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The Laramie Project

Premiere date
Cast: Dylan Baker, Steve Buscemi, Nestor Carbonell, Janeane
Regular airtime: 16 March 2002

(HBO)

The Matthew Shepard Story
Airtime: 23 March 2002 (ABC)
Cast: Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Shane Meier


by Stephen Tropiano

The Laramie Project
The Matthew Shepard Story
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Live and Let Live


In October 1988, 22-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left to die in a field on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Two locals, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, pistol-whipped the gay University of Wyoming student before tying him to a cattle fence. Eighteen hours passed before his blood-drenched body was found. He never regained consciousness and died in a hospital several days later. The murder and subsequent trial received national media attention because of the horrific nature of the crime that was so clearly motivated by hate.


Shepard’s tragic death remains a painful reminder of how, despite the progress the gay rights movement has made over the years, homophobia is still prevalent in our society. McKinney and Henderson claimed Shepard came on to them and their actions were the result of “homosexual panic.” But neither of their juries believed the diminutive Shepard could have posed a threat to his assailants; both juries returned guilty verdicts.


Henderson is currently serving two consecutive life sentences. McKinney was also given life in prison, but only after Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard, delivered an impassioned speech in the courtroom on behalf of his family, recommending his son’s murderer not be put to death. “Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew,” Mr. Shepard said. “Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t.”


Dennis Shepard’s speech is the climactic moment in two recent made-for-TV films that focus on Matthew’s life and death. The first to air was HBO’s The Laramie Project. Its innovative approach to biography and history stands in contrast to the second, NBC’s The Matthew Shepard Story. Never straying too far from the TV movie formula, John Werrick and Jacob Krueger’s well-crafted teleplay interweaves Matthew’s life story with his parents’ struggle to cope with their loss. More specifically, The Matthew Shepard Story focuses on the decision Judy and Dennis Shepard must make regarding McKinney’s fate. Should they ask for the death penalty or allow one of their son’s murderers to live out the remainder of his life in a prison cell?


In a series of flashbacks that cover Matthew’s high school years through the events leading up to his murder, we slowly come to understand Matthew (nicely played by Shane Meier), who is portrayed as an amiable, yet somewhat discontented young man. He feels like an outsider, in part because he is gay, and also because in comparison to his peers, he never feels like his life has any real purpose. His anxiety is compounded by a traumatic incident: while on a school trip in Morocco, he is gang-raped by three men. The film suggests his emotional scars from the rape were the cause of his lack of direction during his adolescence. Ironically, he is just beginning to feel that he has a purpose, when his life is cut short on that tragic October evening. As he explains to his best friend, Romaine (a superb Kristen Thomson), he enrolled in the University of Wyoming so he could “major in political science, become a diplomat, travel around the world, help people, and make the world a better place.”


As the Shepards, Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston are, as always, terrific, conveying a mixture of pain, grief, and anger. For a film produced with the cooperation of the Shepard family, it is surprisingly critical of the couple, who, over the course of the movie, slowly recognize their limitations as parents who never fully understood what Matthew experienced as a gay man. More importantly, they come to realize that, despite his daily encounters with homophobes (like the neighbor who hurls derogatory remarks at him and writes “fag” on his door), he remained optimistic, trusting people to a fault, and always able to see the good in them. “You are going to think the whole world hates you,” he advises a friend who is about come out of the closet, “but you will be surprised who’s standing in your corner.” As the two narrative threads—- Matthew’s and his parents’—come together, we see that the Shepards spare McKinney’s life because it is what Matthew would have done.


Neither Matthew nor the Shepards are central characters in the second film, The Laramie Project, which premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival before its March debut on HBO. The docudrama is based on interviews with residents of Laramie, who share their feelings about Shepard’s murder, the trials, and their effect on the sleepy Wyoming town. The transcripts of the interviews, conducted by Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Program, formed the basis of a stage play that received critical acclaim when it debuted in Denver in 2000, followed by a short run in New York and a national tour.


In adapting their play for the small screen, director Kaufman and his team of co-writers have crafted a powerful portrait of a community that is unified over the tragic events. Laramie gives the townspeople a voice, an opportunity to respond to the murder and the trials that put them in the national spotlight. Many felt the media painted Laramie and its residents as intolerant, ignorant, and homophobic. A few knew Shepard personally, while others, like the cyclist who found his body and the officer who arrived on the scene, were connected to him only through his death.


Their words are interpreted by an impressive array of actors, drawn from television, films, and the stage, including Dylan Baker, Steve Buscemi, Nestor Carbonell, Kathleen Chalfant, Jeremy Davies, Peter Fonda, Joshua Jackson, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim, Christina Ricci, Frances Sternhagen, and Lois Smith. Although the use of such recognizable actors could have been distracting, in this case, it proves to an asset.


While this diverse group offers uniformly subtle performances, there are some definite stand-outs: Jackson as the guilt-ridden bartender who served Matthew his last drink in the bar where he met McKinney and Henderson; Buscemi as a limo driver who befriended Matthew when driving him to Denver so he could go out to the bars; Linney as a polite, homophobic housewife who doesn’t quite understand why so much attention is being paid to Shepard’s death; and Davies, as an enthusiastic drama student who defies his parents by playing a gay man in the University of Wyoming’s production of Angels in America.


Out of respect for the grieving family, the writers decided not to interview the Shepards, though they appear as characters in a recreation of trial. The talented Kinney, a Chicago stage actor also known for his work on HBO’s Oz, has the privilege of delivering Dennis Shepard’s speech. Compared to Waterston (who, perhaps after all these years on Law and Order is a little too adept at addressing the court), Kinney’s rendition is less polished and theatrical, and so, seems more earnest.


The one character who does not appear in The Laramie Project is Matthew himself. Kaufman’s choice not to include or recreate his image or voice reinforces Shepard’s role as the film’s structuring absence. This allows the words of the people of Laramie to show that the effect he had on their lives—and ours—will endure.

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