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Case Number 04473

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Torch Song Trilogy

New Line // 1998 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // May 24th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Sandra Dozier only demands two things from the people in her life: love and respect. If you can't get on board with that, at least you can read this review.

The Charge

It takes a lot of guts and a helluva sense of humor to live life in Arnold's shoes.

Opening Statement

This was the first time I'd ever seen Torch Song Trilogy. I've heard of it, of course, as one hears of all seminal films, but never got a chance to see it. In a way, I think I'm glad, because I have a completely different perspective as an adult than I did as a teenager, and this is really a movie about feeling comfortable in your own skin; something that a teenager, who only knows how to feel invincible, can't really relate to.

Facts of the Case

Arnold (Harvey Fierstein) is a gay man who is nearing middle age and is still struggling with his identity. Not his identity as a gay man, which is firmly cemented, but his identity as a man. He's shy and reserved on one hand, but expresses himself through his work in a drag review at a popular club. As Virginia Hamn, female impersonator, he sings torch songs, flirts lustily with the crowd, and looks people in the eye. As plain old Arnold, he smokes nervously and only makes fleeting eye contact when a handsome man tries to start a conversation with him.

Eventually, he meets Ed (Brian Kerwin) at a local bar. Although he is scared into near muteness by Ed's advances, they go home together and start a romance. Arnold is estatic, transported, and it shows in the way he walks and talks, and even in his stage act. Ed is still seeing other people, even women, and sooner than even Arnold would expect, Ed is talking about trying to make it work as a straight man. They break up, and Arnold is devastated.

It isn't until he meets Alan (Matthew Broderick), a young model who seeks him out after seeing Arnold's show and embarrassing himself by passing out from drink, that Arnold starts to feel better about himself and his life. Later on, he loses Alan, too, but the experience changes him in a profound way—he is able to be honest with himself and with the people in his life, including his domineering and disapproving mother (Anne Bancroft).

The Evidence

Torch Song Trilogy is based on a hugely successful Broadway play that Fierstein wrote and starred in. They cut it from a four-hour play to a two-hour movie, which could not have been easy but was done very well. The movie does not feel at all rushed or cobbled together, and we get a good sense of who Arnold is, where he is going in life, and what is important to him.

The first scene opens on Arnold getting ready for a show. He talks to the camera like we are sitting with him in the room. We see him gain confidence as he puts on makeup, his slouch turning into a straight-backed pose, nervous conversation changing to a sure, determined speech. He becomes more lovely, somehow, as he talks, and looks positively radiant when he talks about a former lover who was deaf. "Not enough," he signs, and then underneath you see Arnold again, the one who wonders if he'll ever fall in love, and if someone will ever love him. This transformation will prove to be a metaphor for the movie.

I identified powerfully with Arnold's relationship to his mother, mostly because it mirrors so closely the relationship I had with my own mother. My heart soared when, toward the end of the movie, he tells her that he only demands two things from the people in his life: love and respect, and if she can't get on board with that, she can leave. The audience knows, at this point, that he has earned that revelation—he didn't undergo a sudden transformation that gave him all the answers; they came over time and only after he was willing to make himself the most important person in his life. Her reaction was completely real and completely gratifying all at once—no Hollywood ending here, but at the same time there was understanding and even hope.

Torch Song Trilogy was ahead of the times. It's a movie that talks about monogamy, marriage, and the importance of family and children at a time when these were not pressing concerns or issues for the gay community. They definitely are now. It's a movie that dares to suggest that gays and straights have the same issues and concerns; that everyone worries if their apartment is in a good neighborhood, and frets over an upcoming parent-teacher conference, and has to make a budget. Finally, it was a movie that dared to be sweetly romantic at a time when gay slapstick was okay but gay romance was not. I think even modern-day stories about gay and lesbian life could take a page from Torch Song's book.

For a 1988 movie, the video transfer to DVD is very good, with a clear, crisp print that shows only minimal wear due to age. Colors are still bright and well balanced. I was a little disappointed with the sound quality, and felt that the voice levels were a little too low—I had to sometimes strain to hear what people were saying, or turn the volume up uncomfortably high. At higher volumes, there was a slight hiss in the soundtrack, but nothing too noticeable. Aside from a theatrical trailer, the sole extra is an excellent scene-specific commentary by Fierstein. He talks about his extensive dieting for the role, shares many behind-the-scenes stories, gives a historical perspective on gay life at the time the movie was released, and talks about the Broadway show. It's one of the best commentaries I have heard and certainly does justice to this excellent film.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

About the only thing I can say about this movie is that I felt some of the direction/editing was too abrupt. After listening to the commentary, however, I'm not sure how fair this assessment is, since Fierstein himself points out that times were very different when the movie was released, and certain scenes had to pull back or cut away so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the audience.

However, I felt that there were certain key emotional shots, such as when Arnold and Ed first kiss, or when Arnold is talking to his mother and tells her that the only thing he demands from the people in his life is their love and respect, that had abrupt edits from one shot to another. Close up to wide shot, or medium shot to close up. It was a bit jarring, and it broke me out of the moment somewhat.

Other than that, only the presence of a featurette talking about the reception for Torch Song Trilogy would have made this a better release. I loved the commentary and felt that was enough of a follow-up with Fierstein, but considering how ahead of its time this movie was, a review of how it was received and what moviegoers thought at the time would be both interesting and appropriate.

Closing Statement

I have heard from friends that this is the movie that convinced them to be open about their sexuality and to finally talk with their parents and friends who didn't know. I think we all want to see a potential future version of ourselves that isn't hopelessly depressed and confused. We want to know that we'll figure it out someday, and that everything will be okay. If there's even a hope of that, it's worth getting started on it right now. This is an excellent movie to watch with someone you love, gay or straight.

The Verdict

Torch Song Trilogy is found not guilty, but it is ordered to explain to the court what the deal was with the whole rabbit decoration theme. And where can I get one of those adorable rabbit coat hooks?

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 80
Extras: 75
Acting: 90
Story: 90
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Spanish
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Comedy
• Drama
• Gay

Distinguishing Marks

• Scene-Specific Commentary featuring Harvey Firestein


• IMDb

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