‘Torch Song Trilogy’ is bawdy, quick-witted and proudly sentimental

Harvey Fierstein in 'Torch Song Trilogy'
Harvey Fierstein in ‘Torch Song Trilogy’

“You know, there are easier things in this life than being a drag queen,” female impersonator Arnold Beckoff says in the opening monologue of Torch Song Trilogy. “But I ain’t got no choice. See,” he murmurs sadly, “try as I may… I just can’t walk in flats.”

Bawdy, quick-witted and proudly sentimental, Torch Song Trilogy was the odds on favorite to be the first gay-themed motion picture to cross into mainstream (read: straight) success. Before the film was released in 1988, it tested through the roof at LA and Midwestern previews. In a business where studio execs pray for a 50% approval from such screenings, and 75% augers a hit, Torch Song was testing in the mid-90’s, with audiences saying they’d definitely recommend the film to friends.

Execs at New Line were so enthusiastic about the film’s test scores that writer-star Harvey Fierstein was courted for a TV spin-off before the film was even released. Studios all over town began putting gay-themed projects into development based on theTorch Song buzz. New Line was hopeful. The play the film was based on had conquered Broadway, earning critical acclaim, selling out months in advance, and winning two Tony Awards (Best Actor, Best Play, 1983).

The film seemed poised to do bigger business still.

What turned the tide in the movie’s favor? Maybe it was the fact that it kept ‘em laughing and spared viewers any graphic sexuality; Torch Song was more about romance than sex. Maybe it was the film’s positive spin on the nuclear family. Whatever the reason, preview audiences were responding to the film, and a hit seemed guaranteed.

So, what happened? Why did a film that had everything going for it perform like Smarty Jones at the finish line? There were many reasons. Fear of AIDS had reached a fever pitch when the film opened. Straights weren’t feeling charitable toward gays at the time. And frankly, most 80’s moviegoers just weren’t comfortable buying a ticket for a gay themed film.

Torch Song was too far ahead of its time.

Today, fans of the film are legion. Like myself, most discovered this little buried treasure on video, where the film has, at last, earned the respect and affection it richly deserves. Whittled down from its four-hour source material, the streamlined, two-hour Torch Song never feels cobbled together. Instead, the movie plays like a “best of” collection of the stage play’s funniest and most affecting moments. If the evidence coming out of Hollywood is any indication, Romantic Comedy is the hardest genre to master. But master it Fierstein did, creating an emotional ride that swings joyously from burlesque production numbers, to tender romance, to moments of startling heartbreak.

If one believes the only difference between straight and gay couples is mechanics, Torch Song makes an amusing case for that argument. Though the gayness of his characters is never soft-pedaled, heterosexual couples are sure to see themselves in Fierstein’s flawed, sparring lovers.

Some viewers might be surprised to find that Fierstein’s lead character dreams of the same things most “breeders” want: children, hearth & home, and someone to share them with. Considering the current national debate, it’s amusing to think that Torch Song’s themes of adoption and gay marriage were radical for their time, just twenty years ago.

Driving the film is Fierstein himself, in an unguarded, stellar performance. Viewers not familiar with his name might recognize the actor’s trademark, cigarette-ravaged voice from his stints on The Simpsons, or recognize the actor as Jeff Goldblum’s panicked co-worker from Independence Day. No doubt first-time viewers of Torch Song will henceforth associate the brilliant comic actor with this, his definitive role. And for good reason.

Fierstein plays Arnold Beckoff, a loveable, working-class lug of a female impersonator who transforms nightly into Virginia Hamn; the manish, staggeringly unattractive diva Beckoff brings to life in all her scene stealing glory. Fierstein performs Hamn’s numbers live and with great comic timing, always keeping his better half sympathetic.

Off-stage, Beckoff is a thinly veiled stand-in for Fierstein himself. That said, it’s no wonder Beckoff feels fully drawn before the end of his very first scene. Putting on his make-up backstage, Beckoff turns to the viewer, indicating his face and grunting like a teamster. “Whadda ya think?” It’s clear he will never be a swan. “Gimme a break,” he snaps. “It’s still under construction!” It’s humor that’s gotten Beckoff through the hard times, and its humor that keeps him on his feet. Lucky for us.

Like the best work of Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Neil Simon, Fierstein’s script is rife with memorable exchanges, flawed characters, realistic confrontations and priceless one-liners.

“I know you’ll find this hard to comprehend,” Beckoff explains to a co-worker who suggests a nightcap of anonymous sex with a stranger, “But I want more out of life than meeting a pretty face… and sitting down on it.”

When Beckoff’s mother comes to SoHo to visit him, Beckoff’s adopted son, David, reaches for her bag, startling her. Mom has never met the boy, and a struggle ensues.
“Help! Mugger!” she screams.
“What?” the teen protests. “I’m not a mugger!”
“Then you’re a rapist!”
“Why would a rapist wear a three piece suit?”
“How do I know? Maybe you’ got a wedding after!”

Matthew Brodrick in 'Torch Song Trilogy'
Matthew Brodrick in ‘Torch Song Trilogy’

When Beckoff’s mother learns that David is adopted, she’s horrified. Beckoff hasn’t told her that his new son is gay.
“Arnold,” she says, referring to Beckoff’s orientation, “Don’t you think this is bound to affect him?”
“Ma,” Beckoff assures her, “David’s gay.” She’s speechless.
“He’s been here less than a year!” she mumbles.
“Ma, he came that way!”
“Nobody comes that way!”
Even in the middle of an argument, it’s a set up Beckoff can’t resist.

As with all romantic comedies, music is key, and Torch Song scores on this note as well. The soundtrack features a pair of songs sung live by Beckoff’s alter-ego, and a wonderful burlesque number performed by the troupe of “ladies” at Beckoff’s job (Bertha Venation, Marina del Rey and Marsha Dymes — you gotta love it). Each queen is distinctive, with Ken Page doing a spot-on Pearl Bailey and legendary drag performer Charles Pierce shining in a role written expressly for him by Fierstein.

Conspicuously absent from the original soundtrack album is the Ella Fitzgerald standard, “This Time the Dream’s On Me.” It’s the song that gets reprised twice in the movie, and gives the film’s final moments a heartwarming poignancy that haunts long after the final credit fades. Unfortunately, the soundtrack, a soothing blend of jazz and American Popular Standards, is no longer available.

In addition to the wall-to-wall pleasures of Fierstein’s writing, Torch Song is made especially memorable by the performances of its leads. Brian Kerwin, who plays Ed, Beckoff’s first on-screen love, is equally funny and heartbreaking as the bi-sexual man who loves Beckoff, but can’t bring himself to come out of the closet to friends or family. Matthew Broderick’s boyish charm is used to good affect in the role of Beckoff’s long-awaited soul mate, Allen, a model and former male escort. Having played David, Beckoff’s son, in the original theatrical production, Broderick returned to appear in the film version as Fierstein’s boyfriend.

Taking the part represented no small risk for the actor. By the time cameras rolled on Torch Song, Broderick was already a household name, with the hits War Games and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off behind him. If Broderick ever felt uncomfortable playing Allen (Fierstein, in his feature-length commentary, giddily shares that he did), there’s no proof of his discomfort here. Broderick plays his role with utter sincerity, making the unexpected turn in Allen’s story all the more bracing.

Karen Young does a fine job as Ed’s wife, a sad-eyed waif who’s both sweetly naïve and shamelessly manipulative. Whatever happened to this actress?

In the stage version of the trilogy, Estelle Getty played Beckoff’s mother. It was a role Fierstein wrote for her. At the time, Getty was only a part time actress, and would later find her fame on TV’s The Golden Girls. In the film version, the role of Beckoff’s mother went to veteran actress Anne Bancroft. It’s Bancroft’s flawless craft that shines brightest here. Her performance is so intense, so wonderfully naked, and so screamingly funny, it’s a wonder she didn’t win an Oscar. Caught between accepting her son and rejecting his lifestyle, Bancroft character’s frequently outraged by her son’s orientation. It’s in these scenes, when mother and son are at odds, that Torch Song delivers its most wrenching confrontations and bittersweet moments.

Helmed by TV veteran Paul Bogart of All In The Family fame, the film’s TV-like direction works to the project’s advantage, keeping our focus squarely on the emotional lives of its characters.

DVD extras include Fierstein’s charming, informative, feature-length commentary, trailers for other gay-themed films from New Line, and the original theatrical trailer for Torch Song. And therein lies your smoking gun; more concrete proof that the studio dropped the ball couldn’t exist.

The trailer is a mess, uneven, unfocused, flitting from dramatic lines to comedy without rhyme or reason, neither committing to nor avoiding the film’s gay subject matter. The inclusion of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” feels painfully intrusive. Only a brief passage featuring the Fitzgerald ballad suggests how a smarter campaign might have posited the film as the rich, warmhearted romantic comedy it is. The final insult comes when a humorless voiceover speaks over a shot of Beckoff and his fellow drag performers taking their bows: “It’s not just about some people, it’s about all people.”

Wow, that’s bad!

With the mainstream success of Will & Grace and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, a new path has been made for the rediscovery of Torch Song Trilogy on DVD by a new generation of fans. Ironically, the likes of Will & Grace would not have been possible if not for Harvey Fierstein’s original play. As Arnold Beckoff might say from his dressing room, “Ain’t that a kick in the rubber parts?”

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