Picturing Matthew Shepard

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Picturing Matthew Shepard

In January, HBO announced that its adaptation of Kaufman's play would air on March 16. A few weeks later, NBC said it had slated The Matthew Shepard Story?the official family biography?for the same night. NBC execs claimed they don't pay attention to HBO's scheduling. Scott Seomin, entertainment media director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, observed, "If they're competing against each other, no one wins." In response, HBO's show was moved up to Saturday, March 9.

NBC's version is a far superior telling. Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, allowed Goldie Hawn, Peter Sussman and Ed Gernon to produce the "official" dramatization of her family's story. The show opens with a graphic depiction of Shepard (Shane Meier) being beaten to death, and goes on to treat his life and death, McKinney's trial and the loss experienced by his parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston). The portrayals of Shepard's closeted childhood, his coming out to his parents after being gang-raped while on a high-school trip to Morocco and other previously obscure details of his life feel true and honest. That's refreshing after the saintly caricature he morphed into in the media.

HBO's The Laramie Project looks amateurish in comparison, and teaches nothing new or noteworthy. Christina Ricci and Laura Linney, respectively, play Shepard's lesbian friend and the town bigot, Sherry Johnson. Watching these marquee names only distracts from the story the film's trying to tell. Michael Musto, who felt the original play was "a bit self-congratulatory," agrees with me that the use of such stars to tell this tragic story is "bizarre," though he adds it was "inevitable." On the plus side, there's some good news footage of the near-riot in midtown a few days after Shepard's death.

Musto reflects on the way a murder that sparked a nationwide debate on homophobia and the validity of hate-crimes legislation devolved into a ratings battle. "My guess is that most of the Shepard [projects] will reveal more about the makers and producers than about Matthew himself," he predicts.

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