“Torch Song Trilogy” is the first gay-themed movie I ever saw, and for a scared twelve-year-old boy living in a small town wrestling with a secret, it was both life-affirming and terrifying. I was terrified because the characters’ lives were all upended because of their homosexuality, but also found catharsis in it, because they were at least visible and fiercely alive. As an adult revisiting it over twenty years later, I was impressed by how well the movie has aged, but also by its extraordinary writing and acting. Star-screenwriter Harvey Fierstein (adapting from his own off-Broadway play) has an electrifying screen presence, which is great since he’s in just about every scene in the movie, and he’s surrounded by a first-rate supporting cast that work minor miracles on what could have been throwaway roles in the hands of lesser actors. Anne Bancroft tears into her role as Fierstein’s overbearing mother and she has a number of striking scenes (in particular a final showdown between mother and son that gives Bancroft an opportunity to demonstrate her versatility and believability), while Brian Kerwin shares such warm, lived-in chemistry with Fierstein that it’s impossible not to root for either one of them. The many shots of New York City manage to locate the film in a very specific part of gay history (following the 1969 Stonewall riots but before the plague of AIDS), and the movie becomes a living monument to a generation that managed to keep on despite being terrorized on their own turf and nakedly discriminated against by just about every other social group. It’s the kind of movie that exists both outside of its context but is also a direct product of it, and it also happens to be an excellent movie in its own right.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)