In the 1995 NBC movie Serving in Silence: The Grethe Cammermeyer Story, Glenn Close plays a real-life colonel in the Washington State National Guard who was discharged after revealing she was a lesbian during a routine inquiry. (Cammermeyer was eventually reinstated after taking the issue to court). Here, Close – who won her first Emmy for the role – and the now-retired Cammermeyer look back on the movie’s emotional impact.
GRETHE CAMMERMEYER: I was approached probably six or eight months before my book came out. I got a call from Barwood Studios. I didn’t have a clue what that was. The lady said, I’m calling on behalf of Barbra Streisand and she would like to meet with you. I called my attorney, who said, ‘Grethe, you can’t go talk to Barbra Streisand unless you have your attorney with you.’ We all met at Barbra’s home with all the producers and the people from NBC and Barbra asked, “Wouldn’t you like to have your life story told on TV to 25 million people?” And I said, not particularly. It was a matter of my being reserved. This was a time when gays and lesbians were not yet people. We didn’t have a life. We were just sex objects. So to have this disclosure to the world, it was awkward to say the least. Barbra said she considered it to be the most important social issue of the decade, at which point, it was important that we get out of the way and allow this process to take place. The only concern we had was that this was Hollywood, and we had a legal case going. We wanted to make sure that nothing would be contrary or might influence the case moving forward.
GLENN CLOSE: I came on as a producer. I was between Sunset Boulevard in L.A. and Sunset Boulevard in New York City. I was very much in the trenches, developing the script about this lesbian of heroic proportions. When you are doing something that breaks ground, you think about how it’s going to affect your career. There was a growing conservative sentiment in the country at the time. It was one of those occasions where I said to myself, “What’s the alternative? Not to do it because you are a coward?”
CAMMERMEYER: Writer Alison Cross came up and spent a week with [Cammermeyer’s now wife] Diane and I in Seattle. She met people from the gay community. This was going to be the first time there was a positive depiction of the life of a lesbian. Usually they are murderers or they commit suicide, do bad things [on TV]. The community wanted to make sure Alison, who wasn’t gay, got it. And so they talked with her and then she talked to Chris Fisher, my co-writer on my book. Then they sent us a script. Diane and I diligently went through the script line by line and would change it because we thought, we don’t speak to one another like this. This is how it would happen in real life. We sent all of the corrections and of course they proceeded without them! For me it was recognizing that this was not my story. It was a collective story of the lives of lesbians who had been serving in the military. The backdrop was mine. We were extremely pleased with the end product and so were my kids.
CLOSE: Grethe and I had a very good relationship. We were very respectful of one another. I don’t think she ever came in and said, “You’re doing this wrong.” But if I was doing it wrong, I would hear about it and seek her help for technical things, like how to wear my hat properly. I felt like she was a real collaborator in my performance.
CAMMERMEYER: Glenn was representing every woman in the military, so she had to walk like a soldier and not like a movie star. It took very little time to help her because she is so talented. As I sometimes tell people, it took me 25 years to become a colonel and she did it in one week.
Diane and I drove up to see where the filming was taking place. We stayed out of the way of the director. Then we saw there was a trailer that said Diane and one that said Grethe. And I thought, well that was sweet of them. And of course it had nothing to do with us. It had to do with Judy Davis and Glenn Close. It was just bizarre.
CLOSE: Judy and I had a fantastic time. There was a moment when [Davis and her] kissed. There were choices not to make it overtly sexual, just because it was new territory for audiences. But we wanted to have enough of it in there to make it believable to lesbians, frankly.
CAMMERMEYER: Even though there had been many people who tried to challenge the military before, the attention that came from the film itself … we would go to Costco, and the boys would walk behind Diane and I to see how many people recognized us. It was a big deal for us. When you are raised at a time when homosexuality is taboo, the reason for the silence is because you don’t want to lose your friends and family. You put up a wall. Once that is down, there is an openness that occurs for everyone.
CLOSE: Both Grethe and I got unbelievable letters from people who said they were contemplating suicide. After seeing the movie, they realized there was a place for them in the world. It gives me a big lump in my throat, just talking about it right now. To have them see for the first time not only someone they could totally relate to but who was a hero was huge to them. She was a lesbian of heroic proportions, even more so now because of the way this present administration is trying to marginalize trans soldiers. It hasn’t lost any of its potency as a story.
CAMMERMEYER: Even today when there are viewings of Serving in Silence and Diane and I are invited to participate, I do not stay and watch the movie. I come in afterwards and do a Q & A. It was tough enough to live through and then to have to relive it every time you see it. It’s just too painful.
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