Torch Song Trilogy

In Torch Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein plays a female impersonator who adopts the stage name “Virginia Hamm.” And Virginia ham describes Fierstein’s meaty approach to his acting and writing as well. It’s broad, juicy, and invariably tasty; nothing subtle about it.

Torch Song Trilogy is adapted from Fierstein’s landmark stage play, which he also wrote and starred in. The film version traces three stages of drag queen Arnold Beckoff’s life in the 1970s: his affair with a bisexual man (Brian Kerwin) who eventually opts for the married life; his relationship with a younger man (Matthew Broderick); and his eventual thrashing-out with his mother (Anne Bancroft), who’s never quite accepted his gay identity.

Just from this brief description, you’ve probably deduced that it’s rather remarkable this film got made in at all, considering Hollywood’s skittishness about homosexuality. What’s even more surprising is that Torch Song doesn’t make any concessions to commercial viability (except that it is, apparently, much shorter than the play). Fierstein and director Paul Bogart don’t sidestep their material; there’s no straight character who leads us into the story, no post-AIDS moralizing about promiscuity, no big-time star in the lead role.

And probably no big star (Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss were considered for the movie) could’ve brought the movie to life in the same way that Fierstein does. Fish-faced, big-shouldered, and with a voice that sounds like gravel at the bottom of a well, Fierstein hardly cuts a matinee-idol figure. And he’s not a subtle actor, either; he’s a bit like Joan Crawford on steroids. But he inhabits the role with bravado, self-pity, stubbornness.

The other performers are all fine. Broderick, who is a matinee idol, got his first acting job in the original play, and he repays that break with a thoughtful performance here. (His agent probably fainted at the thought of this young superstar kissing men on the screen.)

Torch Song isn’t profound in any way, and it brays out its message in the regularly time speeches that Arnold makes, sometimes to the audience, sometimes to other characters. But it is consistently entertaining, simply because Fierstein knows how to write scenes in an old-fashioned form: comedy, tenderness, comedy, pathos, comedy. This is a movie of the 1980s, but it owes a lot to the melodrama of the 1940s.

First published in The Herald, January 26, 1989

If you’re gonna bring a landmark gay stagework to the screen, by all means get the director of Cancel My Reservation. I kid; Paul Bogart did a lot of worthy TV, including All in the Family. The film was released in Dec. 1988 to qualify for awards; it didn’t get an Oscar attention, and not much box office, but presumably has had its effect over the years. By the way, Charles Pierce plays a character called Bertha Venation, a detail I had forgotten but will not forget again.

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