On American television, we like our homosexuals one of two ways: happy, clever, and sassy — Sean Hayes’ Jack on Will & Grace is the reigning example — or tragic, heroic, and pitied, as in any given made-for-TV movie, starting with 1985’s An Early Frost (in which a young Aidan Quinn died of AIDS in part to enlighten his well-meaning but ill-informed parents, Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands). Among miniseries, the original, British Queer as Folk brought a bracing degree of exuberance and multidimensionality to gay life that PBS’ Tales of the City, its Showtime sequels, and Showtime’s own adaptation of Queer failed to fathom — or even fake convincingly. In America, we get either fairy tales (neutered sexuality) or horror stories (tragic warnings). The result is didactic, static, and often sentimental work. It’s no wonder that TV’s most interesting gay couple remains the encoded brother team of Frasier and Niles Crane; that the patron saint of out sexuality remains that great old queen of the sitcom, the late Paul Lynde; or that Rosie O’Donnell’s snail-slow coming out is being met with the kind of squishily benign media approval that can only make other gay performers wonder if it’s worth risking the range of their potential roles to make the gesture at all.
Certainly, dour liberal sentimentalism mars The Matthew Shepard Story, NBC’s well-meaning but assiduously tendentious retelling of the life of gay hate-crime victim Shepard, killed at age 21 in October 1998 in Laramie, Wyo. It stars The West Wing’s Stockard Channing and Law & Order’s Sam Waterston as Shepard’s parents. On other hand, The Laramie Project (HBO), an indie-film version of a 2000 Off Broadway play about the murder, is clear-eyed, often moving, but also tediously overanalyzed, if not a little self-congratulatory.
Of the two, Laramie is certainly the superior, more compelling work. All words spoken are from actual taped interviews with Laramie residents conducted by members of the Tectonic Theater Project and their director, Moises Kaufman. The townsfolk, who often address the camera directly, are represented by a large ensemble including Oz’s Terry Kinney as Matthew’s father, Peter Fonda and Happiness’ Dylan Baker as doctors, The Practice’s Camryn Manheim as a Laramie theater teacher, Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson as a bartender, Steve Buscemi as a hired-car driver, and Amy Madigan as the first officer on the scene where Shepard, beaten and shoeless, was strung up to die on a remote countryside fence. Laramie’s most daring, glaring conceit is to have the interviewers as characters in the production (Kaufman, for example, is portrayed by The Tick’s Nestor Carbonell). It’s riveting to see them extract anecdotes from the bartender at the site where Shepard’s two murderers first met him (Jackson gives this apparently good-humored, easygoing man a subtle, guilty sorrow) and from the man who drove Shepard to various gay bars (Buscemi, exuding extraordinarily offhand, garrulous eloquence). But the information gatherers come across as cliches of big-city neurotics: self-absorbed and parochial. Bully for them for exposing themselves as such; pity we who have to sit through their banal musings over how Shepard’s case affected them. In this case, their group research was far more valuable than their group soul-search.
The Matthew Shepard Story, meanwhile, might just as well have been titled The Judy Shepard Story, since her agony, not Matthew’s (played here by Shane Meier), and her choice to have her husband plead against sentencing her son’s killers to death, comprise the movie’s central drama. The result is a nice little showcase for Channing, if a lesser one for Waterston, who delivers the anti-death-penalty plea in the same high-dudgeon quaver he uses to give summations on Law & Order. It’s all very well intended, as executive-produced by Goldie Hawn and directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who also directed the 1993 HBO adaptation of Randy Shilts’ AIDS investigation And the Band Played On. But Story reduces the young man to a problem of the week, to be mourned and buried after its Saturday-night airing, whereas Laramie’s sense of tragedy extends as far, wide, and endlessly as the prairie landscape against which Matthew’s body was crucified. The Laramie Project: B+ The Matthew Shepard Story: C