevance and entertainment value in 2011.
Ann Bancroft and Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy. You cannot see them in this picture but Bancroft is wearing bunny slippers.
I understand how seeing this film in 1988 could have deeply affected Patrick. As a homosexual, this film no doubt spoke volumes to him. I do recall leaving the theater after watching this film with a sense of unease. I was insecure at the time about what others may have thought of me for having watched such a film. I hardly give a damn now. I have not watched Torch Song Trilogy since that afternoon with Patrick and this time I took away an entirely different feeling.
Arnold is a gay man who wants a loving long term relationship. Although he may occasionally partake of anonymous male affection, he really just wants someone in his life he can commit to. He falls in love with Ed but as we see when they visit the country, they are hardly an ideal couple. Even if Ed was able to commit to Arnold, their interests and attitudes are not cohesive.
Arnold and Alan are a much better matched couple. They each seem to genuinely enjoy wanting to make the other happy. They are a gay couple who want to marry, adopt a child and grow old together. It is with Arnold’s relationship to Alan that I found most interesting viewing this film today.
Alan proposes marriage to Arnold even though this was long before gay marriage was legal. Yes folks, homosexuals have always been able to “marry” and make emotional commitments to each other, even if our government did not legally recognize it. According to this movie, gays fearfully understood in the 1970s that getting their ass kicked just for being gay was fairly common, with one man expressing the futility of calling the police when it happens.
Times have definitely changed. Legalized gay marriage is spreading across this country faster than the latest Lindsay Lohan gossip. You cannot turn on the news without seeing an unattractive middle aged gay couple kissing in front of some city hall building. Because of horrendous murders like that of Matthew Shepard, hate crime laws were created that now make beating or killing a homosexual a worse crime than beating up or killing a heterosexual.
Homosexuals have fought for legalized gay marriage by making such claims that they are the same as straights in their relationships, so they deserve the same treatment. This film however, implies just how different the sex lives of gays and straights can be. Here we see just how easy and open gay sex was/is? Some bars apparently had back rooms that were basically orgies where you merely had to wander into free of charge to have sex with someone else looking for the same thing. I have no idea if those rooms still exist today. Patrick?
Another aspect of the sex lives of the gay characters depicted here is that no one expects their partner to be loyal to them. The mere idea of monogamy seems too foreign an idea to even consider. Ed is seeing someone else besides Arnold and tells Arnold to go out and date others as well. Even Alan, Arnold’s true love, has an affair on him and Arnold takes it all in stride, as if it is to be expected. Is monogamy less common in gay relationships? Is the expectation of monogamy lower with homosexuals? I have no idea, but this film makes it seem so.
Harvey Fierstein wrote quite an emotional film here with nearly every scene expressing some dramatic tone. Although there is some humor to be found here, Arnold is very much the definition of a drama queen. He has more shit in his life than a dairy farmer. He seems to express grief and disappointment as easily as others yawn. Happiness to Arnold is like a distant cousin that only occasionally visits and never stays too long.
I will take Patrick’s word for it that this is a depiction of gay culture in New York in the 1970s. However, I felt Fierstein dropped the ball with the character of Ed’s girlfriend. He writes her as if she were a homosexual male and not a straight female. There is no way any woman above a halfwit would consider marrying a man whom she knew was openly bisexual unless she was young, insecure and dumb enough to think she could change him, but none of that is ever mentioned. I would have also liked to have seen more of Arnold’s relationship with his straight brother.
The real story here is not of Arnold’s love life but his relationship to his mother. It seems a bit unrealistic in that she is so long in accepting his sexuality. This film has two female characters. One is Ed’s girlfriend who is so accepting of Ed’s bisexuality that she invites his gay lover for the weekend. The other is Arnold’s mother, who even after decades of having the truth in her face cannot accept it. They are each a one note character. Bancroft gets some showy outburst but her final scene is less than satisfying.
Torch Song Trilogy is a learning experience for those of us unfamiliar to this culture. No offense intended but I still do not understand the entertainment value of a drag queen. I do get that Arnold, like everyone, wants to be loved and wants someone to love, but he seems to thrive so much on crisis situations that if I was his parent I would have moved to Florida as well. Not because he is gay, because I could not stand all the moodiness.
Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy.
Yes, Arnold is a drama queen, no question. However, this seems to have more to do with his upbringing than it does with the fact that he's gay. Look at his mother and her dramatics and it's not hard to see where he gets it from. She's as overly dramatic as he is. Arnold even admits to his tendency to dramatize things when he says, "Maybe he's treating me just the way I want him to. What if it's me using him to give me that tragic torch singer status I admire so in others?"
The script, by Fierstein, contains many quotable lines. Some of my favorites are, "An ugly person who goes after a pretty person gets nothing but trouble. But a pretty person who goes after an ugly person gets at least cab fare." and "A thing of beauty is a joy 'till sunrise." and "I know you'll find this hard to comprehend, but I want more out of life than meeting a pretty face and sitting down on it." and "You want meaningful conversation? Do what I do, talk to yourself. It's the only way."
The original play this film was based on was 4 hours long. Thankfully, it was edited down to two hours for the film version, although it could have used a further edit. Most of the scenes in the drag club could have been removed. They haven't held up very well in terms of entertainment and reportedly were included because Fierstein was a fan of Charles Pierce and wrote the part of Bertha Venation to showcase some of his work. It doesn't help the pace or the story.
Like Eric, I enjoyed the portion of the story with Alan the most. The first act is definitely the weakest. It's obvious to everyone but Arnold that Ed isn't in their relationship for the long term. He's firmly closeted, while enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle of the gay clubs in New York City of the 1970s far too much. The story and the pacing pick up when Matthew Broderick's character enters the story.
I disagree with Eric that the real story is Arnold's relationship with his mother. The real story is Arnold's relationship with himself. He's a bit of a doormat at the beginning of the film, but by the end he has become responsible and possesses more self-respect. He stands up to his mother and he uses his head instead of his heart in his relationship with Ed. This transformation of his climaxes when he tells his mother, "I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing. I can even pat myself on the back when necessary So I don't have to ask anyone for anything. There's nothing I need from anyone, except for love and respect. Anyone who can't give me those two things has no place in my life."
Portions of the story do seem dated and it runs a tad long. Fierstein does create a memorable and sympathetic character in Arnold. You want to see him find happiness and as the final scene demonstrates, there's a very good chance he's managed it.
Photos © Copyright New Line Cinema (1988)