By John Polly
Believe the buzz. “Brokeback Mountain,” the acclaimed short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx, which drew raves when it first appeared in 1997, is now a film and is heading your way. And yes, it’s good. Very, very good. Think an epic love story on a Titanic-scale, gorgeously filmed against a stark and stunning Western landscape. From start to finish, the film is carefully made and well-acted, not to mention respectful, heartbreaking and powerful.
Led by career-making performances by its two stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger (the Oscar buzz has already begun), “Brokeback Mountain” delivers, more than any other gay-themed film that has preceded it, a humane, visceral love story that may just have even the sternest movie critics among us sobbing into their Stetson.
Boasting a screenplay by the always brilliant Larry McMurtry (“Terms of Endearment,” “Lonesome Dove”) and Diana Ossana, “Brokeback Mountain” is gently and lovingly directed by Ang Lee, known for telling humane stories (“Sense & Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm”) as well as crafting films of rousing action or heartfelt laughs (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The Wedding Banquet”). Even Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting and delicately mesmerizing score finely supplements the onscreen desire and tension. And the film stars two handsome, gifted, up-and-coming actor in the roles of two star-crossed cowhands. It all works beautifully.
The basic story? Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Ledger) meet while working together one summer herding sheep in Wyoming, the two of them sequestered way up in the hills on Brokeback Mountain. They become friends, and then more. And they fall in love.
The summer ends and they part, resigned to the fact that in 1963 Wyoming, guys like them don’t have a chance of making a go of any kind of real relationship thanks to society’s bigotry and their own fear. A few years later they reunite, and then proceed to meet up for “fishing trips” – same time, next year-style. Both men get married and start families, but they still hanker for the kind of love, sex and intimacy they were able to find on Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is strong, stubborn, tight-lipped and fearful; Jack, perhaps more open and eager to seek real comfort, still wants more.
All of this is told in measured scenes, with eloquently written and pointed, if often brief, exchanges. The scenery is gorgeous and harsh, much like the story.
And it’s the power of Brokeback’s story that roped in Gyllenhaal and Ledger to the project. “When I read the script, I thought the story was amazing,” says Gyllenhaal of his initial take on this epic tale. “I just fell in love with it and realized that I had to do this film.”
His costar concurs. “The decision to do the film was pretty much made for me by the script,” says Ledger in his smoky, Australian-accented voice. “It was the most beautiful screenplay I’d ever read. And after reading Annie Proulx’s brilliant short story, I felt like it was definitely going to be intriguing and challenging to tell this story. Particularly, because Ennis has very few words to express his battle and his issues. Ang Lee was attached to direct, and I felt he was perfect to tell this story. I didn’t want to walk away from something so perfect; that would have been crazy.”
Crazy, indeed. And while Hollywood has gotten decidedly more gay-friendly thematically in recent years, some showbiz types still get squeamish when it comes to playing gay. “I understood that it was a fear for quite a lot of other people in this industry,” offers Ledger, regarding whether or not he had doubts about playing a man-loving ranch-hand. “But I never felt like I had anything at stake; there was no risk. The only anxiety I had was that the project was so perfect, I didn’t want to be responsible for fucking it up,” he says, laughing.
“The question of sexuality and these characters’ issues with it wasn’t was pushed me to do this, or scared me about it,” explains Gyllenhaal. “I’m in the business of helping stories get told, and I love this story. People don’t say to me, When you were in ‘Proof,’ were you afraid to play a mathematician? Or, Was it scary to play a Marine in ‘Jarhead?’ Why is that?”
Not surprisingly, both actors are also happy to speak out the importance of this story, and the message it sends. “There’s no doubt that this is a gay love story,” says Gyllenhaal. “But I don’t think that these two characters even know what gay is. Before we started shooting, Ang Lee and James [Schamus, the film’s producer] gave us books about first-hand accounts of guys growing up in the Midwest and their encounters with men and their attraction to men, and what that was, and even they didn’t understand what it was, or what they were feeling. So to me, there are a lot of things that this movie is deconstructing that I think are really fascinating.”
Ledger agrees, and also sees the film’s scope as ultimately universal. “Sure, they’re two men in love with each other, but the film’s point is that two men in love with each is just as universal as man and a woman, or two women – it’s the same thing,” he says. “In many ways, it’s much bigger than a story about two gay men. It’s a story for everyone. We put our hearts and souls into telling this story, and we’re trying to broaden people’s opinions and people’s interest in coming to see the film-because it’s a story of beauty.”
Strengthening their commitment to “Brokeback Mountain” is the fact that both Gyllenhaal and Ledger have very personal connections to gay people, whose lives they hope to honor with this film. Gyllenhaal grew up with gay godparents – a male couple who were very close to his family.
“I do feel like there is a part of me who did this movie for them,” he admits. “Maybe, almost naively, I don’t really worry about how other people will respond to this, because I know I’ve done it for people I love.”
Similarly, Ledger had an uncle in mind as he slipped on his boots to play Ennis. “My uncle’s gay and he went through a hard time coming out to his dad in the 70s. His dad told him, ‘You’ve got to go to a hospital and get fixed, or you’ve got to leave the family.’ So he stood up and walked out and moved to L.A. and never came back. He’s always found it hard to accept his sexuality, and maybe as a backlash to this and his father making him feel less masculine, he became more masculine. He’s the head of an arm-wrestling federation and loves pit fighting! He’s into bodybuilding and is the toughest, most masculine guy I know. That’s why it was important to me to create Ennis as the most masculine character that I’ve ever played, to make that point.”
And as it was for both Gyllenhaal and Ledger, the impact of a monumental and yet bracingly intimate story like “Brokeback Mountain” will be a very personal one for audiences. This is the kind of movie which prompts discussions, and that gay viewers can proudly claim. Best of all, the film has the capacity reach people in a very important way. “If anything, I think this movie might be able to tell younger people who are struggling with issue of their own sexuality and how they’re feeling that it’s okay,” says Gyllenhaal. “That’s what I have the most faith in.”
And certainly, what’s likely to remain with viewers is the central story of Jack and Ennis’ quest for love, and the heroic struggle they face.
“What I feel is that we’re all looking for intimacy, wherever we can find it,” Gyllenhaal offers. “And when you find it with someone, you hold on to it as hard as you can. And that’s all that matters.”