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Two Gay Cowboys Hit a Home Run


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Two Gay Cowboys Hit a Home Run

NY Times

December 18, 2005


Op-Ed Columnist

WHAT if they held a culture war and no one fired a shot? That's the compelling tale of "Brokeback Mountain." Here is a heavily promoted American movie depicting two men having sex - the precise sex act that was still a crime in some states until the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws just two and a half years ago - but there is no controversy, no Fox News tar and feathering, no roar from the religious right. "Brokeback Mountain" has instead become the unlikely Oscar favorite, propelled by its bicoastal sweep of critics' awards, by its unexpected dominance of the far less highfalutin Golden Globes and, perhaps most of all, by the lure of a gold rush. Last weekend it opened to the highest per-screen average of any movie this year.

Those screens were in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco - hardly national bellwethers. But I'll rashly predict that the big Hollywood question posed on the front page of The Los Angeles Times after those stunning weekend grosses - "Can 'Brokeback Mountain' Move the Heartland?" - will be answered with a resounding yes. All the signs of a runaway phenomenon are present, from an instant parody on "Saturday Night Live" to the report that a multiplex in Plano, Tex., sold more advance tickets for the so-called "gay cowboy picture" than for "King Kong." "The culture is finding us," James Schamus, the "Brokeback Mountain" producer, told USA Today. "Grown-up movies have never had that kind of per-screen average. You only get those numbers when you're vacuuming up enormous interest from all walks of life."

In the packed theater where I caught "Brokeback Mountain," the trailers included a National Guard recruitment spiel, and the audience was demographically all over the map. The culture is seeking out this movie not just because it is a powerful, four-hankie account of a doomed love affair and is beautifully acted by everyone, starting with the riveting Heath Ledger. The X factor is that the film delivers a story previously untold by A-list Hollywood. It's a story America may be more than ready to hear a year after its president cynically flogged a legally superfluous (and unpassable) constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage for the sole purpose of whipping up the basest hostilities of his electoral base.

By coincidence, "Brokeback Mountain," a movie that is all the more subversive for having no overt politics, is a rebuke and antidote to that sordid episode. Whether it proves a movie for the ages or as transient as "Love Story," it is a landmark in the troubled history of America's relationship to homosexuality. It brings something different to the pop culture marketplace at just the pivotal moment to catch a wave.

Heaven knows there has been no shortage of gay-themed entertainment in recent years. To the tedious point of ubiquity, gay characters, many of them updated reincarnations of the stereotypical fops and fussbudgets of 1930's studio comedies, are at least as well represented as other minorities in prime-time television. Entertainment Weekly has tallied nine movies, including "Capote" and "Rent," with major gay characters this year. But "Brokeback Mountain," besides being more sexually candid than the norm, is not set in urban America, is not comic or camp, and, unlike the breakout dramas "Philadelphia" and "Angels in America," is pre-AIDS.

Its heroes are neither midnight cowboys, drugstore cowboys nor Village People cowboys. As Annie Proulx writes in the brilliant short story from which the movie has been adapted, the two ranch hands, Ennis Del Mar (Mr. Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), are instead simply "high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life."

They meet and fall in love while tending sheep in the Wyoming wilderness in 1963. That was the year of Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington and Betty Friedan's "Feminine Mystique," but gay Americans, and not just in Wyoming, were stranded, still waiting for the world to start spinning forward. Over the next two decades of sporadic reunions and long separations, both Ennis and Jack get married and have children; it barely occurs to them to do otherwise. In their place and time, there is no vocabulary to articulate their internal conflicts, no path to steer their story to a happily-ever-after Hollywood ending. Before they know it, they are, in Ms. Proulx's words, "no longer young men with all of it before them."

Ennis's and Jack's acute emotions - yearning, loneliness, disappointment, loss, love and, yes, lust - are affecting because they are universal. But while the screenplay, by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, adheres closely to the Proulx original, it even more vividly roots the movie in the rural all-American milieu, with its forlorn honky-tonks and small-town Fourth of July picnics, familiar from elegiac McMurtry works like "The Last Picture Show." More crucially, the script adds detail to Ennis's and Jack's wives (as do Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, who play them) so that we can implicitly, and without any on-screen moralizing, see the cost inflicted on entire families, not just on Ennis and Jack, when gay people must live a lie.

Though "Brokeback Mountain" is not a western, it's been directed by Ang Lee with the austerity and languorous gait of a John Ford epic. These aesthetics couldn't be more country miles removed from "The Birdcage" or "Will & Grace." The audience is forced to recognize that gay people were fixtures in the red state of Wyoming (and every other corner of the country, too) long before Matthew Shepard and Mary Cheney were born. Without a single polemical speech, this laconic film dramatizes homosexuality as an inherent and immutable identity, rather than some aberrant and elective "agenda" concocted by conspiratorial "elites" in Chelsea, the Castro and South Beach, as anti-gay proselytizers would have it. Ennis and Jack long for a life together, not for what gay baiters pejoratively label a "lifestyle."

But in truth the audience doesn't have to be coerced to get it. This is where the country has been steadily moving of late. "Brokeback Mountain," a Hollywood product after all, is not leading a revolution but ratifying one, fleshing out - quite literally - what most Americans now believe. It's not for nothing that the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage vanished as soon as the election was over. Polls show that a large American majority support equal rights for gay couples as long as the unions aren't labeled "marriage" - and given the current swift pace of change, that reservation, too, will probably fade in the next 5 to 10 years.

The history of "Brokeback Mountain" as a film project in itself crystallizes how fast the climate has shifted. Mr. McMurtry and Ms. Ossana bought the screen rights to the Proulx story after it was published in The New Yorker in 1997. That was the same year the religious right declared a fatwa on Disney because Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet in her ABC prime-time sitcom. In the eight years it took "Brokeback Mountain" to overcome Hollywood's shilly-shallying and at last be made, the Disney boycott collapsed and Ms. DeGeneres's star rose. She's now a mainstream daytime talk-show host competing with Oprah. No one has forgotten she's a lesbian. No one cares.

ANOTHER startling snapshot of this progress can be found in a culture-war skirmish that unfolded just as "Brokeback Mountain" was arriving at the multiplex. The American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., a leader in the 1997 anti-"Ellen" crusade, claimed this month that its threat of a boycott had led Ford to stop advertising its Jaguar and Land Rover lines in glossy gay magazines. Last week Ford, under fire from gay civil-rights organizations and no doubt many other mainstream customers, essentially told the would-be boycotters to get lost by publicly announcing that it would not only resume its Jaguar and Land Rover ads in gay publications, but advertise other brands in them as well.

As far as I can tell, the only blowhard in the country to turn up on television to declare culture war on "Brokeback Mountain" also has an affiliation with the American Family Association. By contrast, as Salon reported last week, other family-values ayatollahs have made a conscious decision to ignore the movie, lest they drum up ticket sales by turning it into a SpongeBob SquarePants cause célèbre. Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America imagined that the film might just go away if he and his peers stayed mum. Audiences "don't want to see two guys going at it," he told Salon. "It's that simple."

So he might wish. The truth is that the millions of moviegoers soon to swoon over the star-crossed gay cowboys of "Brokeback Mountain" can probably put up with the sight of "two guys going at it." It's the all too American tragedy of what happens to these men afterward that neither our hearts nor consciences can so easily shake.

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