By Greg Hernandez
I’ve written a lot about the documentary “Bridegroom” and interviewed Shane Bitney Crone whose love story with late partner Tom Bridegroom is at the core of the movie.
But until last Saturday on Day 3 of Outfest, I had yet to see it.
So it was perfect seeing it for the first time with an audience because it was one of those really powerful Outfest experiences best shared with a packed theater of people.
There were a lot of tears shed by audience members at the DGA Theatre during the screening of this remarkable film that, honestly, makes you believe in love again. It also makes you determined to continue to fight for gay couples to have the same rights as straights in life – and in death.
The story of what happened to Tom was first told through Shane’s YouTube video It Could Happen to You. The couple had been together six years when Tom accidentally fell off the roof of a four story apartment building while photographing a friend and later died in the hospital.
Shane (pictured, right) was told he was “not family” and could not see Tom when he arrived at the hospital and it was only through the kindness of a group of nurses that he was able to see his body.
Tom’s family subsequently shut Shane out of the funeral and even threatened him with violence if he showed up. They essentially tried to erase all that had happened in Tom’s very full life – and the most important person in it – after he left Indiana for Los Angeles.
But they couldn’t.
“I just kind of felt like I needed to do something,” Shane told the Outfest crowd when talking about the 10-minute YouTube video which has had more than 4 million views. “I was sick of being down … I felt like I needed to stand up and speak out.”
“Death was just something I didn’t think would happen being in our 20s,” he added. “I feel like we have a real rare opportunity here to help other people.”
Director Linda Bloodworth-Tomason had met Tom and Shane at a wedding in Palm Springs a few years earlier. She sat next to Tom at the reception and was struck by his “indomitable spirit.”
Thomason recalled at Saturday’s screening: “On the way home, I told my husband, ‘I hope they get married one day because they really love each other.’
She said of Tom: “He greeted everybody like you greet your dog when you come home. I want to be more like Tom. He really is a role model for joy. … I feel cheated that I didn’t get to know him.”
When Thomason saw the video on YouTube last year, she realized it was the charming couple she had met in Palm Springs. She recalled being “really angry” about the way Shane had been treated and contacted him about expanding the video into a full-length documentary.
“I think it’s important for heterosexual couples to see that love and sorrow is something we all experience the same,” Thomason said. “They need to see the kind of love that they’re opposing.”
Before getting to work on the film, she wondered if Shane had any video and photos of his life with Tom.
Absolutely no problem there.
Thomason joked that Shane and Tom had amassed even more footage than her pal Bill Clinton when she made the film “The Man from Hope” about him for the 1992 Democratic Convention.
Shane and Tom took many, many, many videos and photos of their beautiful life together which included traveling the world – Egypt, Brazil, Paris, London – and doing things like skydiving and scuba diving, giving each other haircuts and laughing and singing with friends. They also had a business, a home and a dog together.
This material – all of these glorious videos – lets the audience see Tom alive and so happy with the love of his life. It makes us feel Shane’s loss all the more and deepens our admiration for this young man for being willing to relive painful stories in order to get this very important story out there.
Thomason said it took 10 days to complete the part about Tom’s death and Shane did not miss a day in the editing room during that process.
“I do think he’s incredibly brave to like through it again,” she said.
I love that the movie tells us the life stories of both Shane and Tom as they grew up in small towns in very anti-gay parts of the country and we get to glimpse into their lives up until the time they met and fell in love.
Tom was the popular overachieving life of the party and his parents pride and joy – until he came out. Shane suffered anxieties from an early age and had to endure being outcast at his high school and church after writing a love letter to his straight best friend. But he always had the staunch support of his family.
In the film, Shane’s 90-year-old great-grandmother summed up her acceptance this way: “They’re Romeo and Romeo. Get over it.”
Many of Shane’s family members are interviewed in the film but Tom’s family members did not respond to interview requests.
“There are a lot of Tom’s family members that did support him and wanted to be in the documentary but felt it was too big a risk,” Shane said during the Q&A..
But we do see video and photos of Tom’s mother, Martha Bridegroom, who after initially reacting badly to her son being gay but seemed to accept the relationship eventually. She even came out to LA to stay with the couple.
Thomason hoped Tom’s parents would agree to meet Shane at the cemetery in Indiana when he went out there to visit Tom’s grave.
“We were waiting for Martha Bridegroom to evolve,” she said. “It didn’t happen. They chose the ending for this film.’
Shane told the audience that working on the Kickstarter campaign (more than 6,500 people contributed) to get funding the working on the movie and now getting it out there has been a real “healing process.”
“It helped me,” he told the audience Saturday. “It helped me a lot.”
The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival where it won the audience award and was introduced by Clinton. Thomason said she worked to get it done before the US Supreme Court issued its rulings on DOMA and Prop. 8.
She believes Bridegroom can serve as a tool to fight for marriage equality in the remaining US states that do not have it as well as internationally.
“We think the Supreme Court victory was only the beginning,” Thomson said. “We want to take this film all around the country. I think it’s going to be a battleground state by state. We think this film has a lot of work to do.”
I had hoped to say hello to Shane after the film but he was immediately surrounded by people after the screening and I didn’t see him at the after party. Then, as I was rushing out of the DGA to walk a few blocks to Harmony Gold theater for my next screening, there was Shane standing near the door talking to a few guys. I was able to give him a big hug and tell him how wonderful the movie is.
He’s given us all a beautiful and important gift.
UPDATE: Outfest has added another screening this coming Sunday, July 21 at 4:00 PM. To purchase tickets visit Outfest.org.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.