It was only May of last year when Shane Bitney Crone posted a YouTube video called “It Could Happen To You,” a very sad and moving 10-minute clip about his love Tom Bridegroom, who died after falling from a roof while taking pictures with friends. Bridegroom’s family never accepted their son’s gayness and they forbade Crone from attending his funeral, threatening him with violence if he tried.
Now Crone’s harrowing story has moved off of YouTube and into the documentary circuit. Bridegroom (which is out on DVD Nov. 19 and available on Netflix Instant now) aired on OWN in early November and inspired rave reviews from OWN heroine Oprah Winfrey and scores of celebrity admirers, including President Bill Clinton.
Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising considering Bridegroom’s director Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who created Designing Women and Evening Shade as well as several episodes of M*A*S*H*, is a close friend of the Clinton family who produced several short-subject political promotional films for their campaigns, including The Man From Hope, the introductory piece at the 1992 Democratic National Conventional.
We caught up with Bloodworth-Thomason to discuss making Bridegroom, the inspiring things Shane and Tom’s friends had to say, and the legacy of TV’s proudest speechifier Julia Sugarbaker.
The Backlot: I’m not even a part of this movie, and I feel like the positive response Bridegroom has gotten is personally gratifying.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: I’m actually just kind of agog. I figured it’d be well-received in the gay community, but I’ve been so encouraged by the massive heterosexual support. I know things are changing really fast, but I didn’t realize how big the tide was. It’s been gratifying.
TB: You’ve gotten some great props from some real luminaaries. I just read Oprah’s tweet about how moved she was.
LBT: The first was from President Clinton, of course. He just immediately grasped the potential of it, the power it could have to change hearts and minds. He just got on board from the get-go and couldn’t have done more for us. He gave me notes! He was so supportive and kind of fascinated with it. He certainly helped us in the early stages when we were trying to raise money to finish the film. We initially used Kickstarter, but we still needed money to finish the film. There was so much support and so many stories similiar to the one in our film. I was shocked that there were so many that many people out there who had lived the same experience. They don’t know where their loved ones are buried. They’re treated abysmally by family. On the negative side that shocked me, and on the positive side it’s been so heartwarming to see the numbers of people who want to stand up to this. I even heard from Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, a personal note. That meant so much. I’ve always admired him as a journalist. I figure that’s not something he does a lot.
TB: I remember watching Clinton on a special episode of Roger Ebert’s show, and they talked about his great love of movies. You would know this better than anyone. Could you anticipate Clinton’s response to your work?
LBT: Since I’ve done all the Democratic films and Hillary’s film for when she was in the presidential race in 2008, he’s given me very few notes over the years. I’ve been so lucky, because what he’s done as I’ve made films for him is protect me from focus groups. In a world where you have to live in the middle of focus groups and survive 50 chefs in the kitchen, that’s never happened between me and him. He’s always said, “Leave Linda alone. She knows me. She’s making it.” I think that’s the reason those films turned out. On this, I knew how he felt about the issue personally. Politically these were things in his heart. I knew he’d like this film, but I didn’t know how much. But he does!
From Bridegroom, Shane Bitney Crone (l) and Tom Bridegroom in love in Paris.
TB: I’m thankful this movie is a documentary, but have you considered its potential as a feature?
LBT: Well, someone asked me if I wanted to do this as a feature, and I said, “No. Somebody might, but not me.” I feel like we had told this love story in exactly the way it should be told. There’s nothing more powerful than that, than what really happened. I like the documentary version of this; it doesn’t need to be enhanced. We didn’t need to demonize Tom’s parents because we just shined a light on them, and they just are who they are. They made the decisions they made. Nothing about this has been enhanced. It’s been about letting it be and letting people see what happens when you don’t love your children in the right way, when you cling to ignorance. This is what can happen. I think this is a gay love story that’s important because it shows heterosexuals there’s no difference. I don’t think gays have really had — and when I say “gays,” I mean the gay community, I don’t mean to be flippant; I sound like Donald Trump saying “the blacks” — but I do think the gay community was lacking in having this love story that heterosexuals could envy. So many people have come up to me and said, “That’s what I’m looking for! What they have.” We’ve always had our Leo and Kate Winslet. My generation had Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. We never saw that gay couple you’d want to be. Now I think they have. Nothing changes hearts and minds like people saying, “I wish I had that.” That means you relate to them and you want to be like them. It’s really hard to hate or fear what you want to be like. So that was kind of the quest and I hope we accomplished that.
TB: One of the most intriguing things about this movie is the fact that you met Tom once at a wedding before he died. As you made the film, got all these interviews, and put together this composite portrait of who he was, how much of your work was based in your own personal perception of him? How much were you basing your vision of Tom in your personal experience with him, however limited it was?
LBT: That’s an interesting question. I think everything that artists do is personal. I was absolutely driven by the light that was within Tom. Without even knowing him well, it would be impossible to be in his presence for an evening and not be able to find that light very memorable. He was a young man who just shined. I just remember being on the way home afterward and thinking he was so charming, and that they were one of the most charming couples I’d ever met — I didn’t even have to say “gay.” I was talking about how I hoped they get married someday. When I heard he died, it was very upsetting. Then when I heard how Shane was treated, that was really the catalyst. I couldn’t believe he was standing outside a church within a block of where his casket was, and he wasn’t allowed to be near it. That was just heartbreaking to me.
TB: How much have you seen Shane personally transform throughout the making of this movie? It was a pretty rapid process, from what I gather.
LBT: We didn’t even start the film until June of last year. By April we were at Tribeca. When I first talked with Shane about doing this, he was still grieving. There was a very sad aura about him. Working on this film gave him so much purpose. He was so brave throughout the process. It’s certainly one of the bravest people I’ve known. Just his ability to expose himself in a deep way. It takes so much bravery to let people share in this, what I’m calling the largest compilation of grief ever recorded. It was his way of staying close to Tom. I did see him become healthier and stronger, as well as happier. It gave a little purpose to Tom’s death. If Tom couldn’t here, this might be the next best thing. Maybe Shane really is standing in for all gay people who wish to marry now. It seemed to have a serendipitous quality to it, and I think that comforted him — that it was coming together, that Tom was going to be remembered this way.
TB: I don’t want to call it a burden, but was it at all difficult having so much of Shane’s footage?
LBT: It was so much footage. The volume was daunting. We lost an editor whose brother had died from AIDS, and she got burned out and couldn’t do it anymore. She had a big contribution to the film and was wonderful, but yeah, to witness this kind of devastating grief is hard on anybody. As soon as I started talking to Shane and realizing the moving footage that he had and meeting the friends we started to interview, I realized we had such a treasure trove of valuable things that people needed to see. It’s kind of like panning for gold; even when you don’t know yet how it’s going to evolve, you get all the elements. I knew we had so many beautiful things that could be a part of this film, but I didn’t know what order they’d be in.
TB: I love the insights from interviewees in this movie. What was the most surprising one to you?
LBT: I was kind of amazed by how articulate, because they’re all in their twenties, Shane and Tom’s friends were. When you live in Kim Kardashian world and the tweet of the day is “I’m absolutely obsessed with those little colored sprinkles on cupcakes!” — you start to wonder what these people will have to say. They turned out to be so articulate, loyal, and moving. Alex, who was with Tom when he died — that was the first person Clinton mentioned to me. He called me said, “First of all, Alex is extraordinary.” She’s so compelling when you see her after Tom dies, and she was so brave to share all of that. Chelsea Cannell, Stephen Cannell’s daughter, was so articulate about the hospital and the nurses who gave Shane the chance to see Tom, even though it was against the rules. And their good friend Josh, he said some beautiful political things in the film that I didn’t expect to come out of him. “Show me a little girl who dreams of wearing a dress for her domestic union.” Everybody in the film had really deep feelings about what happened to their friend. They had a lot to say that was worth hearing.
TB: I must bring up Designing Women because you’ve surely received tons and tons of gay adoration for it. Do you have a favorite fan reaction to the show?
LBT: Well, that’s nice of you to say! It’s very strange because I lived in a small town in the South and no one admitted they were gay. I didn’t really have any experience with gay people growing up. It was never really talked about, and I think my experience with gay people began when my mother got AIDS. I’ve told this story before, but I saw how people with AIDS were treated. I got a sampling of what it must feel like to be gay — to feel like you’re not welcome. In our case because of AIDS, not only are we not welcomed, we were re actually shunned. The horrible things that were said — “If you ask me, this disease is killing all the right people,” and that led to that episode of Designing Women — they were regularly said. I’d had some experience with prejudice. But the gay reaction to my work has been especially gratifying because I like helping the underdog and it makes me angry to see people treated that way. I loved having that platform on Designing Women and the delivery system called Dixie Carter. She’s just who you want to put out there and say, “Yeah, she’s going to speak for me now. She’s going to tell you.” You need that. You need that stirring person who’s going with such clarity, “This will not stand. This is wrong.” Dixie was so good at doing that. And the response from the things she said — the “killing all the right people,” but in other shows — wherever I go, because of especially that episode, tons of young men have come up to me and said, “I will never forget that night.” I heard recently from a guy living with his parents in Kansas, and he said, “I never thought in my life I would tell my parents I was gay. I stood up after that speech and said, ’That’s who I am. I’m gay.’ I never would’ve done that if it weren’t for Dixie and you. There’s such power in that light in your TV.
TB: Do you have favorite TV characters who’ve followed in Julia Sugarbaker’s footsteps?
LBT: There are so many great shows now on cable and some great roles for women. I’m doing a panel tomorrow where Alessandra Stanley is heading this event at Caroline’s and I’m just Skyping in. Samantha Bee from The Daily Show, Fran Drescher, and other women are all talking about the history of women in comedy. What I was telling Caroline this afternoon is that although there are so many women I admire — Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Samantha Bee, Melissa McCarthy — I still miss those big-shouldered women you can’t shut up. They’re going to have an opinion, and it’s going to be controversial, and yeah, they’re going to say it. They’re going to say it in a memorable way. You know, Bea Arthur in Maude. I miss Maude! I miss Murphy Brown! I miss Norman Lear shows and Mary Tyler Moore, who wasn’t political but she was so strong. I miss Designing Women! I miss that female voice talking about issues, and now we’re more into those under-read, underfed girls who don’t know the shoulders they’re standing on. Unfortunately, there are too many of those. I wish we’d embrace this again. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I miss it.