Judges Brett Cullum and Jennifer Malkowski team up to give you an unflinching look at 2005's bravest film.
Our review of Brokeback Mountain: Two-Disc Collector's Edition, published January 29th, 2007, is also available.
Ennis Del Mar: We can get together—once in a while, way the hell out in
the middle a nowhere but…
I remember scouring the User Comment's section of the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) a few months back, and stumbling across the following post:
This may be my last hope! posted 18 December 2005
I am 29 yrs old, still in the closet, and hiding who I truly am. I grew up in a small town where I was a star athlete, prom king in high school, the all American boy. I cannot come out to my family or friends for reasons of maybe losing them as well as my job. I once had a very special love in my life. He is dead now. He took his own life when he was only 23. He could not accept himself or could not trust others to accept who he was, and I don't blame him for killing himself…I blame society. I miss him and there is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him, and I am trying to hold back the tears as I write this. We met in college and our story is very similar to the one in this movie…If Tim were alive, I know he would have fallen in love with this movie as I did and could now see the bit of hope that this film has shown me. I saw this film by myself and sat in the back of the theatre and in a sad beautiful way I felt like Tim was there with me. I hope to God this movie makes it to main street theatres and not only limited ones where I had to drive 2 hrs away from my home to see it. If anyone reads this, please spread the word to people and tell them the importance of this film it really could get people to think a little more, and maybe then more gay young men in the world would stop killing themselves, and more gay young men will stop being infected by HIV because they have no self worth or love for themselves to put on a condom. But can you blame them when their own families, churches, friends, society is telling them that they are not to be loved or to love themselves! So when this movie finished I walked to my car, drove down a dark alley way, locked the doors and did what any other tough young cowboy did, I cried…some days I'm just barely hanging on, but movies like this want to make me keep fighting. Thank you Brokeback Mountain.
I dedicate this review to Tim and the author of this post. It's for anyone who feels the loss of not being able to love because society or religion or family won't accept it. And most of all, I dedicate it to people who won't love because they can't accept themselves. The people who lay awake at night whispering, "I can't be feeling this way" over and over. That's who Brokeback Mountain is for. It's not a "gay cowboy" movie, a political movement, or a cultural phenomenon. It simply renders a portrait of longing about two people who can never be free enough to share their feelings…except in one special place.
Facts of the Case
The Wyoming countryside, 1963. Two young men are hired to herd a large flock of sheep on Brokeback Mountain. Removed from all contact and isolated from everyone but each other, they are severely lonely. One stormy night, in a near violent act of passion, the two men develop an unexpected bond. Neither knows what it means, nor how to talk about it. The men go on with their job, hardly speaking of what's growing between them, simply asserting they're "not queer." When the boss catches wind of the situation, he lets both men go.
Back in the real world, over the next four years, the two carry on separate lives—getting married, and having children. One day the man in Texas decides to visit his old friend in Wyoming. From that point on, they reunite every couple of years for a fishing trip up on Brokeback Mountain. The passionate man yearns to take things further, but the realistic man says he's crazy for thinking what they have could ever grow into anything more significant. Yet both men long for each other, their secret slowly festering, and ultimately changing the path of their lives.
Forget all the hype, the Oscar snubbing it for Crash as Best Picture, the political posturing around the movie from the Left and the Right, and the heaps of awards thrown at this movie as "The Best Picture of 2005." Brokeback Mountain is a quiet, intimate film that unfurls at a languid pace as it examines characters who can barely speak. The story aches with longing, and could easily switch a gender here and there without much problem to make it an old fashioned Hollywood tear-jerker along the lines of The Way We Were or From Here to Eternity. Brokeback Mountain is not a western in the traditional sense, and it's not so much a gay movie as it is a universal one. The film doesn't preach, doesn't promote, and it certainly stays away from politics of any kind. It only seeks to map lonely hearts, and hold on to a tragic love story for a couple of hours.
Heath Ledger (Casanova) portrays Ennis Del Mar to Jake Gyllenhaal's (Jarhead) Jack Twist. They are the two men of Brokeback Mountain who carry the weight of the narrative on their shoulders. Both actors were nominated for Oscars, and deserved the recognition. Heath Ledger stands out simply because he disappears in Ennis completely. He takes his natural Australian accent and turns it in to a terse country drawl that sounds more like a guttural mumble than a voice. Ennis is a laconic exposed nerve. The near silent cowboy fights the hardest to keep his feelings bottled up, but when they explode it's remarkable. Gyllenhaal plays the innocent, idealistic one of the pair who seems more comfortable with his desires. Jack is more an open book, and says thousands of words with a glance from his blue puppy eyes. The movie tries hard to age him by the end of the story, but the false facial hair and prosthetic paunch never diminishes Jake's boyish charm. Gyllenhaal trades in his usually mysterious screen persona from films such as Donnie Darko to play an innocent who speaks his mind without reserve. The two actors have never been seen in this kind of light before, and both are revelatory in the depths they are willing to go.
The two wives figure prominently in the story with Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek) and Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) shedding their teen dream images with two distinctly different performances. Williams is married to Ennis, and plays Alma as a woman devastated by her husband's secret. We end up feeling for her the most by the movie's conclusion, for she's the victim in all of this. Williams was nominated for an Oscar by effectively pulling hearts out in scene after scene of domestic tragedy. On the other hand, Hathaway as Jack's partner Lureen is a dangerous spitfire who won't stand for any indiscretion on the part of her husband. Hathaway's character is a fierce aggressive barrel rider, and when we glimpse her making love to her husband in the back of a car, she's on top. There's a flashback near the end of the last reel that reveals how far she'll go to keep Jack's secret discreetly tucked away. Hers is a chilling performance, and the actress had to hide her Disney Queen status to get Lee to cast her. She had an agent present her as a Broadway actress to the Chinese director who was unfamiliar with the previous family fare she omitted from the résumé.
When you watch Brokeback Mountain, it's hard to believe all the hype surrounded such a quiet, mournful journey. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are rugged men, coarse and not gentle with each other physically. When they kiss, their teeth click together. It's almost a violent act rather than what we are used to seeing on the screen with people in love. The two men never fully accept their sexuality, and Ennis holds Jack at a distance over the years. He doesn't allow himself to fall, and instead creates a void that leaves him empty and hollow. Brokeback Mountain isn't about finding love, but denying it. In every way, both men hide as much as they can until they meet again on isolated territory. It's a torturous tale about two men who know better than to give in and make their identity as partners—and yet the world sees them for what they are despite their efforts. Almost every character in the film understands the bond, and sees it for what it is. As often is the case, the men themselves are the last to accept the inevitable.
The production of the movie had a colorful history. The script was written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana in 1997, the same year the brilliant short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx appeared in The New Yorker magazine. McMurtry took on adapting and fleshing out the marital drama and the Western elements, while Ossana explored the male relationship, which McMurtry said he had problems making real. It became a legend in Hollywood as a fine script that could never be produced. Openly gay directors such as Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) and Joel Schumacher (Flawless) expressed interest in helming the story, but neither could find the financial backing to get the project green lighted. Ang Lee got a hold of the script, and saw a chance to return to quiet drama after his financial debacle with the major studio production of Hulk. Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility) began to tease Ang, because the story of sheep herders meant the director would once again have to work with animals; he swore he never would again after his work with the actress on the Jane Austen adaptation.
Once the film started shooting in Canada, rumors began flying about friction on the set. Reports were pouring out that Larry McMurtry was not allowed on the set; however, this was merely a misunderstanding, since McMurtry has severe allergies that prevented him from visiting the locations. Diana Ossana was there throughout the filming protecting the integrity of their script. There was also stories the cast was frustrated with the lack of direction from Ang Lee. The Chinese director believes in casting the right people, and letting them do their job without interference. He is notorious for demanding many takes to explore a scene, and will not stop until he gets an unstated reaction he's looking for. It's part of his process, frustrating as it may be. Then there was a nude shot that was to feature both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal diving off a rocky cliff. The director wanted to keep the stars unrevealed, but paparazzi caught images of Ledger disrobed and running. Jake actually used a body double for the sequence, and you'll notice this if you look carefully in the final shot of the two diving off the rock. Rumor also has it Heath Ledger almost broke Jake Gyllenhaal's nose while filming a particularly intense kissing scene when the two are reunited outside Ennis's apartment. The two actors were intent on developing a different, more macho form of romance. Michelle Williams requested the two leads should kiss in front of her to help get to the right emotional place for her character. She was involved with Ledger, and wanted to give the scene a truthful feel. She complained when the stars halfheartedly gave each other a kiss, and demanded more from them.
Once the film was officially released, it took off like a freight train with both critics and appreciative audiences. During its first weekend out in only five U.S. theatres, it set a new record for the highest gross per screen for any non-animated movie in history. The producers were ecstatic as the film recouped its initial budget after only one weekend in limited release. The media coverage was extensive, and the quiet little film became a juggernaut of cultural importance. Strategically released during awards season, Brokeback Mountain won numerous best-film-of-the-year accolades, including the Golden Globe and Director's Guild award. Surprisingly few protests were seen from Christian groups, even though the film became a punch line for crass conservative comics and radio talk show hosts across the country. Numerous spoof trailers began appearing online featuring the film's trademark score attached to scenes from the likes of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith turning almost any big movie in to a Brokeback Mountain theme. George Bush and Dick Cheney were photoshopped on to the film's poster, and even spoofs of an all-girl sequel began to surface.
Yet for all the notoriety, straight men stayed away from the film in droves. Audiences around the country were filled with women and homosexual viewers who found the film engrossing and moving. Despite Ang Lee's restraint in showing any male frontal nudity or sex scenes, the kissing kept away an audience that most needed to see the film for political reasons. Brokeback Mountain was a critical and financial hit, but it still attracted primarily the already open-minded and liberal. Still, the film did a lot of good things for acceptance even if it was largely preaching to the choir. Probably the most moved were in-the-closet men and women who identified easily with the story. It gave hope at a time when the moral climate of America seemed ruthlessly opposed to the idea of gay marriage and equal rights. The movie was perfectly timed; had it appeared nearly a decade ago when it was written, it wouldn't have been quite as influential. Yet it was released in an era where cultural wars were raging, and became a rallying cry around a movie that mattered to many people. A simple slow-moving love story had captured the hearts and imaginations of very vocal supporters.
The Oscars the film won were certainly well picked. Best Director winner Ang Lee continues to explore longing and loss with Brokeback Mountain, and we see his beautiful camera setups coupled with raw emotion that characterize his efforts. He continues exploring beautiful outsiders railing against the traditions of their culture. The director keeps things subdued and gritty. The adapted script, which garnered statues for Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, is a wonder of economy with few carefully chosen words accompanied by explosive emotions. The score, which was also recognized, is another character, always offering its melancholy hopeful steel guitar strings behind the proceedings. Truly the film is well-crafted in all these areas, although arguments could be made for any of the nominations it received and didn't take home. Heath Ledger certainly gave the most honest performance of the year, and the movie felt more important than any of its peers that were nominated. No other film from 2005 has infiltrated the pop culture landscape so effectively, and few dared to venture in to such brave territory.
Technically the Universal disc outshines even the theatrical release. Colors are sharp, and the cinematography is preserved in all its glory by the crystal clear anamorphic widescreen. It looks far better than what I saw on the big screen with more consistency to the moody images, and nary a nick or scratch to blemish it. The surround sound kicks in for atmospheric elements and to punch up the exquisite score. It's a quiet film that will dominate your front speakers far more than the rear ones. No hiss or distortion cropped up, and it's a great effort. Menus are animated with scenes from the film accompanied by the easily identifiable musical themes. As much of an intimate experience as the movie is, home theatres are the way to see this piece ideally. Being in your own living room or bed feels more correct than the crowded screenings during the movie's initial release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much has been made about the release of Brokeback Mountain having surprisingly few extras. There's an in-depth look at the making of the movie in two separate featurettes, which include how the actors were trained to look like cowboys as well as a cable promotional piece for the Logo network. A series of interviews about Ang Lee as a director is presented, as well as some insight from screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana about how they worked together to adapt the short story for the big screen. It's not a vast amount of material, but what's here is nicely done. Speculations have been running rampant that perhaps the DVD release was pushed up to cash in on Oscar buzz around the film with an inevitable double dip looming on the horizon somewhere in the future. It's true Ang Lee usually provides commentary for his films, and there could certainly be enough material to warrant a repackaging of the movie in the future.
There are a couple of places where you can find fault with the proceedings. The critical flaw in the movie for most will be the pace. Brokeback Mountain moves slowly with little action. Anyone coming for titillation will be severely disappointed when they realize the love scene between the two leads lasts six seconds without anything shown. This is a movie that endlessly lingers on scenes without dialogue, and allows most of the truly dramatic action to take place somewhere in the periphery. It's a story that takes time and breathes. Also the movie isn't as gritty or real as Annie Proulx's short story. In her prose version, Ennis and Jack are lanky tall men with overbites, and very little of their marital relationships with women is revealed. Ang Lee finds it impossible not to make the proceedings of Brokeback Mountain prettier than a postcard. He's also working with more narrative than what was initially given, and often resorts to melodramatic devices that subtly undermine some of the punch. We're shown Anne Hathaway hunched over a calculator and a mess of books to relate her business savvy, given brief glimpse of Alma moving on, and other visual shorthand tricks moviemakers have resorted to for years. Yet these are small flaws when you consider the power of the movie's final climactic scenes.
Brokeback Mountain stands head and shoulders above any of its peers by being the bravest movie of 2005. Never has a story of men in love dared to be this poignant and honest. Brokeback Mountain sought to be revolutionary by merely recasting the tried and true Hollywood love story with a simple change of pronouns, and putting it in a world where we least expect it. What makes the film shocking is delivering a portrait of raw rugged masculinity unaffected by the modern urban trappings of stylish smoothed over gym bodies so often associated with films about men in love. It's a first, a gay love story set in a pastoral rural setting that feels epic and dangerous. It well could be the Doctor Zhivago of queer cinema.
Yet the most natural audiences for the film are those that aren't out and proud as gay men or women. The movie is truly poignant for people who like Jack and Ennis share a secret. Maybe they are from a small town, a certain faith, or just too scared to fully enter the world outside of private places where they can hide. I imagine the most reassuring message Brokeback Mountain can deliver is that nobody struggles with all of this alone. The question begs to be asked: how many marriages are lies? How many people take their own life out of shame or fear? As melodramatic as Brokeback Mountain can seem with its two rugged cowboys clutching each other by a river and saying how bad their life has become, it feels like a real place. The power of the film is not what is imagined on the screen, but in how it can connect with real life. How many times have you dated someone you prayed your parents never met? Doesn't matter who you are, because this film speaks about love that has to hide. And in the end, Brokeback Mountain is a place we've all had to visit sometime or another.
I think Tim would have been extremely proud, and I hope whoever posted that comment on IMDb is finally proud of himself.
Guilty of being the bravest movie of 2005.
Why Brokeback Mountain Will Always Be "The Gay Cowboy Movie"—Judge Jennifer Malkowski
It seems to me like the favorite topic of conversation among certain fans of Brokeback Mountain is the cliché that it is "the gay cowboy movie." That particular cliché is certainly prevalent—it's the first thing anyone finds out about this extremely talked about movie and the image that springs to mind when one looks at the film's poster or its many, many parodies circulating on the internet. But since the release and popularity of the film, a new catch phrase has emerged that is every bit as clichéd and reductive as the original that it tries to counter: "Brokeback Mountain is a universal love story." In the following paragraphs, I'd like to delve a little deeper into the problems with that second cliché and the reason that it grates like nails on a blackboard in the ears of some queer people, myself included. In one way, it's a nice sentiment that encourages people of all sexual orientations to appreciate this wonderful story that really does speak to something many people—gay, straight, and in between—have experienced. But from another perspective, it is a slap in the face to queer audiences whose specific joys and hardships were never reflected in the decades of "universal" straight love stories that preceded Brokeback.
There are two strands of queer history one has to know a little bit about to understand this argument: queer film history and queer American history, more generally. As a film studies graduate student who has worked on queer cinema in the past, I know quite a bit about the former. As a lesbian who cares about her particular minority's history in this country, I know a little bit about the latter. The most important, relevant event in queer American history for this discussion is the rupture point of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 which marked the real beginning of queer visibility in America. These riots were a massive, public reaction against a commonplace police raid on the Stonewall Bar in New York City's West Village. Before Stonewall, being queer was a much bigger stigma that it was after and certainly than it is today. Although, of course, acceptance depended largely on individual and regional attitudes, it was common for queer people before 1969 to stay in the closet for their entire lives. They might go through the motions of hetero marriages, sometimes not even fully realizing their sexual identity, which seems like it was much harder for people to even understand or articulate before it became part of public discourse. Homosexuality was largely considered a psychiatric disorder, and those who exhibited it were sometimes committed to mental hospitals and even treated with techniques like Electroshock Therapy. But, obviously, just as the Civil Rights Movement did not eliminate racism in America, neither did Gay Liberation eliminate homophobia, which continued to be prevalent, occasionally exploding in public discourse after events like the murders of Brandon Teena (this one was more transphobia) or Matthew Shepard, or around debates like the current one over gay marriage.
It is this history that complicates the notion of Brokeback's universality from a narrative perspective. I agree that the film is not overtly political, and I don't think it should be. But the truth of the matter is that the specific reasons that Ennis and Jack never have the kind of relationship Jack wants are completely determined by their genders, their class, and the region and time in which they live. Saying that making one of the characters female would not change the movie blatantly denies the social factors that inform not just the details of this film but its very spirit. Yes, there are many factors that can convince people to hide their relationships from society. But differences in religion, class, age, or whatever other factors commonly cause such proverbial closeting do not often result in the kind of total ostracism and raw violence that Ennis fears. This kind of fear he feels is of a whole different breed from the anxiety a Jewish guy might feel about bringing a non-Jewish girl home to mom. Perhaps it might be more like the fear of a black man in love with a white woman in the South of the 1960s. The homosexual's closet has its own particular metaphorical flavor, and in an economically depressed small Wyoming town in 1964, I think that closet would have been a pretty terrifying place.
To understand why the universality argument bothers some queer viewers, one also has to examine film history. Many people don't know that from the early 1930s through the mid 1960s, Hollywood enforced a Production Code, which was basically a set of moral guidelines for what could appear in movies. Without the Code's stamp of approval, a film couldn't make it into theaters. In addition to excluding sexuality and swear words from the movies, the Code also dealt with slipperier moral concepts, making sure that criminals were always punished by the last reel, for example. As one can imagine, homosexuality was a big no-no with the Code's enforcers. In his landmark book, The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo revealed the many ways filmmakers would try to get around the Code on this point, slipping in subtextual references to hint at characters' homosexuality, like Cairo's perfumed scent in The Maltese Falcon or the particular way Rock Hudson's characters would talk about and fondle their guns. As the Code's hold over Hollywood was eroding in the '60s, its provision about homosexuality was amended to allow for "tasteful" depictions. The first such "tasteful" depiction under the new Code was in William Wyler's adaptation of Lilian Hellman's play, The Children's Hour. What qualified it as "tasteful"? Presumably, the fact that one of the accused lesbians is not actually a lesbian at all and the other one "feels so damn sick and dirty" that she hangs herself. And so began a new era, not of closeting and invisibility, but of exploitation and sensationalism. Gay characters were out now, but they were a sorry lot of unhappy wretches who were always the villains, or died by the end, a trend that continued long after Stonewall and the total collapse of the Code into very recent film and television.
So what makes Brokeback so special for gay audiences? A particular combination of it being a high quality mainstream depiction of a central gay romance that is treated respectfully by the filmmakers and whose sexual nature is unflinchingly depicted. If you don't believe that this is a graphic depiction of gay sexuality, you've been watching too many lesbian movies. Although filmmakers love to show hot women going at it, mainstream (and even many independent) movies about gay men have been surprisingly chaste. Though gay male culture's reputation for promiscuity and worshipping youth, beauty, and sex is often talked about in gay cinema (The Boys in the Band, Making Love, Longtime Companion), it is very rarely depicted on screen in any graphic, or even distinguishable, manner. I once watched 30 of the most prominent or talked about gay male movies for a college paper, and the only one which met or surpassed the level of sexuality in Brokeback was an independent film by Gregg Araki that I'm sure few straight people have ever heard of.
I can't blame anyone for wanting to identify with this beautiful film, and there are many people out there whose life stories are probably more similar to this one than mine is, even as a queer person. But those people have to truly acknowledge the act of translation that makes Brokeback readable as a universal love story. It is an act that gay audiences have been forced to make at the movies for most of cinema's history. After so many decades of hanging onto little scraps of subtext, of sneaking off to tiny art house theaters to see independent gay films that most Americans would never even hear of, queer people finally have a mainstream film to call their own. And not just any mainstream film, but one whose quality, tone, and willingness to portray explicit gay male sexuality makes it one we can truly be proud of. It's the history and memory of all these hetero translations and of an invisibility both on screen and in society that make queer people claim Brokeback Mountain so fiercely as their own and make their erasure from it intolerable. Two quotations really sum up this debate for me. The first is from Ang Lee, who states simply that Brokeback Mountain is "a universal and unique American love story" (my emphasis), acknowledging the necessary coexistence of this "unique" gay story and the "universal" translation that allows it to speak to many different kinds of people. The second quotation is from Harvey Fierstein, an out gay actor who is interviewed in the film version of The Celluloid Closet:
"All the reading I was ever given to do in school was heterosexual, every movie I saw was heterosexual, and I had to do this kind of translation to translate it to my life rather than seeing my life. Which is why when people say to me, 'Your work is not really gay work, it's universal,' I say, 'Up yours. It's gay. That you can take it and translate it for your own life is very nice. But at last I don't have to do the translating. You do.'"
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Scales of Justice
• Sharing the Story: The Making of Brokeback Mountain featurette
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