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'Torch Song Trilogy' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1988

"Torch Song Trilogy" opens with a close-up so tight you can see the hero's pores clog as he slathers on the pancake. "It ain't easy being a drag queen, but I just can't walk in flats," says Arnold Beckoff -- once a look-alike for Miss Joan Crawford, he now more closely resembles Miss Marjorie Main. "I'm aging like a beach party movie," he moans.

Under all that flippancy and Max Factor, however, Arnold is actually a nice Jewish female impersonator. Hurting on the inside, but torch singing on the outside, the camp chanteuse is striving for social acceptance in this belted-out adaptation of Harvey Fierstein's play. It's "Les Cage aux Folles" with mood swings.

The homely playwright with the hickory-smoked voice recreates his stage role in this brazen melodrama. Set before the AIDS epidemic, the movie seems a ghostly relic of the orgiastic '70s -- though sex has less to do with it than do love and family ties. "A thing of beauty is a joy till sunrise" is how Arnold puts it it. He has had many men, he confides, but "not once has anybody said, 'I love you.' " "Torch Song," its three acts too much in evidence, chronicles the hero's turbulent quest for sitcom happiness, a nine-year search that begins when he meets the hunky bisexual Ed (Brian Kerwin, adapting his Broadway performance).

Arnold is like a wallflower at the prom when shyly he accepts Ed's offer to buy him a beer. (The movie scampers as shyly through the more explicit encounters that go on in the gay bar's closely packed back room.) Ed, a schoolteacher with the look of a Ralph Lauren cowboy, is as charming as he is socially clumsy. "Anyone ever tell you, you have a very sexy voice?" he asks. "Is it natural or do you have a cold?"

After a whirlwind of wine and candlelight, Ed jilts Arnold for a woman. But before you can sing three stanzas of "The Man I Love," along comes Alan (Matthew Broderick), a fashion model who (hard as it is to believe) sets his cap for the hero. Though Alan is the ideal catch -- the well-adjusted gay-next-door -- the love-wary Arnold capitulates with reluctance. "If anyone asks, I'm the pretty one," he acquiesces. "And I want children!"

From the outset, Arnold calls himself "a gay Aunt Jemima," which is Fierstein's attempt at answering homosexuals critical of the character's yen for a white picket condo. Arnold is, in fact, less a representative of gay men than a hero of the Reaganic Return to Traditional Values. Before it's over, he has founded a nuclear family, complete with an adopted gay son who calls him mom. And he has himself a husband.

Arnold's mother -- the role was expanded for fire-breathing Anne Bancroft -- disapproves of her son's arrangement, seeing it as an awful mutation of the family she nurtured. When Arnold asks for acceptance, there is nothing but intolerance. "If I had known [you were gay], I wouldn't have bothered," she says. The fuzzy bunny slippers on her feet, the spitting image of her son's, take some of the sting out of the words for the audience.

Bancroft and Fierstein break the sound barrier -- as well as hearts -- in this combative climax, a shouting match in which Arnold wins his mother's grudging respect. Pared down from three hours-plus, the work remains a perceptive mulligan of soap, soliloquy and self-awareness. Though it's still a bit theatrical, that tone fits Fierstein the way sequins suit Arnold. The author-actor gives a nakedly honest performance under the direction of Paul Bogart, an Emmy winner for TV's "All in the Family." No stranger to prejudice, Bogart merely works the flip side here -- although Arnold is as feisty as Archie.

The odd thing about "Torch Song Trilogy" is that it has such a conservative moral. Arnold, his roommate and an abandoned teen-age boy -- they're two men and a teen-ager instead of "Three Men and a Baby." The themes are universal, and Arnold is an Everyperson who wants to be loved not for what others want him to be, but for what he really is -- "a person, a valuable person."

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