Torch Song Trilogy (film)

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Torch Song Trilogy
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Paul Bogart
Produced by Ronald K. Fierstein
Written by Harvey Fierstein
Music by Peter Matz
Allan K. Rosen
Cinematography Mikael Salomon
Edited by Nicholas C. Smith
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Release date
  • December 14, 1988 (1988-12-14)
Running time
120 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $4,865,997 (US)[1]

Torch Song Trilogy is an 1988 American comedy-drama film adapted by Harvey Fierstein from his play of the same name.[2][3][4]

The film was directed by Paul Bogart and stars Fierstein as Arnold, Anne Bancroft as Ma Beckoff, Matthew Broderick as Alan, Brian Kerwin as Ed, and Eddie Castrodad as David. Executive Producer Ronald K. Fierstein is Harvey Fierstein's brother.

Wanting to highlight the work of female impersonator Charles Pierce, Fierstein created the role of Bertha Venation specifically for him. Broderick originally refused the role of Alan because he was recuperating from an automobile accident in Ireland. Tate Donovan was cast, but two days into the rehearsal period Broderick had a change of heart and contacted Fierstein, who fired Donovan.

Although the play was over four hours, the film was restricted to a running time of two hours at the insistence of New Line Cinema, necessitating much editing and excisions. The time frame was regressed to begin several years earlier than when the play was set.


  • 1971: Arnold (Harvey Fierstein), a New York City female impersonator, meets Ed (Brian Kerwin), a bisexual schoolteacher, and they fall in love. Ed, however, is uncomfortable with his sexuality and he leaves Arnold for a girlfriend, Laurel.
  • 1973-79: During Christmas, Arnold meets the love of his life, a male model named Alan (Matthew Broderick). They settle down together, later spending a weekend with Ed and Laurel in the country, where their relationship is tested but endures. Eventually, they apply to foster a child together with a view to adoption, and their application is eventually successful and so they move to a bigger apartment. However, on their first night at their new home, Alan is killed in a homophobic attack.
  • 1980: Months later, in the spring of 1980, Arnold's mother (Anne Bancroft) comes to visit from Florida, but her visit leads to a long-overdue confrontation. Arnold's mother disapproves of Arnold's homosexuality and his planned adoption of a gay teenage son, David (Eddie Castrodad), as well as Arnold's use of their family burial plot for Alan. They have a series of arguments where Arnold demands that she accept him for who he is, insisting that if she can't then she has no place in his life. The following morning, before she returns to Florida, they have a conversation where, for the first time, they seem to understand each other. With both David and Ed (who is now more mature and settled) in his life, and a successful new career creating his own stage revue, Arnold's life is finally complete.



The soundtrack for Torch Song Trilogy was released on the Polydor label on LP, cassette, and CD on December 8, 1988. The album charted on the jazz charts of industry magazines Billboard and Cashbox.

The song "This Time the Dream's On Me" sung by Ella Fitzgerald, which is used several times throughout the film including over the closing credits, was excised from the planned soundtrack album by Norman Granz, Fitzgerald's long-time manager, when he invoked a contractual clause which gave Fitzgerald the right to refuse her material to appear on an album featuring another artist (known in the music industry as a "coupling clause"). In actuality, Granz was unhappy with the money offered by the record company, PolyGram Records (now part of Universal Music), for the use of the song in the film and refused permission for its inclusion on the album out of spite.

Original music by Peter Matz and contemporary pop tunes such as Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" were used in the film, but not contained on the soundtrack as its producers, Larry L. Lash and Matz, felt they broke the overall "torch song" theme of the album. The track listing is as follows:

  1. "'S Wonderful" – Count Basie Orchestra, Joe Williams
  2. "Dames" – Harvey Fierstein, Nick Montgomery, Robert Neary, Ken Page, Charles Pierce, Axel Vera
  3. "But Not for Me" – Billie Holiday
  4. "Body and Soul" – Charlie Haden Quartet West
  5. "Svelte" – Harvey Fierstein
  6. "Skylark" – Marilyn Scott
  7. "I Loves You, Porgy" – Bill Evans
  8. "Can't We Be Friends?" – Anita O'Day
  9. "Love for Sale" – Harvey Fierstein
  10. "What's New?" – Billie Holiday

Home media[edit]

Torch Song Trilogy was released on VHS in 1989, and on DVD in May 2004. The DVD version contains an audio commentary track by actor and writer Harvey Fierstein.


Torch Song Trilogy was generally well received by critics, with reviews from Variety, Time Out, Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin all praising the film. It holds a 71% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 17 reviews.[5]

Janet Maslin from The New York Times wrote “Like La Cage aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy presents a homosexual world that any mother, with the possible exception of Arnold Beckoff’s, would love. Greatly shortened from Mr. Fierstein’s long-running, Tony Award-winning play, the film version emphasizes the lovable at every turn, but the surprise is that it does this entertainingly and well.”[6] Roger Ebert commented “As written and performed by Harvey Fierstein as a long-running stage hit, it was seen as a sort of nostalgic visit to the problems that gays had in the years before the horror of AIDS. The movie has more or less the same focus, but because it’s a movie, it becomes more intimate and intense.”[6]

Awards and nominations[edit]

At the 1989 Deauville Film Festival, director Paul Bogart was nominated for the Critics Award and won the Audience Award. The film was also nominated for Best Feature and Fierstein was nominated for Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards that same year.


  1. ^ Torch Song Trilogy at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 14, 1988). "Torch Song Trilogy (1988) Review/Film; A Bittersweet View of the Gay Life". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Busch, Charles (2002-11-12). "Torch Song Trilogy June 1982". The Advocate. Retrieved 2008-06-24. 
  4. ^ Gussow, Mel (1981-11-01). "Theatre Review: Fierstein's 'Torch Song'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-24. 
  5. ^ "Torch Song Trilogy". Rotten Tomatoes. 
  6. ^ a b Ryll, Alexander (2014). "Essential Gay Themed Films To Watch, Torch Song Trilogy". Gay Essential. Retrieved 22 December 2014. 

External links[edit]