Film: Tainted Love

Brokeback Mountain speaks to a divided America

 
Kimberly French


Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, left) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) share a a forbidden love in Ang Lee's period western, Brokeback Mountain.



The overflowing basket of critical acclaim for director Ang Lee's epic romance Brokeback Mountain includes the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival's top prize, as well as best film of the year picks by the Los Angeles, New York and Boston critics groups and seven Golden Globe nominations. Every accolade is deserved, even a gushing comment from author and gay film scholar B. Ruby Rich, who calls Brokeback Mountain "the most important film to come out of America in years."

But praise doesn't matter to average moviegoers with their own life experiences and concerns. The average folk will always have the final say.

Regular Josephine and Joes filled a suburban Cincinnati multiplex on a late October evening to watch an advance screening of the Meryl Streep comedy Prime. The tickets were free, and the crowd was large and enthusiastic. In the film, Streep plays a Manhattan psychiatrist struggling to accept the relationship between her young son and one of her older female patients.

Typical ads and trailers preceded the feature, including one for Brokeback Mountain. When it became clear that the film's romance is between two cowboys, an older couple got up and stormed out of the theater.

"Hell no, I'm not watching this," the man said, pulling his wife up the aisle.

It was just a two-minute trailer, but that didn't matter to the outraged senior. He didn't want to be anywhere near Brokeback Mountain.

Many politicians, perhaps the President of the United States himself, feel the same way. Filmmaker Oliver Stone complained about people deriding his Alexander the Great epic as "Alexander the Gay" as proof of the extreme fundamentalist moral climate in America. Online journalist Matt Drudge's recent exaggerations about the nudity and explicit sex in Brokeback Mountain is added proof that the conservative climate hasn't changed much in the past 12 months or in the 42 years since author Annie Proulx set her gay cowboys story.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a young ranch hand as rugged as the Rocky Mountain ranges behind him. He's also poor enough to take a thankless sheepherding job one summer on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain, where his partner on the job is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Although they're opposites in personality — Ennis is quiet, Jack is something of a clown — they become friends. On a night when cold weather forces them to share a tent, they become intimate.

Their private summer love affair in 1963 comes to an end, and Ennis and Jack go their separate ways. Ennis marries high school sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams) and raises two daughters as well as a poor cowboy can. Jack returns to Texas, meets and marries a rodeo girl named Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and works at the farm equipment business owned by her father.

Ennis and Jack reunite a few years later and realize that Brokeback Mountain is the one place where they can be honest, relaxed and happy. They're now married, but their love for each other remains strong. Outside of Brokeback, Ennis demands total secrecy.

"This thing grabs on to us again in the wrong place, we'll be dead," he tells a frustrated Jack. They're fated to be unhappy.

Cable TV channels played Lee's recent big-budget action film, The Hulk, throughout Christmas. It confirmed what makes him so special: Few filmmakers, past or present, hop between genres as skillfully. The thread that connects The Hulk, Brokeback and his best-known film, the martial arts adventure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a skill at large-scale storytelling and the ability to push human characters front and center.

Winning the Best Film Prize at Venice forces Lee to re-schedule interviews at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival. But he looks casual and calm sitting alone on a couch pushed against the window of a hotel room.

Lee admits being surprised by the film's overwhelming positive response at Venice.

"I didn't expect a lot of people to see it," he says with hushed sincerity.

Asked if 1960s Wyoming is different from America today, meaning if Ennis and Jack could be open about their love for each other, Lee answers with an immediate "no."

"I think this is a scary time in the U.S., moreso than any time I remember, and I have lived in America for 22 years," he says. "I don't know if this is the right time to do this movie, but I did it for the love of it and I hope the love story will prevail."

The sex between Ennis and Jack isn't explicit, despite what Drudge might say, but it is rough and passionate. There's nothing comforting about their initial intimacy, as if the Western landscape requires their lovemaking to be rugged.

Todd Haynes' 1950s romance Far From Heaven and Kimberly Pierce's Boys Don't Cry are gay dramas of equal acclaim. A preoperative transsexual travels across the country with her newfound son in Transamerica, a current film that also breaks barriers.

But Brokeback Mountain stands out for its sheer beauty and epic scope. The difference lies in how gay men are portrayed. Working from Proulx's short story, which first appeared in New Yorker magazine in 1997, and a screenplay by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, Lee shows Ennis and Jack to be tragic heroes destined to be unhappy in love.

Ledger is a John Wayne type, rugged, stoic and often wordless. He simmers throughout the film, but when his emotions erupt they're honest and powerful.

Williams enjoys the best scenes and the story's best dialogue as Ennis' wife, who struggles to understand her husband after seeing him in a passionate embrace with Jack. She shows the heartache of a wife who never experienced the type of passion her husband gives freely to another man.

Jack is the chatty one, a guy who expresses his heartache freely. With his trademark long stare at his disposal, Gyllenhaal reveals Jack's sadness without the need of theatrics. Like Ledger, he's also at his best when acting silently.

If there is a theme to the film, it can be found in something Ennis tells Jack midway into the story: "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it."

What will the Bush crowd say about Brokeback Mountain or the old man who stormed out of the cinema over its trailer? It doesn't matter. True epic love stories stand on their own strengths. ©

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