Fifteen years may not seem like a long time. We can feel comfortable thinking that our ideas and cultural perceptions have remained the same during the first twenty years of the current century, only with more technological advances and a higher level of globalization. In any case, remember how things were back there in 2005, the year BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was released, and you find out that there have been formidable changes.
A modest independent film co-produced by two small studios (Focus Features and River Road Entertainment), and completed with a budget of $14 million, was handed to a respected Taiwan filmmaker recovering after a critical and commercial failure (Ang Lee directed HULK two years prior). The screenplay was adapted from a little known short story portraying closeted gay cowboys, and finally starred by a bunch of young talent proving themselves as serious actors; a film like this was never an easy bet. Written by Anne Proulx, the source material was a raw tale hardly suitable for a feature-full length film. The superb screenplay by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry did wonders in giving life to a star-crossed romance over many years between two gay lovers from deep America. There was already controversial material to give everybody a lot to talk about. However, the fact that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN ended to become one of the essential films of its era, a rare case of instant classic and a game-changer concerning the way Hollywood will depict homosexuality, depended on a unique and careful combination of factors in the right time.
Speaking nowadays of Ang Lee’s acclaimed film and starred in by some of the best actors of their generation (including the late Heath Ledger, gone too soon) is almost like facing an unreachable myth. It’s one of those privileged films that earned a dignified position in our culture every time someone mentioned it because you can remember the exact moment when you watched it and how you felt about it. And even among the ones who didn’t, they are aware that there was a time when the film was an inescapable topic of conversation. Initially labeled, and occasionally mocked, as “that gay cowboy movie” BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN had the last say in changing the way we appreciated and discussed gay representation on screen. Or rather, the movie made us see the absurdity of distinguishing homosexuality as a film genre or as a “sensitive subject” when it should only be treated as an aspect among many to tell a good story. Maybe today, new generations won’t understand why a traditional love story as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was radically different, or the fact that not being, exactly, an exercise of queer cinema opened the door in Hollywood to tell more diverse stories. The ultimate prestige drama, if there was ever one, Ang Lee approached the austere screenplay employing carefully the immersive subterfuges of classic cinema: transparency in narration and fidelity to their characters, like any great melodrama or western from the past (both genres are a main influences here).
While the script was shelved for years- at some point, an openly gay filmmaker like Gus Van Sant was considered to direct it, and you can only guess how different would have been the result- I can’t think in a better suitable director than Lee to create in the heart of Hollywood such an honest and real movie about the loneliness, suffering and wasted opportunities diluted year by year of broken people incapable to move beyond unhappiness because that’s the way they learn life only should be. A closeted life in fear in this case, but something that anyone can comprehend as universal, and even identify themselves, no matter who is gay or straight. The empathy and humbleness of Lee’s cinema, in any scenario, is irreplaceable and that was just what BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN needed, even if the director is straight (it is possible that people would criticize this fact if released this decade).
Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) met in Wyoming in 1963 for a job offer. Ennis has his back against the truck, remaining crestfallen, with the hat casting a shadow of him and also masking his emotions. An authentic American cowboy like any other you will find in those old western films that immortalize this prototype as heroic and masculine figures. Jack seemed less static and with a greater propensity of being the one who initiates conversations. They barely look at each other, but we know that the first gaze works as a premonition. Every great love story begins with an epic look even when the lovers won’t notice yet. This one occurs when Jack shaves himself using the rear-view mirror of his motorcycle, where Ennis is also reflected. Is this shot in the mirror a directorial whim or a way to underline that Jack isn’t only attending his chin? Nothing in Lee’s cinema is a mere flourish, although it would be inaccurate to state that there is a romantic and erotic attraction between both men since the first time they met.
They get the job. Ennis never say much than a few words from time to time, opposite to Jack, who is always telling anecdotes about his days of rodeo and oozing an irresistible charisma. One day Ennis dares to get personal and reveal information about his life as an orphan raised by one brother and one sister until they form their own families with no place for him to stay. Whilst they have some chemistry, there is still no sign of an attraction. They “act” as straight men. One night of shared camaraderie and drunkenness, Jack insists on Ennis in taking shelter with him inside the tent, so they finally sleep together on a reduced space. In the middle of the night, Jack took Ennis’ hand to embrace his own body against him, perhaps because it was too cold and any warmth is a welcomed necessity. Ennis reacts violently. They finally settle the conflict having raw and quick sex. The next day they swear that this a one-time business because both agree that they are “not queer”.The second time, they have sex again as part of a silent agreement, now with calm and tenderness. This mark just the beginning of an unfulfilled relationship, an example of “love that dares not to speak its name”, halted over the years by geography (Ennis lives Wyoming, Jack in Texas), failed marriages with children, and an eternal feeling of guilt and shame for not seeking something else than a few brief and insufficient escapades. It will take four years for they to get back in touch. Jack visits Ennis home, where he lives with Alma (Michelle Williams) and their two daughters, referred to as his “fishing friend”. The excitement of rejoining is unspeakable, something he couldn’t share with anybody except Jack, Ennis can’t wait so long to give him a passionate kiss in the backyard (a standout scene, one of the immortal kisses in the history of cinema). Accidentally, Alma witnesses that event, incapable to act or say something keeping to herself a painful silence for many years, even long after the divorce. Williams manages to shine in few scenes like this due to her face containing rage, disappointment, and love at the same time. This character was a prefiguration of the great career that awaited her.
The Brokeback mountain became a shelter for their love, an impossible home for recreating a life together that they will never conquer again. The immaculate cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto establishes a notable difference between the rural and rough real life and the magnificent beauty of an escapist landscape in the mountain. Another fundamental element is the evocative score composed by Gustavo Santaolalla, dominated by an acoustic guitar that repeats melancholic compasses that embrace the lovers as an accomplice. The actors, in their 20s by that time, had the challenging task of performing characters who get old while their suffering becomes heavier, far away from any opportunity of having a life with no regrets. The acting outweighed any makeup. What makes it a true masterpiece is that never feels forced to deliver a “message”, neither the filmmaker nor the screenwriters feel responsible for providing a social commentary about a delicate subject to emphasize its importance. Earlier, Ennis told Jack about a memory of his infancy when his father forced him to watch the dead body of a man that was lynched for living together with a man. That corpse is a cruel image that will haunt him the rest of his days The specter of homophobia in the film is a menace that never needs to say its name aloud to fear it, just as hidden as their love. They implicitly know that they have an obligation of pretending a life like any other man will do.
The movie also does an insightful observation about the repercussions that a closeted life as a gay man has in others, a damaging shadow that reach from the ones who don’t accept themselves to the families that should endure their unrequited sacrifice, unknowingly or not. It is not just the self-acceptance problem with their own sexuality that keeps them apart, or the context that would rejected them openly. It is also a matter of class and economy. Jack was luckier because he married Laureen (Anne Hathaway, in a lively role), the daughter of a wealthy rancher, despite that his father in law detest him. Ennis survives one day at a time instead. The moving performance of a broken and self-hating man, with a hard time vocalizing his feelings, is a testament of Heath Ledger status as an acting legend who needed just a few roles to lives forever in the collective memory. If well his posthumous Academy Award-winning role as The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT is regarded as his most iconic performance, it was Ennis Del Mar (his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor) who put him on a path to immortality. In many ways, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN boosts the careers of the four main actors for a future when no one will never dismiss them for their past appearances on juvenile films or TV shows.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN marked a before and an after in Hollywood, while its influence extended in cinema’s history. Gay romance, gay stories, gay characters were treated seriously in the future more naturally and sensitively. In the past, a positive representation was to get a film or two on “gay issues” translated as something drowned in self-importance like PHILADELPHIA (Jonathan Demme, 1993), while the queerest sensibilities belonged to a ghetto of independent or international cinema (the distinctions were sharper).There was also a stigma about not performing a gay character in a movie if you were a young, handsome, and straight actor unless sex was only suggested or ignored at all. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN contradicted that stupid taboo, both Ledger and Gyllenhaal became respected actors instantly. In the meantime, the only criticism that the film raised came from Christian conservative groups who didn’t bother to watch it in the first place. Refusing to watch it was the only plausible boycott that extended against the film during awards season. Anyone who watched it among critics, moviegoers, or voters from industry awards agreed that this was a masterpiece and one of the most important American films of the century (a status confirmed when included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2018).
In 2005 much was said that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was one of the better reviewed, most honored and rewarded films ever (their record was only comparable to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) and SCHINDLER‘S LIST (1993)), after such an exceptional run that begins with winning the Golden Lion in Venice Film Festival and concluded in eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture (along the way Golden Globe for Best Picture and the highest prizes from Producer, Writer and Director’s Guild were collected). Sadly, the Oscars failed in making history rewarding a film like CRASH (Paul Haggis, 2005) as the best picture of the year- a movie about racial tensions that many have condemned as patronizing and cartoonish. It was a Pyrrhic victory in which BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN took home prizes for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. The disappointment and bitterness of that evening were highly criticized as one of the most dubious and shameful ceremonies in Oscar’s history (and it is a sad thing that CRASH is usually labeled as the worst Oscar winner because it is a good movie with many powerful moments despite an undeserved victory). Something similar will happen conversely eleven years later when the film that collected almost all the prizes (LA LA LAND by Damien Chazelle, a musical) was defeated by a coming-of-age small independent film about a gay black man (MOONLIGHT, by Barry Jenkins). A rightful winner, the better movie, was humiliated in both cases; only this second time was interpreted as a “necessary” political statement and late amends by the Academy in an intent to fix their complex past. Maybe too late.
With or without Oscars, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has not lost its aura of respectability gaining a singular status in American cinema. It’s not an exaggeration to affirm that this is one of the best movies of all time and one of the most important for the culture (both things do not necessarily coincide, even though today is so hard for film criticism to make a proper distinction). Lee avoided the different ways that this film could have been exploitative or overly melodramatic. I remember watching this film when I was 15 years old, accompanied by a couple of female friends while any other boy didn’t dare to watch it in a theater. The movie possessed the seduction of something forbidden. Before any assurance on my sexuality, facing this particular movie was a revelation to me, and in part helped me in the ongoing process of accepting myself as a gay man. That day I understood that gay representation is as human and valid on-screen as straight romances because there was nothing to be ashamed. Maybe today doesn’t look as provocative as it was perceived in 2005, which is a fact in itself on how things have changed positively and why this particular film was part of achieving it. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN‘s legacy can be noticed today in the profusion of revered gay love stories released every year (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013), CAROL (2015), MOONLIGHT (2016), CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) to name a few). You really can feel that this was a movie that propelled advancement in culture and art, besides being a great movie just because a great story was told, it was also well made in every regard. That detail made the difference, its quality is on a par with its importance. I would like to think that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN contributed to leave a better world that what it found.