It’s unlikely that anyone in the Brokeback Mountain camp really cared when a two-bit cinema chain in the American states of Utah and Washington decided Ang Lee’s gay western starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal was just too obscene to screen. Boycott, schmoycott.
Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s novella, has drawn plenty of attention and is considered a frontrunner for this year’s Academy Awards nominations -“ due to be announced on 31 January -“ after it scooped the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nomination pools.
Such publicity would only help draw in audiences to a film that has queered America’s -“ heterosexual -“ ideal of the Wild West with its portrayal of two gay ranch hands who fall in love on a Wyoming mountain side in 1963.
This is not totally new queer terrain. Less mainstream films Midnight Cowboy and Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys flipped the cowboy into a gay fantasy in the 1970s.
But Lee’s approach is not to sexualise a cowboy fantasy as these films did, but to tell a story in the grandest tradition of forbidden loves. This is a story not about sex, but about passion denied.
Ranch hand Ennis del Mar (Ledger) and rodeo circuit rider Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) are hired by local rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to spend a Wyoming summer herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. It’s lonely work and boredom is relieved only by long whisky-fuelled conversations around the log fire.
The shy, inarticulate Ennis opens up to the more amiable Jack and shares dark stories about his father’s rough manner, his parents’ fatal road accident and how his family lost their ranch to the bankers.
One night, Jack reaches out and kisses Ennis and, with little more than a pawful of spit for lube, the men consummate their relationship. But this is Wyoming, 1963. I ain’t no queer, Ennis tells Jack right after. Me neither, Jack shoots back although the two are soon neglecting their shepherding duties and, unknown to them, are spotted having sex on the sunny mountainside by their boss Joe Aguirre.
But all idylls end and when the summer’s work is over, the two cowboys go their separate ways to do what’s expected of them: marry, raise children and work the land. Ennis gets hitched to his childhood sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), raises two daughters and ekes out a living as a ranch hand. Jack marries a Texan rodeo belle Lureen (Anne Hathaway) even though her wealthy father disapproves of his rodeo aspirations.
But neither man is happy until they meet again four years on. In a hotel room reeking of spent love, they finally admit that while society won’t let them live with each other, neither can they live without each other.
To make a great romantic story, you need obstacles, Ang Lee says. Ennis and Jack are in the American West, which has macho and traditional values. So everything they feel, they have to keep private. It’s precious, and something special that they cannot articulate.
So over 20 years, Ennis and Jack catch up for their biannual fishing trips to relive that one magical summer on Brokeback Mountain. Yet, as years go by, waistlines thicken, and marriages crumble, and these trysts become sadder and sadder. Jack pleads with Ennis to join him working a ranch together but a childhood incident tells Ennis this is impossibly dangerous. It’s barely 1980 and gay rights are unknown in cowboy territory.
So heartbreaking is their dilemma. We pause to remember that, in 1998, a 21-year-old Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, was tied to a fence post, tortured and murdered in Laramie, not far from the setting of Brokeback Mountain.
Bringing Brokeback Mountain to the screen was something of a personal crusade for masterful screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who were floored when they first read Proulx’s spare 10,000 word -“ yet epic -“ gay love story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1997. They shopped their faithfully rendered screenplay around for seven years before Ang Lee read the script and agreed to direct.
In typical Ang Lee style, Brokeback Mountain is overly long and meanders rather than drives home its message. The story moves at the pace of seasons changing, which won’t suit all cowboy suitors who turn up for what has been unfairly promoted as a gay western.
What should keep all eyes on the screen, however, are the performances of Ledger and Gyllenhaal. In particular, Heath Ledger’s superbly nuanced performance as Ennis has piqued the attention of just about everyone. An Academy Best Actor nomination is expected.
And although Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance has been overlooked in the awards, Gyllenhaal brings an aching tenderness and quiet grin and bear it pain to his portrayal as Jack Twist, who slinks off for furtive sex in Mexico when Ennis is unavailable.
But Ledger’s performance as the mumbling Ennis -“ he averts his eyes and hunches over, all to avoid saying what he feels -“ is the essence of the real gay cowboy of the American West, where articulating your love can do you in.