The Journey to 'Brokeback'

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To label “Brokeback Mountain” as “the gay cowboy” movie is fundamentally inaccurate. Yes, the two main characters are men—specifically, Wyoming ranch hands. And, during a chilly 1963 summer, they bide their time herding sheep and plunging tumultuously into a fervid romance.

But words like “gay” are the sort of reductive labels against which this movie kicks and spits. The relationship between gruff, gravel-mouthed Ennis (Heath Ledger—“A Knight’s Tale”) and the more nimble Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal—“Donnie Darko”) is a fiery complicated mess from which only one earnest fact emerges: they do not love women or men, only one another.

Nor are they particularly successful cowboys; their inability to keep their eyes on the sheep and off each other gets them fired.

So if that’s the case, then why does it seem like every critic, journalist, and arthouse scenester on either side of the Rockies feels obligated to attach this particularly fallacious appellation to this here “Mountain?”

In an interview with The Crimson, conducted in Los Angeles, director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and Gyllenhaal offer their own thoughts on the movie, its making, and why it needs to be seen before it’s branded.

Lee takes the first shot, scoffing at the “gay cowboy” label. “The best way to respond to that is to invite them to see the movie,” he says.

Gyllenhaal illustrates the point with an anecdote, recalled from a film festival press conference: “A journalist stood up and apologized, ‘For the past few weeks, I’ve referred to it as a gay cowboy movie. I’ll never refer to it [that way] again.’”

A LOVE STORY, WITH A TWIST

It’s important to note that the heart of “Brokeback Mountain” is not quite the quixotic romance over which the maelstrom of press has swooned. At the story’s center is the love of Ennis and Jack, but it’s a romance with its fair share of grime.

Their very first sex scene is as bewildering for its rather sudden advent as its overt hostility. The two know to keep it hush hush: “It’s nobody’s business but ours,” says Jack.

When the summer ends, the two go home: Jack to rodeo riding in Texas and Ennis to his fiancée in Wyoming. Both get married and have children. But the separation becomes unbearable, and they organize regular “fishing trips” on Brokeback to again stoke the fires from that first journey.

Yet, the film’s much touted sex scenes are none too graphic; there is minimal nudity and very strategically placed lighting. But even the most innocuous of kisses and embraces shared by the duo go well beyond the average representation of male homosexual behavior in an American film. (At the very least, it was enough to scare off Gyllenhaal’s parents, who, he says, walked out halfway through a screening.)

Gyllenhaal shrugs off the notion that these scenes with Ledger were particularly difficult compared to previous love scenes. “There are women that I’ve done love scenes with that I wasn’t attracted to, and women I’ve done love scenes with that I probably should be a lot less attracted to,” he says. “We’re all human beings. We all have lips.”

Gyllenhaal express his concern that the subtle differences between the characters might lead some viewers to associate Ennis and Jack with, respectively, the male and female “roles” in the relationship. “People can slide into stereotypes,” he says.

He describes viewers who come up to him to ask: “‘Do you play the woman [because Jack’s] more sensitive, and Heath is more like the John Wayne?’”

While Lee doesn’t share the viewers’ facile pigeonholing, he does disclose curious thoughts on the measure of the characters’ sexuality. Though he notes that both characters are “to some degree, very gay,” he believes that “Jack is more gay.”

Gyllenhaal says that the sexuality of the characters is never clear, and “in that ambiguity, that’s what’s so beautiful.” He sees “Brokeback Mountain” as a film that’s “deconstructing that whole theory of sexuality.”



SUCH GREAT HEIGHTS

The dense, but appropriately languid screenplay for “Brokeback” is a masterful retelling of an Annie Proulx (“The Shipping News”) short story, adapted for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. The Proulx story, first appearing in a 1997 New Yorker magazine, has since become the stuff of legend, and those associated with the movie are only too happy to keep it on its pedestal.

“The story on its own carries a real weight,” says Gyllenhaal. “There is a real power to it.”

Lee expresses his fondness for the script by describing his own vision of the story’s inception. “I felt that Annie Proulx walked through the forest one day and…found this timeless combination that hasn’t been thought of before,” he says.

Lee first got his hands on the script after it had been floating in Hollywood purgatory for several years. The project was initially attached to Gus Van Sant (“Elephant”) and various other directors, but ultimately failed to get made. In 2003, Lee approached producer James Schamus and started the production gears into motion.

The film’s meticulous attention to the minutiae of bucolic Western life was no small feat for the filmmakers. Lee worked closely with riding masters and dialect coaches to ensure his recreations of rural Wyoming and Texas were sufficiently authentic. He even watched documentaries of ranch hands to achieve his goal to “go for the real.”

He describes his own mission for the finished product: “Can you smell the time, bring them back to that time and place.”

In casting the two lead roles, Lee says that his decisions were based solely on talent, and that the actors’ sexuality was never a factor. But he does admit that sexual identification might have made the process easier. “If they’re gay, I’m happier,” he says. “But I never asked if they were gay. I never checked with their agent.”

Gyllenhaal hears this and gives Lee a sly glance. “That would be job discrimination,” he says.



EMOTIONAL RELEASE

The early word on “Brokeback Mountain” was not good. In April of this year, rumors swirled around its supposed rejection by the Cannes Film Festival selection committee. Speculation over its failure to be shown in competition ranged from the jury’s personal distaste for Ang Lee to its perception of the film as overly prudent. But “Mountain” made a huge splash in at the Venice Film Festival, where it snared the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion.

Since then, the film has garnered fervent praise from critics around the country, placing it squarely in the eyesight of a little gold man who’s gone home with Lee before (four of Lee’s past movies have garnered major Oscar nominations, and 2001’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” took home four). “If you’re working with someone like Ang Lee, it’s inevitable,” says Gyllenhaal of the mounting Oscar talk.

But Lee is wary of the film’s Oscar prospects, and his reasons are purely practical. “Oscar buzz means we have to work longer,” jokes Lee, and Gyllenhaal breaks out into laughter.

The filmmakers also have to contend with a political onslaught that may arise over the simple fact that the movie dares to show a sympathetic portrayal of male lovers. Though the film comes at a time when conservative tendencies are being hammered into the nation’s collective morality, both Lee and Gyllenhaal deny the film is strategically placed.

“It’s always important to have love stories,” says Lee. “It’s a timely thing, but it’s not calculated.”

And of course, they too have to deal with those dreaded two words: gay cowboy.

Lee professes that his greatest issue with the phrase is that such a seemingly absurd combination might bear the “connotation of being a comedy.”

For Gyllenhaal, the stigma of that label scared him away from the script when it was initially shown to him at the age of 16. “When I first heard about it, I heard about it as a gay cowboy movie. I wanted to have nothing to do with it,” he says. In six short years, Gyllenhaal dramatically shifted his perspective on the film and saw it for the rich, romantic, American love story it was.

Now, if only the country’s critics could do it the same favor.

--Staff writer Ben B. Chung can be reached at bchung@fas.harvard.edu.