On October 6 of 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was beaten and tortured by two men near Laramie, Wyoming. A few days later, Shepard died while being treated in the hospital. While this death brought about a national conversation on hate crime legislation, LGBT activism, and homophobia, it also rocked the small, seemingly unassuming town of Laramie. Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie during this time and collected hundreds of interviews from the residents. These interviews were shaped into a play that became a big hit. In 2002, an HBO produced telefilm aired.
The Laramie Project was scheduled to air March 16th; however NBC shrewdly decided to air another movie about Matthew Shepard’s murder on that same date, titled The Matthew Shepard Story. While The Laramie Project was more of a fantasia featuring different voices and opinions on the murder (with Shepard’s parents only making a small appearance towards the end), The Matthew Shepard Story actually dramatizes Shepard’s life, the details of his murder, and an aftermath that intimately follows Shepard’s parents’ decision on whether the man who murdered Shepard should get the death penalty. The movies are distinct from each other. However, for some reason, NBC decided to turn this issue into a ratings game and schedule its movie the same time as HBO’s. HBO, realizing it would probably be clobbered in the ratings by the free television network, moved its movie up one week.
If we want to turn the release of these movies into a competition…then which movie came out the winner? In terms of critical acclaim, The Laramie Project was the clear winner. While the HBO film received glowing reviews, similar to the original play, TMSS received reviews ranging from OK to good, with most critics negatively comparing it to the former film. In terms of awards, TLP received 4 Emmy nominations, including for Made for Television Movie. It also received a Producers Guild nomination and a Humanitas Prize. However, TLP did not win any Emmys that year. TMSS did receive an Emmy: Stockard Channing (who played Matthew Shepard’s mother) won an Emmy for Supporting Actress. It was also the only nomination TMSS had…but it won an Emmy nonetheless. Channing also won a more competitive SAG award. The movie also won an honorary Writers Guild Award…something TLP didn’t win. No one in the cast of TLP received any major acting nominations, but Stockard Channing did. Clearly TLP had more broad support, but TMSS can actually call itself “An Emmy Winning Film.”
What do I think? Well, I believe both movies are really really good. The Laramie Project features an all star cast that probably deserved more credit (particularly Amy Madigan, who played the sheriff who found Shepard and risked catching HIV). The movie does a nice job of showcasing the differing viewpoints and opinions in response to this hate crime. However, what’s nice about The Matthew Shepard Story is that it actually feels like more of a traditional story, with a clearer through line. I feels like there’s more at stakes in TMMS, while TLM is more “bits and pieces.” Despite all that, The Laramie Project is the better made film, more deserving of that TV Movie Emmy nomination. However, I am certainly glad both movies exist because they both offer different perspectives and stories.
In fact, for the most part, the only real scene the two movies share is a moment towards the end when the father of Matthew Shepard gives a speech for the court, sparring one of the murderer’s life. In The Laramie Project, Terry Kinney plays this role and received a Satellite nomination, while Sam Waterston played the role in The Matthew Shepard Story and won a Gemini award. Both scenes are equally well shot and acted; however, the version from TMSS might be a bit more powerful since there was more of a direct lead up to that scene. I’m actually surprised Waterston didn’t receive an Emmy nomination beside Channing, but I guess, that year, voters decided Channing was the new “it woman” (she also won an Emmy that night for The West Wing).
The Laramie Project was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Made for Television Movie in 2002. Here are the other nominees:
Outstanding Made for Television Movie – 2002
- The Laramie Project (HBO)
- Dinner with Friends (HBO)
- James Dean (TNT)
- The Gathering Storm (HBO) *WINNER*
- Path to War (HBO)
Unsurprisingly, four out of five of the nominees are docudramas. The only fictional movie here is Dinner with Friends, which is an adaptation of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize winning play. It’s about a married couple who reexamines their relationship after their married best friends divorce. Being an adaptation of a play, it’s very “talky,” but really nice nonetheless. I also really enjoyed James Dean, which stars a very believable James Franco. The best moments in the film are the ones that portray Dean’s strained relationship with his father (played by Michael Moriarty, who won an Emmy).
I didn’t much care for Path to War or the actual winner The Gathering Storm. Path to War is essentially about Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidential career, particularly involving racial segregation in the South and the Vietnam war. It’s a long movie that lacks shape. I was bored watching it. The Gathering Storm is a little better, particularly because it involved great performances by Emmy winner Albert Finney (playing Winston Churchill) and nominee Vanessa Redgrave (playing his wife). But I think voters (who are usually enamoured with British accents) played it safe by giving the award to TGS and not something important and relevant like The Laramie Project.
So, Laramie Project vs. Matthew Shepard…who wins? We all do. Movies like these contributed to our collective changing viewpoints. We’ve come a long way since the late 90’s/early 00’s. I’m thankful I live in a time where gay bashing, although not completely eradicated, is certainly unacceptable. Also, gay people can get married now! Wooh!