Long article: About "Brokeback Mountain", one of the front runners for Oscars in the category of Best Film and Best Director..
Homos On The Range: Is America Ready For Brokeback Mountain?
Every once in a while a film comes along that changes our perceptions so much that cinema history thereafter has to arrange itself around it. Think of Thelma and Louise or Chungking Express, Blow-Up or Orlando Â— all big films that taught us to look and think and swagger differently. Brokeback Mountain is just such a film. Even for audiences educated by a decade of the New Queer Cinema phenomenon Â— from Mala Noche and Poison to High Art and Boys Don't Cry Â— it's a shift in scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era.
In this Oscar race, no film's pedigree is more impeccable than Brokeback Mountain. Affectionately known as "The Gay Cowboy Movie", the film is based on Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx's moving, nuanced short story (found here in its entirety, so a spoiler alert is in order) from her collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. The screenplay was written by Proulx and her fellow Pulitzer winner, Larry McMurtry (of Lonesome Dove fame). The production is helmed by Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm, and Sense and Sensibility. The film's trailer showcases its hot young stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, to great effect. Even the tender, country-inflected soundtrack (offered here) is written by critical darling Gustavo Santaolalla. Early reviews are overwhelmingly positive; the only real complaint appears to be that Ang Lee's direction suffers from a surfeit of good taste. Brokeback Mountain may well be the film to beat at this
Initially slated to be directed by Gus Van Sant, the film bounced around Hollywood for several years, gaining a cult reputation as the best picture no one was making, before winding up in Lee's hands. Since then, it's been snubbed by the Cannes Film Festival, become the darling of the Toronto Film Festival, and won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It recently received four Independent Spirit Award nominations, which have in the past been excellent predictors for Oscar nominations.
But can a film that's been termed "the gay Gone With the Wind" make it in American multiplexes? This year alone, films such as Capote, Mysterious Skin, and Transamerica have explored a panoply of gay issues and have been rewarded with glowing critical reviews but lackluster box office.
Few American icons are as enduring and sacrosanct as the Western cowboy. Brokeback Mountain is set to topple a beloved ideal, and even though gay rodeo is a fixture in middle America, many traditionalists are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexual cowboys. In a bid apparently calculated to alarm his red state readers, Matt Drudge recently dug through a Casper Star-Tribune article to ferret out an appropriately homophobic quote from Wyoming playwright Sandy Dixon:
Kaycee playwright Sandy Dixon doesn't care to open her mind to the story line of "Brokeback Mountain," she said. A lifelong Wyomingite, Dixon said she has never encountered a gay cowboy, and doesn't think it's right for Proulx and Hollywood to portray Wyoming as a state with gay cowboys. Her message to the writers of "Brokeback Mountain" is this: "Don't try and take what we had, which was wonderful -- the cowboys that settled the state and made it what it was -- don't ruin that image just to sell a book." She added, "There's nothing better than plain old cowboys and the plain old history without embellishing it to suit everyone." Regarding the reaction of Wyoming people to the film, Dixon said it depends on the viewer: "Those that want to make a queer story out of it, they will, and those that know real cowboys will say it's all hogwash."
It's perplexing (and not a little disheartening) to see the polarized reactions to Brokeback Mountain. For every awed, respectful review there's a corresponding adolescent sniggerfest: Do they eat pudding? Why didn't they call it 'Bareback Mountin'? One film reviewer wrote frankly about the "yuck factor" for hetero men when confronted with the idea of two men making love on screen ("America likes her gay cowboys standing on stage with others in costume, singing "YMCA." Beyond kitsch, beyond sentimentality, the reality is yucky."). Another recent article appeared to be pandering to homophobia by quoting Jake Gyllenhaal as saying that he "(doesn't) really remember" his love scenes with Ledger.
Conversely, some critics seem to think the film's marketing is schizophrenic. A Village Voice article muses that the film is the "straightest movie to come out of Hollywood in years", a reference to the marketing ploy of appealing to straight women as a traditional love story. Still another writer slams the film for not being gay enough: "In their attempt to market the film to women as a generic love story, they are rewriting a beautiful story and alienating the core audience: gay people."
And on a much more somber note, author Annie Proulx is well aware that her home state of Wyoming, where the story and book are set, is also the scene of Matthew Shepard's murder (Proulx was called for jury duty on that case but did not serve). "When the story first appeared, Proulx was bombarded with angry letters saying there wasn't such a thing as a gay cowboy, and other letters saying, 'Thanks for telling my story'. A year later, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was murdered." The film itself is informed and haunted by protagonist Jack Twist's childhood memory of a gay lynching, and both of the lead characters live in fear of being found out by their wives and families.
The film opens in wide release on December 8, but sneak previews have been shown in several cities. Have any Plasticians seen the film yet? If not, do many of you have plans to see it next weekend? Finally, what are your predictions about its performance in the red states? Can Brokeback Mountain ride roughshod over ingrained American homophobia to come out on top at the box office?
From the Chicago Tribune
Lee Sees His 'Brokeback Mountain' As A Unifying Force
December 4, 2005
By Robert K. Elder, Tribune staff reporter
After a recent sneak preview of Ang Lee's gay-themed western "Brokeback Mountain," the filmmaker and his longtime producer James Schamus took questions in the University of Chicago's dimly lit Max Palevsky Cinema.
"Is there a film or films that set the precedent for this movie?" one audience member asked.
"`The Bridges of Madison County,'" Schamus replied without missing a beat.
He said this as a joke, but the audience didn't laugh immediately -- perhaps with good reason. The two movies, after all, target similar audiences.
"Like all great love stories, our first, but not our only, audience is women," Schamus elaborated later. "For upscale movies, it is often women who are the arbiters of what to see -- which doesn't mean men don't like movies like `Titanic' and `Casablanca,' just that they initially watch them often at the behest of their wives and girlfriends."
In a time when pundits are telling us the Red State politics and morality rule the land -- and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoes legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry -- "Brokeback Mountain" is an unlikely movie released in a tense cultural climate. Yet Lee, Schamus and Focus Features are banking on the interest -- and emotions -- of a wider audience, following the precedent of "Philadelphia" and the comedy "In & Out."
Based on the Annie Proulx short story, "Brokeback Mountain" (opening Dec. 16) stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, Wyoming cowboys who fall in love during a 1963 summer job herding sheep at isolated altitudes. Despite separate lives, wives and temperaments, the two maintain a clandestine, decades-long romance.
With few screenings since it took top honors at the Venice Film Festival in September, the $13 million film is already generating Oscar buzz, particularly in the best picture, director and actor categories. Ledger, in particular, is drawing attention for his tortured, tight-lipped performance as Ennis.
"Heath says this is the most macho roll he's ever taken," Lee said the next day over breakfast. "But think about it, and he's right. Right after this, he went to play Casanova, where he put on makeup every day. It's not a very macho role."
Like his producer Schamus, Lee lives in New York state with his family. Both middle-aged, both married with children, they seem like an unlikely duo to produce what one writer has called the "Gay `Gone W ith the Wind.'" Lee said he never even heard homosexuality talked about openly until he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1976.
But when Lee read Proulx's short story after filming "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it haunted him.
"I cried at the end. When it comes to crying, I'm a tough customer," Lee said. "I had to get it off my chest somehow."
Lee, the quieter of the two, is graying at the temples and defers to Schamus' enthusiasm. Professorial and bespectacled, Schamus proves that you can wear a bow tie, swear charmingly and still be a respected academic. (Schamus teaches film theory and history at Columbia University, in addition to his duties as co-president of Focus Features.)
Themes of alienation
The pair's ninth feature together covers familiar thematic ground. Though the Taiwan native's chameleon-like style and outsider's eye allowed him to genre-hop among Jane Austen ("Sense and Sensibility"), family drama ("The Ice Storm") and comic book movies ("Hulk"), each carries themes of alienation and repressed emotion.
But "Brokeback" is as much about the characters' own homophobia as it is about any social condemnation.
In town recently to speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival, author Proulx said of the film, "For once gay people are not shown as comic characters. . . . [They are] two ordinary human beings wrestling with problems they simply don't have the experience or the education to control or understand."
It's a polarizing time in American culture. While a slate of anti-gay referendums work their way through state governments, TV's "Will & Grace," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Queer As Folk" remain popular entertainment.
In the past, mainstream gay features on the big screen have been scarce. But this year alone, both Bennett Miller's "Capote" and Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto" center themselves on lead homosexual characters.
Yet "Brokeback" signifies something different, a test of the country's acceptance of an alternative take on a beloved western icon: the cowboy.
Screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry ("The Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove") saw promise in Proulx's story, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1997. They optioned it and wrote a screenplay, though it took years to get the movie off the ground. Film rights changed hands. Scott Rudin tried to produce it with director Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting"). Joel Schumacher ("The Phantom of the Opera") was attached briefly.
The film became somewhat of a "hot potato," Proulx said. Her tragic short story seemed prescient when, in 1998, 21-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered outside Laramie, Wyo., near Proulx's home in Centennial. (Proulx was called for jury duty in the trial but did not serve.)
More time passed. Lee emerged from the mammoth production of "Hulk" and was looking for a smaller, more intimate project. Was "Brokeback Mountain" still available? Schamus, who co-wrote almost all of Lee's previous features before being named co-president of Focus Features, found himself in the position to green light a picture he couldn't make as an independent producer.
"I didn't feel a resistance, I didn't feel a change . . . some kind of `Now is the time to make it; the world is ready!'" Schamus said. "I was kind of like, `OK, we'll make it for a low budget, we'll be very conservative and have a very specific marketing plan.'"
Integral to that plan was targeting the "fourth quadrant," also known as the "women 35 and older" demographic -- the "Pride & Prejudice" audience. But initially, Lee and Schamus were concerned with the reaction of just one person: Proulx herself.
"Here's this guy, born in Taiwan, who just came from doing `The Hulk,'" remembered Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Shipping News." "I was terrified. I was sure it would be watered down and made acceptable to the general public."
`It's a seamless join'
Even Lee said, "What do I know about gay ranch hands in Wyoming?"
But after meetings in New York and a dinner of Rocky Mountain Oysters (bull testicles) with Lee in Wyoming, Proulx's fears were assuaged.
"The story is intact, the language and characters are intact. . . . It's a seamless join," Proulx said of McMurtry and Ossana's adaptation. As for Lee, she added: "The fact that he got that essence of the rural West is still amazing to me."
But Lee's vision of the West has met with some resistance.
Wyoming playwright Sandy Dixon told The Casper Star-Tribune last month she never met a gay cowboy and thought the movie was damaging to the cowboy image. "[T]hose that know real cowboys will say it's all hogwash," she said.
Schamus' response: "That woman has met more gay people than she is capable of counting; she just has no idea."
For background, Proulx interviewed a gay rancher for the story, although at the time, she had no idea of his sexual orientation. Proulx said she continues to get letters saying, "You've told my story."
Several states have gay rodeo associations, and "Brokeback" is receiving support from a pair of country music icons. Willie Nelson and Steve Earle provide new recordings for the soundtrack. "It legitimizes us a little bit," Lee said.
The backlash thus far has been minimal, though pointed. Conservative news blogger Matt Drudge posted a story titled "Hollywood Rocked: `Gay Cowboy' Movie Becomes an Oscar Frontrunner" and refers to "explicit gay sex scenes" in the film.
"I don't know why people say that," Lee said. "For the gay community, it's not explicit. It's suggested. But I think we devote a lot of realism to it. I don't think I'm even close to explicit."
But for Lee, focusing on sexual relationships misses the point.
"To me, it's a story about the illusion of love. That transcends being gay and being a cowboy and all that," Lee said. "Because they don't know what love is, they spend the next 20 years trying to catch it."
Lee is aware that he has made a controversial film, even though he usually shies away from conflict.
"My character is very afraid of offending or hurting anyone. It's my first nature, probably, to avoid confrontation," he said. "But I do like to challenge, to examine conflict. Inner conflict, particularly. You have to go there to examine humanity. Otherwise, we cover ourselves up."
In other words, Lee sees his movie as a unifying -- rather than dividing -- force. "It helps us understand, brings us together," he said. "I hope this movie has that kind of effect."