On American television, we like our homosexuals one of two ways: happy, clever, and sassy — Sean Hayes’ Jack on ”Will & Grace” is the reigning example — or tragic, heroic, and pitied, as in any given made-for-TV movie, starting with 1985’s ”An Early Frost” (in which a young Aidan Quinn died of AIDS in part to enlighten his well-meaning but ill-informed parents, Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands).
The result is didactic, static, and often sentimental work. It’s no wonder that TV’s most interesting gay couple remains the encoded brother team of Frasier and Niles Crane; that the patron saint of out sexuality remains that great old queen of the sitcom, the late Paul Lynde; or that Rosie O’Donnell’s snail-slow coming out is being met with the kind of squishily benign media approval that can only make other gay performers wonder if it’s worth risking the range of their potential roles to make the gesture at all.
On the other hand, The Laramie Project (HBO), an indie-film version of a 2000 Off Broadway play about the murder, is clear-eyed, often moving, but also tediously overanalyzed, if not a little self-congratulatory. All words spoken are from actual taped interviews with Laramie residents conducted by members of the Tectonic Theater Project and their director, Moisés Kaufman.
The townsfolk, who often address the camera directly, are represented by a large ensemble including ”Oz”’s Terry Kinney as Matthew’s father, Peter Fonda and ”Happiness”’ Dylan Baker as doctors, ”The Practice”’s Camryn Manheim as a Laramie theater teacher, ”Dawson’s Creek”’s Joshua Jackson as a bartender, Steve Buscemi as a hired-car driver, and Amy Madigan as the first officer on the scene where Shepard, beaten and shoeless, was strung up to die on a remote countryside fence.
Laramie’s most daring, glaring conceit is to have the interviewers as characters in the production (Kaufman, for example, is portrayed by ”The Tick”’s Nestor Carbonell). It’s riveting to see them extract anecdotes from the bartender at the site where Shepard’s two murderers first met him (Jackson gives this apparently good-humored, easygoing man a subtle, guilty sorrow) and from the man who drove Shepard to various gay bars (Buscemi, exuding extraordinarily offhand, garrulous eloquence).
But the information gatherers come across as clichés of big-city neurotics: self-absorbed and parochial. Bully for them for exposing themselves as such; pity we who have to sit through their banal musings over how Shepard’s case affected them. In this case, their group research was far more valuable than their group soul-search. ”Laramie”’s sense of tragedy extends as far, wide, and endlessly as the prairie landscape against which Matthew’s body was crucified.