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MOVIE REVIEW : Big Screen Dims ‘Triology’ Torch

Times Staff Writer

On stage, Harvey Fierstein made his “Torch Song Trilogy” such a galvanic experience you wanted to see it all over again, even at its 3-hour running time.

It was composed of three interconnected one-act plays framed by cabaret numbers and plenty of asides, all held together by the sheer force of Fierstein’s passion and self-deprecating humor. Fierstein’s alter ego was female impersonator Arnold Beckoff, a gay man undergoing the often painful, but sometimes funny process of asserting his dignity and self-respect in his determined pursuit of love and happiness. It was a triumph of gutsy, flamboyant personality.

Obviously, such an intensely theatrical entertainment would present a formidable challenge in transferring it to the screen, but an independent film maker like Shirley Clarke, who did such an inspired job of filming Jack Gelber’s “The Connection” years ago, might have succeeded, working in a gritty, low-budget cinema-verite , style.

As it happens, just about any venturesome approach would have been preferable to the lethally glossy, totally conventional Hollywood treatment that “Torch Song Trilogy” (selected theaters) has been given.

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Fierstein has slimmed down “Torch Song Trilogy” and himself for the screen. He has condensed his play while opening it up in the most uninspired, old-fashioned fashion, and all its rough edges have been carefully smoothed over. The “Torch Song Trilogy” we knew and loved has had the life steamrollered right out of it, leaving it seeming terribly dated, hopelessly synthetic and without an ounce of style.

Director Paul Bogart has some fine credits in films and TV, but “Torch Song Trilogy” is not going to be among them.

Spanning the pre-AIDS years of 1971--80, “Torch Song Trilogy” charts Arnold’s professional success as a female impersonator while he struggles to make something of his personal life, first with the bisexual Ed (Brian Kerwin) and then with the much younger Alan (Matthew Broderick). On stage, Fierstein was so vital that he could will you to believe that, plump and unhandsome as he was, he could attract two such great-looking men.

For all of Fierstein’s new svelteness, the relationships on screen defy credibility because they haven’t the substance they had in the theater. (Also, in close-up Fierstein’s mugging seems more self-indulgent than brave and endearing.)

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Kerwin (who played Ed on the stage) is more persuasive than Broderick (who created the role of Arnold and Alan’s adopted teen-age son David in the play), who simply seems self-conscious.

Not even Arnold’s night club routines are much fun, and every time Fierstein goes into a song, you wish you could instead see more of the great Charles Pierce, lurking in the chorus under the nom de plumes “Bertha Venation.” Of Pierce, who deserves a concert film-documentary all to himself, we only get the quickest glimpse, with his patented Bette Davis impression.

“Torch Song Trilogy” (MPAA-rated R) is not even saved in the last act, when Arnold and his mother at last come to terms with each other. This is the heart of the matter, understanding that Arnold has wanted exactly the life his mother had with his late father, a stable family life with one man and some kids. In these moments, the problem is not with Fierstein, who gives it all he’s got, but with Anne Bancroft, who has done these ethnic types so often as to be tiresome--and who doesn’t begin to give the mother the humor that Estelle Getty, who first played her, did.

Not even with all his talent and courage can Harvey Fierstein redeem this all-too-celluloid “Torch Song Trilogy.” It’s hard to believe that what once seemed so heroic and touching in one medium seems so lifeless and retrograde in another.

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‘TORCH SONG TRILOGY’

A New Line Cinema release. Executive producer Ronald K. Fierstein. Producer Howard Gottfried. Director Paul Bogart. Screenplay Harvey Fierstein; based upon his play. Camera Mikael Salomon. Music adapted by Peter Matz. Choreographer Scott Salmon. Associate producer Marie Cantin. Film editor Nicholas C. Smith. With Anne Bancroft, Matthew Broderick, Harvey Fierstein, Brian Kerwin, Karen Young, Ken Page, Charles Pierce.

Running time: 2 hours.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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