It is a film about an eccentric Jewish drag queen struggling for some semblance of a normal life in New York City. It is also a funny, poignant and surprisingly wholesome tale of romantic love and old-fashioned family values. It could almost be a Hollywood movie—but it is not. Although Torch Song Trilogy as a stage drama captivated audiences on Broadway for two years—winning Tony awards for best play and best actor in 1983— Hollywood producers were nervous about bringing it to the screen. They proposed a sanitized version of the play with the sex cut out. They suggested Dustin Hoffman or Richard Dreyfuss for the lead role. And at least one studio executive said that Torch Song Trilogy’s 1970s-era “gay esthetic” had been rendered obsolete by AIDS.
But Harvey Fierstein, the author and star of the play, persisted. He was encouraged by both Hoffman and Dreyfuss: after seeing the play, the two actors individually told Fierstein that he himself was the best man for the part onscreen. Then, with the help of New Line Cinema, an independent U.S. producer, Fierstein wrote and starred in a movie made on his
own terms. With a story that spans the years 1971 to 1980—before AIDS had begun to spread through the homosexual community— the film makes no mention of the virus. And Fierstein expresses outrage at suggestions by some critics that the omission of AIDS makes his story outdated. In Toronto last week to attend a benefit première of the movie for local AIDS groups, he told Maclean’s, “Very well-meaning people have gone out of their way to mention AIDS in every review of the movie when it’s not even an issue.” Added Fierstein: “It’s heinous to suggest that gay people have no issue other than AIDS.”
One issue that the movie does deal with— aside from the right to be unapologetically gay—is the importance of being honest in matters of intimacy. Arnold (Fierstein), who performs in nightclubs as a female impersonator, is glibly pessimistic about his emotional future. He wants a loving relationship, and Torch Song encompasses his frustrating attempts to find one. The first is with Ed (Brian Kerwin), a confused bisexual who sleeps with men as a diversion from his romance with Laurel (Karen Young). The second is with Alan (Matthew Broderick), a pretty-boy prostitute who settles down with Arnold. Meanwhile, Arnold’s most tempestuous relationship is with
his caustic mother (Anne Bancroft).
Petulant, narcissistic and immature, Arnold is not an especially sympathetic character. And his liaisons with both Ed and Alan are unconvincing. As Alan, Broderick gives the movie its few faint sparks of erotic energy. In the original stage version, Broderick played David, the 15-year-old orphan adopted by Arnold, and that Broadway debut in 1982 led to starring roles in such movies as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Broderick fills the screen with charm, but his character seems contrived, a fantasy figure all too eager to comply with Arnold’s romantic game plan. In no uncertain terms, Arnold sets the agenda: “There are a couple of things we better get straight,” he says. “A) I want children; B) If anyone asks, Pm the pretty one.”
Fierstein’s trenchant wit continualI ly redeems the movie. But Arnold has ¿ a capacity for self-dramatization and 5 self-mockery that tends to overwhelm 5 everyone around him. Too often, the other characters seem like accessories in a would-be one-man show. The crucial exception is Arnold’s mother. Although she represents all the prejudices that her son detests, she is also the only person with enough vitriol to penetrate his self-centred universe. In a cathartic series of verbal brawls between her and Arnold, Torch Song finally purges cynicism and burns with a clear, hot flame. Rising to the occasion, Bancroft breaks the tight Jewishmother caricature that confines her in earlier scenes and delivers a heartrending performance. She fights guilt with guilt. “You cheated me outta your life,” she tells Arnold, “then blamed me for not being there.”
The script has the keenly whittled quality of stage drama. But the movie’s naturalistic look and chronological structure depart radically from the play, which relied on flashbacks. In the opening shot, the camera sweeps from the skyline of Manhattan, down to the equally grey gravestones of a sprawling cemetery, and finally settles on the house in Brooklyn where Arnold grew up. Although such cinematic flourishes are rare, director Paul Bogart has at least succeeded in re-creating Torch Song as a movie in its own right rather than simply committing a play to film.
Since writing Torch Songin 1976, Fierstein has talked about it so much that, in an interview, an understandable fatigue darkens his voice, already a dry baritone. There are obvious parallels between Fierstein and his sardonic character in Torch Song. Explaining that his story is only semiautobiographical, Fierstein said, “I’m not as naïve as Arnold, not as moonstruck—Arnold is really a very specific personality, not a gay Everyman.” Torch Song indeed has a deeply personal quality. Still, as Fierstein carries the torch from the stage to the screen, he illuminates social terrain rarely explored in American movies.
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