It’s perhaps difficult from today’s standpoint to realize that Torch Song Trilogy was something of a landmark in 1988. While I have great admiration for earlier works that dared to be about gay life — yes, even William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band (1970) — Torch Song Trilogy is the first film to tackle the subject from the standpoint of both a normalized lifestyle and one that was still fighting at every turn for actual acceptance and respect. Yes, it can be argued that Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) got there first. Laundrette was certainly the first film that managed to pull off a gay make-out scene that didn’t empty theaters. But Laundrette was both able to “hide” behind “art house cred,” and it was a rich stew of many elements that weren’t specifically gay, e.g., Thatcher’s Britain and racism.
While Torch Song Trilogy had a certain art house quality — mostly because of its Tony Award-winning play — it is very straightforward and much more aimed at the mainstream. Bear in mind, over 30 minutes of Laundrette had elapsed before it got to the gay part. Torch Song starts with drag queen Arnold Beckoff talking to the audience about his love life (or lack thereof) as he gets ready to go onstage. The credits then play over Arnold and the other drag performers singing “Dames,” while making gay wisecracks (“The last time I saw a basket like that it was Red Riding Hood’s arm,” a Boys in the Band in-joke, etc.) to the audience. There is no question where we are or what the film is about.
Fierstein’s great weapons are a combination of pathos and caustic wit. He defies the viewer not to like Arnold — and, while some of the pathos might seem a little soapy, it works. Whether he’s doling out smart remarks — like telling wanna-be boyfriend Alan (Matthew Broderick) that if they’re going to be a couple, “If anyone asks, I’m the pretty one” — raging at his seemingly homophobic mother (Anne Bancroft), or showing up at his adopted son’s (Eddie Castrodad) school wearing bunny slippers, Fierstein’s Arnold is irresistible. The secret to it all is that it’s impossible not to relate to the film. It takes comedy, romance, tragedy, conflict — all the things we go to the movies for — and casts them in a light that’s both different (because of the subject matter) and yet comfortably familiar. The film itself, as I noted earlier, is never more than workmanlike in terms of style, but it really matters very little because of the strength and shrewdness of the material.