By Andrea Meyer
What is left to say about Brokeback Mountain? The so-called “Gay Cowboy Movie” is a shoe-in for the most hyped movie of the year award, spurring the kind of commotion that makes studio publicity departments salivate.
Besides nabbing the cover of every rag in the country, evidence of the craze includes Oscar buzz surrounding Heath Ledger, Ang Lee, Michelle Williams and the movie itself. Cyber-discussions about “the year’s most daring love story” have apparently reached new levels of anticipatory hysteria, largely based on an epic trailer. And the conservative contingent has chimed in, with angry Wyomingans declaring there’s no such thing as a gay cowboy. But we all know a little controversy never hurts at the box office or as producer and co-president of Focus Features James Schamus puts it, “It’s a Focus movie if someone out there hates it before we’ve even made the movie.”
With all the bantering, bickering and blogging, the burning question begging to be asked is: What’s the big deal?
As we all know by now, Ang Lee’s epic love story charts the 20-year romance between Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a couple of Marlboro men hired to wrangle sheep on a desolate hillside in Wyoming. What starts as friendship built swigging whiskey around a campfire shifts when they share a tent on a cold night and find themselves having confusing sex that eventually leads to what neither man would ever refer to as falling in love. The feelings that overwhelm Ennis and Jack materialize in spite of themselves, in spite of their intention to live normal, wife-and-kid kind of lives, in spite of a society that cannot accept their bond.
Their tale is tragic and not that unusual. It is romantic, heartbreaking, complex and sweet. The movie’s not daring. It’s a big, beautiful weepie about lovers soulmates even whose passion never fades even as their union is thwarted by forces beyond their control. It’s Romeo and Juliet, for God’s sake, only both star-crossed sweethearts are guys. At a recent junket, Ledger, who calls his character, “a homophobic man in love with another man,” said, “I think daring and brave is what the firefighters are when they’re putting out a fire. We’re just telling a love story.”
Ledger doesn’t believe there’s anything especially risky about “Brokeback Mountain.” “I never thought I had anything at stake,” he says. “I feel pretty safe. I was always okay with the subject. For me it was an opportunity to work with such brilliant material, a brilliant director and such an interesting, complex character, and it was a story that hadn’t been told. It was a story that has never made it to screen.”
Maybe that’s what has sparked all the hubbub. “Brokeback Mountain” is that rarity in Hollywood: a story that has never been told. When co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry, who is also the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lonesome Dove,” first read Annie Proulx’s gut-wrenching short story on which the film is based, he said he “felt a little frisson of ‘why didn’t I write this’? It’s been there my whole life and Annie wrote it and I didn’t.” Fresh stories are like buried treasure in Hollywood, something we might discover in the wild mind of Charlie Kaufman, but rarely in a genre as firmly entrenched in its conventions as the Western. It’s the kind of precious jewel that deserves Oscar talk, Internet hysterics, and a dose of conservative backlash just to whip up the box office numbers.
“I refuse to see portraying homosexual love as daring,” said Anne Hathaway, the princess of tween flicks who plays Gyllenhaal’s wife, who has her own take on the hype. “It’s daring because it’s very rare to find a Hollywood love story that’s honest. That is daring.”