'Freeheld' Tells The True Story Of Laurel Hester's Heartbreaking Fight For Her Rights
If you've kept up with even the smallest piece of movie news, then you've probably heard of Freeheld . The drama starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page is already garnering Oscar buzz after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and hits theaters on Oct. 2. In the film, Moore plays Laurel Hester, a New Jersey Police lieutenant who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before her death, she wants to ensure that her pension benefits are passed onto her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Page), a right for which she must fight in court due to her sexual orientation. With SCOTUS recently legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, Freeheld is both a reminder of how far we've come and how present discrimination still is in American law, despite these improvements. The fact that Freeheld is based on a true story in the not-so distant past only strengthens this point.
This is not the first time Hester's story has been told on film. In 2008, documentary director Cynthia Wade took home an Oscar for Best Documentary Short with her film, Freeheld (2007). The 40-minute documentary followed Hester as she fought for her rights in the last months of her life. "I think this film is one of the most important things that has ever happened to me," Hester reportedly told Wade six weeks before she died, in December of 2005.
Hester died in 2006, barely one year before the documentary was released. And though she was unable to weigh in on any potential motion picture inspired by her life, both Wade and Hester's partner, Andree, were involved in the making of this newest Freeheld (though Wade's short is not credited as being adapted for the feature-length film). Wade acted as producer on Freeheld, and Andree even has a cameo in the film. Other real-life counterparts featured in Freeheld were also involved in the making of the movie, including the real Dane Wells, played by Michael Shannon in the film, who was Hester's longtime police partner.
"We worked hard to make it out of real people's lives without distorting those people," said writer Ron Nyswaner. Nyswaner revealed in an interview with Variety that he had allowed for some of the real people involved to get the chance to read the script, and that the response was positive, saying, "They feel Laurel's memory has been honored."
Both Moore and Page worked hard to ensure that they honored Hester and Andree as trailblazers. "These women were forerunners of this year's case," Moore said, speaking to Glamour about marriage equality. "They were very regular people. Laurel was a detective, and Stacie a mechanic. And for the first time in their lives, they were public about their sexuality in a way that they hadn't wanted to be. So what they did was major. They really put themselves on the line."
Page, who also acted as producer on the film, was so inspired by Hester and Andree that she found the courage to come out publicly. "I thought, How can I make this film if I'm a closeted person? Keeping that part of myself hidden was affecting my work, my ambition, my relationships. It was a constant burden — it was so toxic. As a gay woman, playing a gay character is a pretty monumental moment," Page told Glamour.
Freeheld is an incredibly important movie, for this reason and so much more.