The fabulous Bil Browningselected Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy for his VIP Q Movie Pick and it reminded me that this was one of the first LGBT movies I ever reviewed (for the Minneapolis-based, GAZE Magazine where I got my start as a film critic). I just found the review (and critique of the original marketing of the film) and had to share it here - it is a wonderful film!
With Torch Song Trilogy the film, Harvey Fierstein has crafted his play into a fine screenplay for the most part, although there are some rough transitions in the film that perhaps worked better on the stage. The strength of the film lies in Fierstein's conveyance of gay humor and pathos and in his focus on issues and situations revolving around being gay (or lesbian), such as coming out, homophobia, losing a lover, and anti-gay violence.
The film is somewhat overambitious in its chronological scope, covering nearly ten years (1971-1980), in which there are several jumps through time, which disrupt the cohesiveness of the narrative. However, these difficulties are more than made up for by the many brilliant moments of the film, such as Arnold (Fierstein) and his fellow drag queens harassing the saleswomen in a woman's clothing store. Alternating with these comic sequences, Fierstein punctuates the film with several highly emotional dialogues with his mother, played by Anne Bancroft. In these interactions Arnold conveys a well measured degree of anger at the world's homophobia along with a measure of sadness in his frustration at attempting to confront the homophobia in his mother.
New Line Cinema, who was also responsible for bringing John Waters's Hairspray to the screen, realized the film's potential to reach a wide audience and financed Torch Song without imposing any major changes on Fierstein's screen adaptation of his play.
Since it has been picked up for major distribution by the Cineplex-Odeon Theatre chain, Torch Song will reach a wide general audience as it plays in suburban multiplex theatres all over the country. As with most "mainstream" releases dealing with gay and lesbian themes as their primary subject matter (Personal Best, Making Love, Cruising, etc.) the publicity campaign downplays the "gayness" of the film, presumably in an attempt to appeal to a wider (heterosexual) audience by identifying the concerns of the film as "universal."
In his explanation of the film to fellow critic Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert commented: "It's not a gay play anyway, it's about people who love each other who happen to be men." Ebert's comment begs the question if this depiction of love between men is not a gay play, what is his definition of gay? His statement follows a historical pattern of statements made by those involved in the production and promotion of "gay, but not gay" Hollywood films. Director William Wyler, on the set of his 1962 film version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, "The Children's Hour is not about lesbianism."; actor Rod Steiger on his 1968 film The Sergeant, "The Sergeant is not about homosexuality, it's about loneliness."; director William Friedkin on his 1970 film version of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, "The Boys in the Band is not about homosexuality."; director William Freidkin on his 1980 film Cruising, "Cruising is not about homosexuality." (Thank you Vito Russo for the research).
From these quotations it becomes apparent that Roger Ebert's brand of euphemistic logic is precisely the strategy (an inherently homophobic strategy) of Hollywood's marketing of gay and lesbian themed films. By manipulating the promotion of the film the studio can capitalize on the gay or lesbian theme as a unique twist while simultaneously downplaying (and denying the validity) of the gay or lesbian aspect of the film and promoting it as dealing with "human" issues. Thus, the film can gain a straight audience while at the same time pulling in a gay and lesbian audience that, starved for representations of itself in mainstream culture, takes what it can get.
This Hollywood phenomenon (leaving out, for the moment, foreign and independently produced films) of minimizing the significance of the gayness of gay charcters in gay themed films can be explained by the fact that the Hollywood film industry is first and foremost an industry interested in making money. It follows that the individual film company markets such films to reach a wider ticket-buying (straight) audience to make more money off the film.
As for Torch Song, if one gives the film company credit as having some social conscience (which I am inclined to grant to a certain degree in the case of Torch Song given Harvey Fierstein's involvement in the production), perhaps they genuinely believe that straight audiences should see the film because it might further their understanding or enlighten them to the homophobia in society and precipitate actual social change. Still, in denying the validity of the "gayness" of the film on its own terms by promoting it as being of "universal/human" interest rather then asserting that it might be okay for a straight audience to go see a film about gay people because it IS about gay people, the film is tainted by the homophobia of its marketing campaign. This, in itself, subverts the very anti-homophobic message Torch Song seems to be trying to convey.