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Something lost in the translation
on January 14, 2001
Harvey Fierstein was once a playwright of strength and wit, and a comedian of skill. His screenplay "Tidy Endings", based on a one-act stage play and filmed with himself and Stockard Channing, was one of the first notable pieces to capture the human side of the AIDS epidemic; his book for the stage musical version of "La Cage Aux Folles" was widely held to be the best thing about the show (except, perhaps, the anthemic showstopper "I Am What I Am", for years the mainstay of many a drag show and now reborn as a women's cosmetics commercial). He appears to have settled these days for being solely an actor, but sadly he only seems to have scored work in a string of grotesque campy caricatures -- most people would only know him as the makeup-artist brother in "Mrs Doubtfire", or (worse!!) as Jeff Goldblum's drama-queen assistant in "Independence Day". I'm sure that's more a comment on Hollywood's insecurity with gays than on Harvey's abilities or sentiments, but this is a man who was once a virtual poster-boy for gay liberation.
He had a golden moment in 1983, when his three interconnected burlesques on gay life and relationships, collectively known as "Torch Song Trilogy", won him two Tony Awards on Broadway: one for his script, and the other for his performance in the leading role. Five years later he managed to bring the Trilogy to the screen, though at the time gay life was a subject that closed doors and left many phone calls unanswered. Kudos to Harvey for getting this made, but the end result looks like it's jumped, staggered and dragged itself through quite a number of hoops in the process of getting studio release.
For the film version, Harvey rewrote, toned down and gutted his own four hours' worth of script into a distilled hour and a half of screenplay. Clearly, it's possible to cover many more ideas and tones in a trilogy of plays than in a single screenplay that must appeal to at least a segment of a mass market to be successful (or even accepted); to some degree, Harvey had to make the screenplay "safer". Sadly, perhaps inevitably, what gets lost in the process of translation is much of the humanity of the original; here, we're left with a barrage of witty, self-bitchy, one-liners and an over-compressed plot. Because a lot of the little moments are gone -- moments that made Arnold (Fierstein) so adorable in the stage script, and made much of his own particular take on life seem to be so sane -- many of the reasons for characters' attitudes and choices in the film version aren't as clear as they need to be. Some of the cut scenes (such as the hilarious depiction of anonymous sex in the back room of a gay bar) were trimmed by Fierstein himself as a responsible act in the face of the growing AIDS threat (refreshingly, in this film AIDS is not a defining feature of gay culture); other moments in the original script, I suspect, were sacrificed to appease nervous studio executives.
What survives, if not classic comedy, is at least well worth seeing. Fierstein's performance is masterful, very funny, and at times quite moving; Matthew Broderick gives a brave, honest and very likeable performance; and Anne Bancroft is, for once, well-cast in a role that's large enough to prevent even her from chewing it up and spitting it out.
The other two principles are more of a problem. Brian Kerwin, playing Arnold's on-off bisexual-or-maybe-not lover, is pale and uncertain, rather like his character Ed (though perhaps the fault is actually Fierstein's -- I'm not sure that in fact Harvey even likes this character in his writing); and Eddie Castrodad, as Arnold's adopted son David in the third act, is just too self-consciously precocious to raise the emotional response the script needs and is striving for.
As a record of Harvey Fierstein's Tony-winning performance, this is sadly a pale ghost; something has been lost in the translation. Perhaps this work's most lasting value now lies in being a moment of gay social history.
But for those whose hearts aren't closed to gay men, "Torch Song Trilogy" is worth seeing as sheer entertainment as well, and it may even draw an emotional tear to mingle with the tears of laughter.