Harvey Fierstcin‘s gay comedy drama Torch Song Trilogy wowed audiences on Broadway and in London‘s West End. starring the man himselfand latterly Anthony Sher, As the film version reaches Scottish screens. Fierstcin. back in the central role.
tells Trevor Johnston how he fought to maintain the scripts
It took Andy Warhol to put Harvey Fierstcin into a dress. In 1971 the then teenage Fierstcin played a lSt)lb lesbian in the initial production of Warhol's theatre piece Pork. a role that was to foster a glittering career in women‘s clothing. Subsequently working the New York club scene as a drag act. Fierstcin was faced with a source material for his own 'I‘ony-winning triptych of short plays Tore/i Song 'l'rilogy. which he has now adapted into a screen version while reprising the lead role from the stage.
Fierstcin plays (‘. Virginia Hamm. outrageous transvestite musical entertainer by night but for the rest of the time neurotic. complicated Arnold Beckoff. a man in search ofa stable relationship. and a son who‘s also spent years trying to reconcile his mother (Anne Bancroft) with his homosexuality. Fierstcin however is wary of conforming to some sort of gay stereotype and the mascara-ed chanteuse. and reveals the autobiographical element behind the Arnold character. 'Why I loved doing drag when l was young.‘ he reflects. ‘was because I was very shy. and so I could cover my face in make-up. change my sex. and become someone else entirely. That's what drag is. and that‘s why I use it.‘
‘How come a man in a dress is more often than not funny. but a woman in man's clothes is more often than not
ARBYING TE TORH
sexy'." he asked. Seizing on just one kind ofgay cliche indicates the gulf between the public preconception as others see it. and the private truth from where he is standing. With audiences for the movie. at 7() percent heterosexual and 30 per cent gay. repeating the patterns of those for the four-hour play. boiled down to half that for the movie. the briefof the three pieces The International Stud‘. Fugue In A .'\'ursery and Widows and ( 'liildren First. is clearly to guide the wide audience towards caring and understanding a character they quite possibly regard as a freak. This attempts to break down the kind of ignorance that marks public attitudes towards homosexuality. Fierstcin is particularly critical of Hollywood’s superficiality in dealing with gay issues (which is strange given the high proportion of homosexuals working in the higher echelons of the industry). part of the whole machinery ofour culture that ghettoises the gay population. ‘Oh. you know. the Hollywood idea of a coming out movie is where the son comes home and says “ Hi. .llom I'm gay". Then there‘s an argument and shouting and broken crockery but five minutes later she throws her arms around him and tells him “that's alright. wltatei'eryou are I aeceptyou". Well. it just don‘t go like that. I wanted to feel that even after twenty years of knowing her son is gay. the mother in 'I'ore/i Song
still has her problems.’
()ne of the joys of the film is the cagey but caring interplay between Fierstcin's Arnold and Bancroft as his mum. but somehow it's less about the particular issue of coming to terms with one's offspring‘s homosexuality than an exploration of wider questions about parental support for our independence. ‘A lot of the reviews have in fact misunderstood that relationship.‘ Fierstcin agrees. ‘because they think I’m making an argument jtist about homosexuality. But really. that‘s just what‘s being thought over. The thing goes much deeper than that .‘
Bearded and putting on just a few of the sixty pounds he had to lose to play the part in the movie. it’s Fierstcin's extraordinarily gravelly New York Jewish accent that remains a quite distinctive feature. A recent statement ‘I know I'm right. I would rather remake the entire world. one in which it’s normal to be gay. than be different‘. reveals that his passionate concern is with dissolving the mental barriers that prevent the normalisation of the homosexual experience. At the 198-1 Tony Awards ceremony (the NY theatre ()scars) Fierstcin was berated by Lauren Bacall for thanking his lover in his acceptance speech but he still remains dedicated to keeping gay romantic liasons high profile with the touching scenes of tenderness and the examination of
difficult relationships that mark the integral content of Tore/i Song the movie. ‘Nobody talks about guys falling in love.‘ he remarked in an American interview earlier this year. ‘1 mean. people think of homosexuals as people who go out and suck a lot of dick. and nobody really talks about homosexuals and their very common human problems.‘
While an undoubted star name like Anne Bancroft will surely help the film‘s acceptance at the box office. the presence of Matthew Broderick as Arnold‘s young lover Alan. will also probably help the palitability of its sexual orientation for some audiences. Yet. unlikely as the scenes are. it was in fact Fierstcin that gave the youthful l lollywood star of the likes of War (James and Ferris Bueller's Day ()ﬂ'his first actingbreak. "l‘hat was in 1%‘1 when this fresh-faced seventeen year-old kid turned up on roller skates to audition for the part of my adopted gay son. He was so wonderful he got the role on the spot and played off—Broadway before Neil Simon came and stole him away for Brighton Bt’tlt'lt .llt’moirs. Of course. then when it came to doing the movie of 'l'oreli Song he was too old. but when he read the script he wanted to play Alan. ” You ('an 't be my lUt't’I‘ you 're my son" I said “I can 't kiss you like that”. But luckily it all seems to have worked out awfully well .’
(iiven the public image of Broderick as a smart and handsomely dashing young man Ferris Bueller ( for the last word on youth cool). it was a move of considerable bravery on his part to accept the movie role at all. But then in these AIDS-conscience time. it was a brave move for anyone to finance the movie at all. After years oflooking for the right deal. a search that included an offer from producer Ray Annie Stark and director Herbert The Secret offlly .S'ueeess Ross to do the final section as a light comedy with all the sex removed. Fierstcin found that it was New-l .ine Cinema. the independent Hollywood outfit whose huge success with the .N'iglitmare on lilm Street series has enabled them to put money into other more artistically credible projects. that allowed him to write the screen play. choose the director. star in the film. and have the say over the final cut. "l‘hey're serious about film making. and they‘re not looking for the formula product. because after all they did put up the money for both Hairspray and A Handfulo./‘l)ust. So I‘ve nothing but good words for New-Line.’ says lieirstein.
So do you give a prayer of thanks each night for Mr Kruger‘.’ ‘l don‘t come down on my knees for Freddy! 'I‘here‘s too much blood on him and that‘s just not safe sex.’
Tore/i Song Trilogy opens at Edinburgh Film House on May 3/ and Glasgow (iF'I'. see the Film Section for complete programme details and afull review.
Win Tore/i Song 'l'rilogy tickets and scripts. (see back page)
The List 1‘) May— l June ll‘)8‘)9