Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
Torch Song Trilogy (1988) directed by Paul Borgart is the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway play. Writer Harvey Fierstein (Mrs. Doubtfire, The Times of Harvey Milk) reprises his stage performance for the film, narrating and playing the role of Arnold Beckoff, a gay man that wants ‘more’. Fierstein won two of his four Tony Awards for his performance as Arnold and for author of the screenplay.
The film takes us to Brooklyn in the ’50s where Ma Beckoff (Anne Bancroft) looks for her missing child, only to find him in the closet dressed in her clothes and applying lippy. The look on her face paints an emotional picture of how she will feel about the rest of young Arnold’s life. Flash forward 20-odd years into the 70s where a mature Arnold laments over youth and beauty while once again applying lipstick for his performance as a professional drag queen. It is on this night of reflection that “Virginia Hamm” meets Ed (Brian Kerwin), a meeting that sets destiny in motion.
Arnold’s opening monologue sums up gay relationship dynamics to a tee. He sees his biggest problem with finding happiness as due to being young and beautiful in a culture where these qualities are highly valued. “It’s my biggest problem because I’ve never been young and beautiful. Oh, I’ve been beautiful, and God knows I’ve been young, but never the twain have met.” With a clear grasp on men that need to be avoided it is “the hopeless” that can lead to heartache, these being the “married, just in for the weekend, and the terminally straight.” Arnold springboards into a relationship with a fate exactly as he describes.
The key issues and themes throughout the movie include gay bashing, prostitution, cross dressing, family dynamics and acceptance. The story comes to a dramatic climax when Arnold confronts his mother who cannot accept the life that he has built for himself. A life where he is completely self reliant but also includes a teenage child, a companion and a successful career. He confidently gives Ma the ultimatum that anyone unable to love and respect him is not welcome in his home.
Harvey Fierstein portrays Arnold with such passion that can only be straight from the heart. Each relationship portrayed is like a torch song of Arnold’s unrequited or lost love and the flame that he holds for that connection. He is joined by a young Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Lion King) who plays Alan his life’s love, a journey which comes to an abrupt end. This role was a departure from his previous 80s comedies which have now become like a genre of their own. The beautiful Anne Bancroft (The Graduate, The Elephant Man) plays a passionate and convincing part as Ma, a mother who just can’t come to terms her son’s choices in life.
This is a well crafted and moving film perfect for the Sydney Mardi Gras weekend.