Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Beckoff (Harvey Fierstein) is a female impersonator who does not have much luck when it comes to sustaining a long-lasting love life. He admits to camera that he has slept with more men than there are names in the bible—old and new testament combined. So it comes as a surprise to him when he meets Ed (Brian Kerwin) in a gay bar, showing genuine interest in who he is and what he wants in life. Although Ed has told Arnold that he dates women at times, this becomes a big problem when Ed begins to want something else, a woman’s touch, outside of their relationship. It seems like Arnold has picked up one of those men again.
Based on the play and screenplay by Harvey Fierstein, “Torch Song Trilogy” consists of three episodes, the first taking place in 1971 and the last in 1980. It is tonally unpredictable for the most part, almost manic, comedy and tragedy strike when least expected and in most unlikely places. In some ways, it is a lot like a soap opera: often there are big reactions to relatively slow developments. A lot of the scenes might have worked better if played with silence than shouting.
Arnold’s loneliness is communicated effectively. Throughout the decade, we see him change from someone who has a clingy, bug-like annoyance to a person who shows a little exhaustion but is still that same fighter who wants what he feels he deserves. Fierstein plays his character with fire. We feel that he really understands what Arnold is all about. Arnold may be a drag queen by night, a source of entertainment to be seen and criticized by the public, but he is no fool no matter what time of day. I enjoyed watching him assessing risks and wondering if he should go ahead and take a course of action. With so much time and thought he puts into some of his decisions, we can tell he has had experience in the romance department and perhaps he had been really hurt before.
The two key men in Arnold’s life are nicely played Kerwin and Matthew Broderick, the latter a male model with whom Arnold had kindly taken to his home after the twenty-one-year-old has had one drink too many. It is most appropriate that Ed has an unpredictability to him. I was fascinated with the fact that although he is easy to label himself as a bisexual, he is not comfortable with its reality. He can be with a man but he is afraid to live with one. Broderick’s character, Alan, is different. He is comfortable with the entire aspect of being queer and yet he is a curiosity. One of the more memorable scenes involves Arnold and Alan being invited to Ed’s farm.
The third episode is perhaps one that demands the most attention. Mrs. Beckoff (Anne Bancroft) believes that being gay is a sickness and not once does she allow Arnold to forget it. She is a very traditional Jewish woman who genuinely believes that her son will meet a girl one day and marry her. Imagine her reaction when she is forced to face reality. The fights that she and Arnold share cut deeply. After the screaming and shouting comes the inevitable silence. Prejudice is and will remain ingrained in many.
Even though it offers a good share of amusing bits, “Torch Song Trilogy” does not let us forget the sadness coursing through its veins. Does queer love require more from its participants than heterosexual love? Maybe it does, at least with the way things are right now and will be for many decades to come, or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure the film has one either. But it sure is interesting to consider.