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Murder in The Heartland 

by Kathy M. Newman

The NBC made-for-TV-movie The Matthew Shepard Story begins with a re-enactment of the crime that took place on October 6, 1998: two men beat the 21-year-old gay college freshman Matthew Shepard unconscious with the butt of a gun. They tie him to a fence, take his shoes and leave him to die in sub-freezing temperatures in a field outside of Laramie, Wyo. In the next scene a woman police officer, against a perfect pink dawn, cuts the rope that binds Shepard to the fence. Next we see Stockard Channing, as Shepard's mother (Judy) and Sam Waterston as his father (Dennis), greeting friends at Matthew Shepard's funeral.

Alternatively, the HBO tribute to Matthew Shepard, The Laramie Project, is a film based on more than 200 interviews with Laramie residents. It opens with a similarly haunting pink sky, and then the image of a church, the sound of church bells and a woman's voice, with a slight country, possibly even hillbilly, twang: "Now first I thought the kids that did this came from somewhere else. Well, when I learned that they had grown up in Laramie, well I was just floored."

These openings reflect the disparate approaches that NBC and HBO have adopted for their treatments of Matthew Shepard's murder. With the active participation of the Shepard family, NBC's Matthew Shepard Story is really the story of Matthew Shepard's parents, and, specifically, their decision to ask that the men who killed their son be spared the death penalty. It is a moving story of their activism, courage and perseverance.

HBO's The Laramie Project evolved out of the creative decision by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonics Theater Project to travel to Laramie and conduct interviews with residents about the Shepard murder. These interviews were transcribed and turned into the text for the play, which was originally performed by the actors who conducted the interviews. Provokingly, The Laramie Project asks who we should blame for the Shepard murder. The two men who killed him? The rural culture of Laramie? A more generalized homophobia?

Political activism -- one kind rooted in the family, the other in art -- anchors both of these productions. In addition, they both star an impressive cast of screen and television actors. Ironically, perhaps, this star power is distracting. While the high profile of Channing and Waterston bring notoriety to the NBC effort, it is hard to erase their respective TV personas of First Lady Abigail Bartlet on The West Wing, and Jack McCoy, the crusading Assistant District Attorney on Law and Order.

In a similar manner, it is hard not to see the charismatic "fat chick" lawyer from The Practice, Ellenor Frutt, when the actress Camryn Manheim plays the University of Wyoming Theatre professor, Rebecca Hilliker, in The Laramie Project. Other notables include Nestor Carbonell, Janeane Garafalo, Peter Fonda, Laura Linney and Christina Ricci.

In another ironic development, these two movies were originally scheduled to air the same night: Saturday, March 16. While HBO has had The Laramie Project on its calendar for some time, NBC made its announcement to air The Matthew Shepard Story on the same date early this year -- a move that prompted speculation that NBC was trying to cut into the cache HBO has been cultivating as an "alternative" to network television. HBO finally decided to move up the premiere date of The Laramie Project to March 9. Like two restaurants that do better when they are located next to each other, both films have received more publicity than they would have if they had been the only Matthew Shepard story airing in March.

Representation of gay men and women on television has come along way since ABC premiered A Certain Summer, a relatively timid made-for-TV melodrama about a middle-aged gay man (played by Hal Holbrook) who musters up the courage to introduce his son to his gay lover (played by Martin Sheen) in 1972. Networks have gone from avoiding the subject altogether, to handling it poorly, to fighting over which night to premiere two well-made movies about the same gay murder.

But ultimately, these films challenge us to think about the role our own homophobia might play in the prevalence of gay "lynching" in America. While we may be tempted to blame it on the heartland -- The Laramie Project flashes a town sign that reads "Wyoming: Like No Place on Earth" -- Wyoming is more likely just like every place on earth. It is our own hearts, and not the heartland, that we must confront as we continue to wrestle with this incomprehensible crime.

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