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TELEVISION | REVIEW

'Girl' rises above cheap sentiment

May 31, 2003|Howard Rosenberg | Times Staff Writer

"I'm tired of being a freak," transgender nightclub performer Calpernia Addams says at one point in "Soldier's Girl."

The freaks instead are two soldiers locked away in Ft. Leavenworth after the murder of Addams' lover, Pfc. Barry Winchell, as he lay sleeping in a corridor of his barracks.

Their sweet, tender, sexy romance, and its tragic consequences, are the essence of this haunting, troubling Showtime film ripped from 1999 headlines. Its rather stock theme -- forbidden love -- makes fascinating viewing in the capable hands of writer Ron Nyswaner and veteran director Frank Pierson.

A warm, loving affair between a strapping young soldier at macho Ft. Campbell, Ky., and a tall, gorgeous singer/dancer en route to becoming female, but still male below the waist? Their quasi-secret trysts played out against the military's "don't ask/don't tell" policy on homosexuality in its ranks?

Now here is some hot-button material. You'd half expect to see it topple into the deep abyss of caricature, with Addams as a mincing drag queen right out of "La Cage Aux Folles," and smitten heterosexual Winchell coming apart when discovering his partner's maleness.

Instead, this smart, small film uses understatement and economy to accentuate not only the unconventional but the horrific, while never lapsing into cheap sentiment or a shrill political statement about the military's head-in-sand policy on gays.

Persuasive performances help. Troy Garity is acutely on point as earnest-but-slow Barry, Lee Pace (who is male) eerily perfect and evocative as Calpernia, and Shawn Hatosy a seething, volcanic fireball as Justin Fisher, the pill and alcohol abuser who goads weak-minded Calvin Glover (Philip Eddolls) into bludgeoning Winchell with a baseball bat.

There are no false moves here. You can feel the power of seduction as Winchell is attracted to sultry Addams when they meet in a Nashville nightclub where Calpernia lip-syncs such singers as Cher and k.d. lang as a woman, and where airborne infantry come to party, make gay jokes and drink themselves into a stupor.

Their bond is sexual and deep, with Winchell learning that Addams was raised by Appalachian fundamentalists and served in Operation Desert Storm as a male Navy medic before taking hormones and edging toward femalehood.

Fisher's own feelings about Winchell are vague, as are the emotions that motivate Glover's anger. In a strange-but-true twist, he murders Winchell just as Addams is winning the Miss Tennessee entertainer of the year pageant while performing to the Annie Lennox song, "Cold."

The real Addams has since had sexual reassignment surgery, and lives in Los Angeles. Fisher and Glover still live in military prison.

*

'Soldier's Girl'

Where: Showtime

When: 9 tonight

Rating: The network has rated it TVMA-VSLD (may be unsuitable for children under age 17, with advisories for violence, sex, coarse language and suggestive dialogue.

Production credits: Directed by Frank Pierson; written by Ron Nyswaner; produced by Linda Gottlieb and Doro Bachrach.

Troy Garity...Barry Winchell

Lee Pace...Calpernia Addams

Andre Braugher...Carlos Diaz

Shawn Hatosy...Justin Fisher

Philip Eddolls...Calvin Glover

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