Feb 22, 2015

[Movies] Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

It interests me how so many early LGBT movies were actually first plays that explored such LGBT concepts. Then again, the world of theater has always been somewhat friendly to gay people and thus it's not that great a leap of imagination for this to be the incubator for many LGBT stories. And in the same way that early films saw success in adapting theater material, so too have many early LGBT movies followed in those footsteps.

Torch Song Trilogy was actually three one-act plays tied together as a single narrative. And this movie adaptation nicely tries to follow that format without the entire thing feeling disjoint or overly segmented. And it's the sort of LGBT movie that stays on various lists of must-see movies time and time again given how important it is.

It's a good story, but admittedly it feels a little dated at times. But hey, not movies can survive that well over time, and this one still does things better than many others. It's a movie that a lot of younger folks probably won't even hear about and with luck this review will help keep it in circulation.

Synopsis: Torch Song Trilogy is a comedy drama movie directed by Paul Bogart. It was written by Harvey Fierstein, who also wrote the original play that the movie was based on.

The movie's first act of sorts takes place in 1971. We meet Arnold (Harvey Fierstein), a professional female impersonator based in New York City. He first gets involved with Ed (Brian Kerwin), who is a schoolteacher, and they begin a relationship together. But he struggles with accepting his sexuality, especially given how much Arnold embraces it. Next we move forward to 1973 when Arnold meets Alan (Matthew Broderick), who is a male model . Arnold quickly considers Alan to be the love of his life and the second section of the movie explores their relationship together.

Finally we come to 1980, which is pretty much defined by Arnold finally facing his mother (Anne Bancroft) after she flies in from Florida to visit. Despite Arnold's age, he has never fully addressed his sexuality with his mother and some of his other plans in life related to this. And this is really how the movie tries to tie up a lot of the various threads touched on throughout the movie.

Now I'll be the first to admit that Harvey Fierstein is a rather unique LGBT figure in the entertainment industry. He has this rather raspy voice that's hard to forget and I think a lot of folks are surprised that his career includes a good amount of musical theater. I'm not quite sure how to explain Harvey Fierstein to younger peers in the pink community, but then given enough time, you come to appreciate his brilliance. And this movie is clearly a story that is near and dear to his heart given how he portrays Arnold all throughout the movie.

The movie also has a gem in a rather young Matthew Broderick front and center in this movie. He takes up a fair bit of it and playing a model no less! I don't think any of us could have predicted that this would be among his projects after movies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but here he is. And quite frankly, he performed quite well in this movie and I think more than a few young gay men fleshed out their Matthew Broderick fantasies after this movie. He has always been adorable but he's really cute here. Good job casting director.

The  movie touches on a number of key LGBT issues that remain relevant until today. We have the bisexual boyfriend who's not entirely comfortable being in a gay relationship. We have the much younger new boyfriend. We have the role of family in our lives and why their approval of us will always matter. And these aren't big, abstract issues. Instead their key personal issues that more than a few of us have experienced first-hand. And that's a special experience.

Pacing for the movie could have been better, admittedly, and I've seen this a lot in theater-to-movie adaptations. there are a number of moments that feel dull or dragging, especially moments without strong scoring or when they're trying to build dramatic tension through silence. Theater sensibilities aren't necessarily movie sensibilities and I think they could have done a better job in taking advantage of the medium.

Still, Torch Song Trilogy has a lot of heart and some important things to say to its viewers. It's a great way of capturing a lot of the magic of the original production and translating it into a format that new audiences can still discover and experience. Thus the movie gets 3.5 really Jewish moments in the movie out of a possible 5.

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