Judge George Hatch gives a fine review of a film based on the true story of the murder of a homosexual U.S. solider.
"They didn't know how dangerous love could be."—cover line
Director Frank Pierson was no stranger to transgender romance, having won an Oscar for his Dog Day Afternoon screenplay in 1976, but he initially turned down Soldier's Girl because he admits he was afraid of the script. "It was difficult and dangerous material, and how do you handle the sex scenes without being exploitive, verging on the pornographic, or using sensationalism for its own sake?"
Other scenes, however, haunted him for days and he ultimately saw the film as being about love, not sex, "with one person being a straight man and the other conflicted about her own personality." Taking into account the limited budget and time schedule of a made-for-TV movie, Pierson called the producers and told them he had decided to take on the project "because being afraid of it was the very reason to do it."
Facts of the Case
The brutal murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell in 1999 made national headlines and caused a rift in the gay community when the more extraordinary details of the case were revealed: Was it really a straight man who had been "gay-bashed" for his affair with a pre-operative transsexual? Should homophobia within the military have been considered a significant factor? Did a repressed, one-sided homosexual "relationship" exist between Winchell and his roommate Justin Fisher, one strong enough for him to have provoked a troubled 17-year-old recruit to murder Winchell in a fit of jealous rage over his love affair with the transgendered Calpernia Addams?
Thanks to Pierson's sensitive direction, an unbiased script written by Ron Nyswaner, two heroic performances from Troy Garity and Lee Pace, and a nuanced character interpretation by Shawn Hatosy, Soldier's Girl addresses these questions and the new aspects of the case (some of which were abstracted from courtroom documentation) in a straightforward fashion while tackling two controversial issues, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military and gender reassignment. The film also beautifully realizes the unusual, emotionally charged, and heartbreaking romance between Winchell and Addams. Considering the subject matter and that the film ends with an explicitly gruesome murder, it's amazing Soldier's Girl even made it the screen, albeit the one in your living room.
For those unfamiliar with the case, Pfc. Barry Winchell (Troy Garity) arrived at Fort Campbell, Kentucky still devastated by his break-up with a girl he had been engaged to for four years. He was assigned a room with Justin Fisher (Shawn Hatosy), and the two men developed an underplayed love-hate relationship that Fisher referred to as being "battle buddies—with loyalty among men being the only thing that matters."
Fisher eventually brought Winchell to Visions (The Connection in reality), a cross-dressing and transgender nightclub in Nashville, to "test his character." Winchell immediately became infatuated by Calpurnia Addams (Lee Pace), a pre-operative transsexual. The two began a tentative relationship that soon developed into a full-blown love affair, with Winchell spending all of his off-base time in her company. Calpernia's friends were concerned, wondering if her straight boyfriend was aware of her "unfeminine boy's parts." "He knows," she told them. "Or he knows as much as he wants to know." Well, he did know, didn't care, and didn't even want her to have that last operation. He was genuinely in love with the woman he'd met that first night, and without the harsh stage lighting and heavy make-up he found her even more beautiful.
Fisher began questioning Winchell about his long suspicious absences and then started harassing him about being "a queer." When Calvin Glover (Philip Eddolls), a troubled 17-year-old, arrived on base, Fisher manipulated him into spreading rumors about Winchell's sexuality and psyched him into taking physical potshots. Using insinuation and innuendo, Fisher managed to spread homosexual paranoia throughout Fort Campbell while narrowing down an unofficial—and technically illegal—investigation to point the finger at Barry Winchell.
A two-day Independence Day celebration in the barracks degenerated into a series of drunken stunts and brawls with apparently no supervised intervention. In the early hours of July 5, 1999, Fisher finally incited Glover into beating Winchell, asleep on his cot, with a Louisville Slugger. He sustained so much head trauma that his parents requested he be removed from life support.
Barry Winchell was the last gay soldier to die as a result of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and even President Clinton, who signed it into effect, agreed it was a big mistake.
What makes the film so heartbreakingly effective is the powerful chemistry between Troy Garity (Barbershop, Bandits) and actor Lee Pace, right out of drama school in an astonishing debut. Garity points out that "one of my objectives with this Barry Winchell story is to take him back from the sort of martyrdom he's been placed in, and to remind everybody that he was a living, breathing son…[and] a hero because of living and loving courageously." Pace felt that "It's easy for an audience to see a freak and the guy who loves her…[the] film's about an alternative and dangerous relationship…but these two people just love each other." In two very intimidating roles, Garity and Pace are so comfortable with each other—from their initial but wary mutual attraction, through the concerns and quarrels about if and how each can adapt to the other's lifestyles, to the sensual love scenes (and yes, they are love, not sex scenes)—that the real romance of Barry and Calpernia shines through in every frame they share.
In their commentary, director Pierson and screenwriter Nyswaner can't shower enough praise upon Shawn Hatosy (The Faculty, The Cooler) for his contributions to the development of Justin Fisher, so much so that Pierson often let him improvise and Nyswaner went so far as to change the script to accommodate his suggestions. It was Hatosy's idea to underplay Fisher's repressed homosexuality early in the film and bring out his obsessive-compulsive nature, his need to be in charge, and his more desperate need for a "friend." With the other soldiers keeping him at a distance because of his explosive nature, Fisher found in Winchell someone he was both attracted to and could dominate—and offer himself to at the same time.
They first bond when Fisher proudly tells him, "I'm OC and ADHT" (in order to account for all the medication in his bathroom cabinet), and Winchell confesses to being LD, having some learning disabilities. After a bloody altercation midway through the film, Winchell agrees to say he threw the first punch so that Fisher won't be discharged on an Article 15. "You'd do that for me?" he asks in awe, and the relationship intensifies—at least in Fisher's mind. Toward the end, he reveals to Winchell that as a kid his sisters used to dress him up in their clothes, and in a police strip search at age 14 he was caught wearing women's underwear. This most intimate secret explains Fisher's frequent visits to Visions; the appeal of its cross-dressing, transgender performers; and his early "test of [Winchell's] character." In an oblique way he's letting Winchell know, "Hey, if I have to dress like a woman to have sex with you, I'll do it"—but he's not willing to go to the same extreme as Calpernia Addams. When Winchell, totally unaware of his roommate's feelings toward him, continues his affair with Calpernia, Fisher is overwhelmed with jealousy; and actor Hatosy makes his character's point of view almost credible to the point of being sympathetic.
With the heartfelt performances of Garity and Pace, and Hatosy's intuitive input, Pierson and Nyswaner managed to juggle the intertwined relationships of these three characters without once dropping the ball.
Philip Eddolls (The Matthew Shepard Story) is both frightening and pitiful as the near-feeble-minded teenager duped into being a murder proxy by the manipulative Fisher; and Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street) gives strong support in a small role as the sergeant who really liked Winchell, tried to enforce the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and ends up saying, "I feel like I lost my best soldier."
Frank Pierson received an Emmy nomination for his direction of Soldier's Girl as he did for Conspiracy (2001) and Citizen Cohn (1992); and he directed some of the better made-for-TV films of the past decade including Dirty Pictures (2000) and Truman (1995).
Off hand, I can't think of another recent film that used songs so effectively, and here they include Peggy Lee's "Fever," Annie Lennox's "Cold," and k.d. Lang's "The Consequences of Falling" among several others; and they sound impressive on both the 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby. Paul Sarossy's cinematography captures the tawdry atmosphere of the Visions nightclub, the idyllic interludes shared by Barry and Calpurnia, and somehow manages to increase the tension and menace in the barracks as the film progresses. The transfer, while not anamorphic, is crisp and clean and does indeed look better than when I saw the film on television last year. There's an English subtitle option, but when I tried it nothing appeared on screen.
The extras run about a half-hour with the actor's talking about their approach to the roles, the prosthetic device and make-up used for Lee Pace's transformation, and "Soldier's Secret," which is a closer look at the true incident. There's also the commentary track with Pierson, Nyswaner, Garrity, and the real Calpernia Addams; how she could sit through this film I don't know, especially the last 20 minutes, but she managed provide a lot of insight into her relationship with Barry Winchell.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, enough of this guy-on-halfguy stuff. How about some DVD releases of real man-on-man soldier flicks like Reflection in a Golden Eye (1968) with frustrated Marlon Brando watching Robert Forster ride naked on horseback every night; The Sergeant (1968), in which Rod Steiger can't stop eyeballing new recruit John Phillip Law; and The Strange One (1957), with a young Ben Gazzara allowing another cadet to symbolically polish his sword at the military academy?
Soldier's Girl won the prestigious Peabody Award as a "distinguished achievement" in television, and that just about says it all—but it's going to be a hard sell. Outside of the gay demographic, I think women might appreciate the love story, check out the hunky, buzz-cut Troy Garity, possibly feel a bit intimidated at just how attractive and sexy Lee Pace looks all prostheticized and made-up as a woman, but the brutal ending may be too strong for them. Some straight men might be curious, most will probably find the film offensive if not downright revolting, and a few may want to watch just the ending and take some notes. So to them I say, "Don't Buy, Don't Watch."
Case closed. It's a shame that Barry Winchell isn't around to be set free with Calpernia Addams.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Interviews with Troy Garity, Lee Pace, Shawn Hatosy, Calpernia Addams, and Director Frank Pierson
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