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Getting at the complex truth of a soldier's story

May 25, 2003|Ron Nyswaner | Special to The Times

When I stumbled upon a newspaper account of the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell, ambushed by fellow soldiers at Ft. Campbell, Ky., on July 5, 1999, I believed I had found a story so clearly tragic, containing such obvious villains and heroes, that it would -- as a screenwriting teacher used to say -- "tell itself."

"I've found the story I was born to write!" I proclaimed to my agent -- through my cell phone, attracting attention in my upstate New York hair salon -- after reading of Winchell's fatal love affair with a stoic, transgender nightclub performer named Calpernia Addams.

During the three years it has taken to bring the film version of Winchell's story to life ("Soldier's Girl," which airs Saturday night on Showtime), I learned that stories based on real events can be as convoluted as any writer's fantasies, and that truth is an elusive and marketable commodity.

Veracity suffered a blow at my own hands when I prepared a pitch for studio executives. I added a fictional character who was inspired by Winchell's slaying to come out of the closet, giving the film version its conventionally required triumphant ending. My uplifting pitch was rejected by the major studios (the story was deemed too dark, despite my additions). Enter Showtime.

Producers Doro Bachrach and Linda Gottlieb assured me they had no fears about sordid details and little interest in contrived endings. I seized this opportunity to discard my mainstream Hollywood screenwriter's persona and redeem myself with the critics who had condemned my AIDS melodrama, "Philadelphia," as tepid. In cable television, one can present the truth, sans uplift.

My research was derailed when I learned that everyone involved in Winchell's life and death had hired lawyers, and the lawyers had sold their clients' cooperation to competing film producers. I was prohibited from speaking to Winchell's lover or the slain soldier's parents. Winchell's murderers were locked in Ft. Leavenworth.

I crashed the gate at Ft. Campbell, posing as an assistant to a local lawyer (I removed the silver hoop I often wear in one ear). I glimpsed the cells where Justin Fisher and Calvin Glover had confessed to the slaying, and found the exposed, concrete corridor where Winchell had been bludgeoned in his sleep.

While standing on the site of Winchell's attack, I was eyeballed by two suspicious infantrymen. One of them muttered, "I bet he's here about Barry." This recruit's pimpled face reminded me that soldiers are -- beyond anything else -- young. In that moment, Winchell became "Barry" to me.

I proceeded on the assumption that Barry's murder was an act of homophobia, bred in the testosterone-drenched atmosphere of a military post. According to this theory -- promoted by some media -- Barry was homosexual, which meant that his lover was a man, despite the wigs and high heels. After all, a national news weekly had referred to Addams as "Winchell's cross-dressing friend."

Stereotypes brushed aside

Without the opportunity to meet Addams, I relied on impressions culled from watching drag shows featuring beehived caricatures of women with ship bellow's voices. Was this the truth? Had Barry fallen in love with one of Dame Edna's progeny?

I persuaded Addams to join me for a secret date in New York. She appeared wearing a peasant dress and boots, looking like a girl from Tennessee who sometimes plays the fiddle (she does -- with a Celtic band). I was struck by the irony with which she viewed herself. "I know there's a tabloid quality to my life," she said, in a breathy twang.

All stereotypes were brushed aside. Barry -- who had endured homophobic taunts and fallen victim to a gay hate crime -- had loved a woman, despite anatomical details. He was either a man with complex sexual tastes or extraordinarily tolerant.

Barry's murderers defied categorization. Glover, a white supremacist and hater of "fags," had hung out with gay teens and painted his fingernails. Fisher, the engineer of Barry's murder, fit the stereotype of a blowhard redneck until he revealed a lifelong interest in transvestism.

And there was the challenge of casting Addams. "Who will play me?" she had asked during our New York rendezvous. "A man or a woman?"

Indeed. Barry had fallen in love with someone who spent years creating a feminine identity: growing her hair, taking hormones, altering her voice. Yet, during her affair with Barry, she retained male genitalia.

I came to believe that the essence of Barry's character lay in his nonchalant response to his girlfriend's penis. "He told me I didn't need surgery," Addams claimed. "He liked me the way I was."

Director Frank Pierson chose a lanky, broad-shouldered actor named Lee Pace to play Addams (opposite Troy Garity as Barry and Shawn Hatosy, who plays Fisher as a baby-faced killer on Ritalin). Pace endured marathon makeup tests. He displayed prosthetic breasts as director Pierson regaled us with stories of famous breasts, including those of Marlene Dietrich.

A pre-production screening of "Dog Day Afternoon" (scripted by Pierson) galvanized the cast and crew as everyone noted the resemblance between Al Pacino and our star, Garity. The young actor responded to the pressure by deconstructing my script -- in public -- and denouncing my idealized version of Barry. Garity turned out to be right; I had tilted my script toward hagiography. With revisions, we imbued Barry with a sexual energy that drove his affair with Addams.

In the end, the film is an exploration of the consequences of passion, embraced or repressed. It suits no political agenda nor conforms to Hollywood notions of triumph. It is merely the truth, more or less.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Ron Nyswaner is writing his first book, a nonfiction account of the death of a Los Angeles prostitute.

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