Before RuPaul there was Harvey Fierstein.
Fierstein is possibly the first out, gay actor to achieve major success in Hollywood and on the stage. He has appeared in numerous films, most notably in the science fiction classic Independence Day, and as Robin Williams’ brother in Mrs. Doubtfire. He has also worked extensively on Broadway, where he won several Tony Awards.
In 1988, Fierstein was the top-billed star of Torch Song Trilogy, a groundbreaking film that was years ahead of its time. Torch Song Trilogy tells the story of Arnold Beckoff, a professional drag queen who was determined to find love and start a family. The film was adapted by Fierstein from his own play, which had been a success on the New York stage a decade earlier.
Torch Song Trilogy is divided into three parts. In the first, Arnold enters into a relationship with Ed, a bisexual schoolteacher (Brian Kerwin). They fall in love, but Ed is uncomfortable with his sexuality and leaves Arnold to live with a woman.
In the film’s second section, Arnold meets Alan (Matthew Broderick), a handsome model. They move in together, but their relationship is tested when Ed and his girlfriend come into their lives. Their relationship survives, and they make plans to adopt a child together. Then tragedy strikes; Alan is killed in a brutal gay-bashing.
In the final section, Arnold has adopted David (Eddie Castrodad), a gay teenager. Arnold’s mother (Anne Bancroft) visits from Florida. Mom has never accepted Arnold’s homosexuality, or his career as a drag queen, and the two have a long-overdue confrontation. In the film’s most powerful scene, Arnold tells his mother that he loves her, but he also informs her that if she doesn’t accept his life choices, he will cut her out of his life.
Viewers watching Torch Song Trilogy today might not understand how ahead of its time the film was upon its initial release in 1988. Moviegoers of that era had never before seen a character like Arnold Beckoff, who didn’t care who knew that he was gay or that he made his living dressing in drag and performing in clubs. Arnold accepted who he was with a matter-of-fact pride and demanded the same of everyone else. Arnold, and Fierstein, were what gay audiences had been waiting for. In 1988, the AIDS crisis was at its worst and the LGBTQ community was being vilified by religious and political leaders. Gay rights laws had yet to be passed, and so in Torch Song, queer audiences finally had the chance to see a positive portrayal of a gay man’s life.
The performances are wonderful. Fierstein beautifully captures who Arnold is, just a simple guy who is looking for love. Anne Bancroft, an Oscar-winning actress now best remembered as the seductive Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), is equally fine as Mrs. Beckoff, a mother who genuinely loves her son; she just doesn’t understand his life choices. But when faced with the possibility of losing Arnold, she tries to open her mind.
It would be easy to dismiss Torch Song Trilogy as a relic from another era. Don’t. The film’s story is as fresh now as it was when the film was first released.