UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

I think TCM showed Torch Song Trilogy recently because they were doing a Matthew Broderick evening that included 1990’s The Freshman. I feel like I have seen bits and pieces of Torch Song on TV before, but this was the first time in 30 years I have seen the whole thing in one sitting.

Torch Song Trilogy is a two-hour distillation of Harvey Fierstein’s three plays that all told would run four hours. The film covers the early 1970s through 1980. Harvey Fierstein plays Arnold, who makes a living as a female impersonator in a nightclub. In the course of the nine years covered here, he meets two lovers. First, the bisexual Ed (Brian Kerwin) and then Alan (Matthew Broderick). Getting top billing here, though, is Anne Bancroft, as Arnold’s mother. The film opens with Ma looking all over the house for Arnold, only to find him in a closet playing dress up with her clothes. Thus starts a lifelong struggle between mother and son. Arnold is always on the defensive and Ma complains that all he ever talks about is him being gay.

A contemporary critic in 1988 complained that the film “ignores” the AIDS crisis, which was raging unabated at the time. But Fierstein is tacking a lot of issues here–homophobia, gay bashing, closet cases, drag, and gay parents adopting children. All of these issues were alive and well alongside the AIDS crisis and the movie deals in particular with gay men knowing what they want. Arnold does indulge in the promiscuous ways of the 1970s, including having sex in a bar’s back room, but he knows he is gay, he knows he wants a monogamous relationship, and he knows he wants to adopt a child. His first lover Ed claims to be bisexual and is dating people of both sexes, and says Arnold should feel free to see other men. Arnold replies that Ed has no right to tell him he should be out dating if he prefers to be with one person. Alan doesn’t have these problem, and the relationship with Arnold is tested when Ed and his girlfriend Laurel invite Alan and Arnold up to a house in the country, and Ed and Alan with up sleeping together.

On the even of adopting a gay teenager, Alan is killed by a group of gay bashers in a nearby playground. We then cut to Arnold living with his son David (Eddie Castrodad), and Ed has left Laurel and is living with them. It is around this time that Ma shows up for a visit. She is incensed that Arnold buried Alan in the family’s burial plot. This leads to a long-time-coming fight between Ma and Arnold. He unloads about tho horrible it is to have his love ignored. Ma rightly replies that Arnold is wrong to exclude her from his life’s events and then be angry at her for not understanding how important these things are in his life.

Along with the laundry list of issues there is a lot of humor. A joke about shiva that I attributed for years to Woody Allen is actually from this movie. “Why are the mirrors cover” Alan asks. “So we don’t see the pain in our faces,” Arnold replies. “Why are you sitting on boxes?” Alan asks. “To make sure there’s pain in our faces.”

I first saw it in 1988 at a long-gone cinema Movieland 8th Street in the Village. I remember seeing it with my then-boyfriend. (We broke up a year later.) At the time, it was hard to believe that I even had a boyfriend at all. I had not yet even come out to my parents yet. I never imagined that America would have same-gender marriage and that I would be watching this movie 30 years later in my own house with my own husband.

One thing I really love about this movie is that Harvey Fierstein expounds human universal truths as an out loud drag queen. In the 1980s, so many gay men found drag embarrassing and felt that they were already fighting the uphill battle of “not being masculine.” Twenty years after Stonewall, with AIDS ravaging the landscape of gay life everywhere, it still took a female impersonator to show how real gay men are.

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