[18 September 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Serving in Silence: Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer remains a landmark film: a television picture starring two powerhouse actresses (Judy Davis and Glenn Close, both taking home Emmys for their work) that dares to suggest that not only can a woman be a true American hero and successfully take on social injustice, but that she can also happen to be a lesbian. At a time when network television wasn’t really as friendly to such hot topics, Serving in Silence was brave enough to chronicle the struggles of a very important member of the gay community who made a life of serving and protecting her country, being a mother, and basically doing everything “right”. When she failed to hide the fact that she connected emotionally with women, Cammermeyer was forced from active duty. Because of her refusal to lie about her orientation (despite being given many opportunities to recant her statements), Cammermeyer was caught at the flashpoint of a huge battle for the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians who served in the military.
Close plays “Grethe” Cammermeyer as a likable, well-respected, and utterly composed army nurse who is passionately dedicated to her job training incoming medical personnel. At the beginning of the film, she moves from San Francisco back to Seattle, where her four sons live with their father, and leaves active duty and combat for a more laid-back life of the reserves and family. She is an impeccably put together woman, in control, and successful. An over-achiever by nature, Grethe soon becomes chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard.
In Seattle, Grethe meets Diane (Davis), an art professor from Los Angeles who is as neurotic as she is charming (a character Davis all but holds the patent on). The two immediately click; despite some rather sizable differences (Diane is gay while Grethe hasn’t figured that part of herself out, yet). The women stay up all night chatting, and slowly, they form a bond. When Grethe flies to LA to attend one of Diane’s art openings, the sparks begin to fly, each woman’s curiosity piqued. When the two are out for dinner and Diane points out that it is their first date, Grethe’s reaction is perfectly genuine as she says, “Is that what this is?”, without any hint of shame or guile. Watching the actress let her romantic guard down as her character begins to understand her sexuality is one of the film’s strongest points: Close never goes for melodrama or stereotypes while Davis offers solid support at every turn; both actresses rarely come across with such warmth in their other work. Soon, Diane moves to Seattle and the women must deal with the implications of their relationship on their family.
As Grethe becomes more professionally ambitious, applying for a “Top Secret” clearance (part of her desire to become the Chief Nurse of the entire National Guard and achieving the rank of general), she is routinely investigated. Upon being asked about “engaging in immoral conduct”, Grethe asks for clarification of that term: she is eager to point out to the investigating officer that she is a lesbian. When grilled cruelly and specifically with demeaning questions about her physical activity with women, Grethe offers up a tough but classy response: “Being a lesbian is part of someone’s identity, nothing more, nothing less”. While this opens up a gigantic can of worms for her, Grethe shows that she is equally passionate to fight for her freedom; after all, she is the most qualified person for the job she holds, lesbian or not. She clings to the hope that “the army is a reasonable organization”, citing the prior restrictions against women, blacks, and mothers that has changed over the course of history. She figures that this, too, will be an issue of little consequence. Ever the soldier, she believes that her 23 years of service will see her through and that “the army takes care of its own”.
Instead, she is treated to a very rude awakening: her security clearance is pulled and the Army begins discharge proceedings against her. Grethe has two options: to resign, keep her pension, and leave gracefully—or get a lawyer and become involved in a very public fight against the government. With Grethe trepidation, decides to make it her business to change the way the Army does things (meaning she has to tell her sons that she is a lesbian, in a scene that Close handles beautifully). As the court battle becomes more and more ugly, Grethe and Diane’s fledgling relationship becomes appropriately strained, as Diane has not come out to her family formally (the actors are both excellent in their depiction of the situation’s general unpleasantness, making both women flawed yet compassionate).
Despite the film’s rather obvious small-screen trappings (like Close’s phony guitar playing during one awkwardly staged romantic scene in front of a fireplace, where the lovers share nothing more than a saucy gaze, or in the hammy voice-overs about gay rights that border on the condescending and preachy), the actors raise the bar and turn their characters into believable heroes (in fact, the television industry in general must be given credit for giving talented middle-aged women a much-needed respite from the usual one-dimensional film roles assigned them). The notion of “playing gay”, especially on television at the time, was a risky one, so the fact that producer Barbra Streisand was able to get such A-list actors involved with the controversial story is an achievement in itself (the producers acknowledge the threatening hurdles they had to jump over making a film about homosexuality for television, from advertisers and industry wags alike).
Streisand, who shows up in the extras in a very nice “making of” documentary with the real-life Cammermeyer (who jokes that Streisand was Yentl, so the idol could certainly understand discrimination), convincingly articulates her commitment to gay rights and the fight against homophobia. She asks a key question: why can an integrated military work for other countries, but not for the United States? In footage from the film’s premiere, Streisand comes off even stronger in her role as a human rights activist, if there was any prior doubt: the often diva-like actress / producer / director / icon has never seemed so human and relatable, calling Cammermeyer’s story “the most important social issue of the decade”.
Of course, since the film was made in 1995, there has been substantial progress in gay and lesbian visibility on television with shows such as The L Word and Will and Grace raising awareness as well as tolerance levels. While the popular shows may not exactly share fundamental roots with this well-meaning story of one woman’s crusade against an unjust practice, they all share a common ground that teaches a very important and universal moral lesson: that intolerance has no place in our daily lives.
The “daring” prospect of a gay woman as an “American hero” that the film explores is just as resonant today as it was then: the military has yet to change their “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy despite many other soldiers, with service records not unlike Cammermeyer’s, speaking out against what they feel are unfair terms (it is estimated that 65,000 gays and lesbians are currently serving secretly in the US military branches). It’s nice to know that the gay community still has such powerful allies in both the military and in Hollywood, and that their alliance can culminate in such compelling, important television.