When it was first announced that director Ang Lee had set his sights on making a film about ‘two cowboys in love’, many were surprised. True, he had a reputation for directing a remarkably diverse range of movies (consider the disparate world of his two Oscar winning films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility) but this seemed a little too ‘out there’ even for someone like Lee.
When we later learnt that Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were cast as the two cowboys-on-the range in question, the stakes admittedly got higher. These were, after all, two hot young movie stars on the rise. But while the Western genre has always been knee deep in homo-erotic subtext, this has almost never been brought out into the open. Gay cowboys in love? The world wasn’t ready for that. Or was it?
Few could have expected that the result of this apparent misadventure would be a total of eight Oscar nominations, including best film, as well as a seemingly never-ending collection of awards, accolades and critical orgasms. While Brokeback Mountain has not quite reached mainstream blockbuster status, it is still also a considerable financial success, and the highest earning film nominated for an Oscar this year; grossing over $70 Million in the US alone to date. It’s history in the making; ironically during one the most politically conservative eras of the last 40 years.
The chain of events that led to the film started with the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx, which was published in The New Yorker in 1997. The moving tale of two cowboys who fall in love among the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas in 1963, and their attempt to deal with the relationship across the decades, struck a nerve with many.
“I had tears in my eyes at the end, and it stayed with me”, says Lee. Script adaptations were written over the years, and directors like Joel Schumacher came close to making a film version. Two years after first reading the tale, Lee enquired about the status of the film’s development. When he discovered it had still not gotten off the ground, he decided to take on the project. “I just knew, in the bottom of my heart, if I let it go, I would regret it for the rest of my life”, says Lee.
It was a decision that was to bring him the highest accolades of his career, and it was to do the same for its two lead actors. Many, at the time of their casting, questioned the wisdom of two up-and-coming actors taking on gay characters. Australian Heath Ledger first came to the public’s attention with The Patriot, co-starring Mel Gibson, and went on to make an impression in Hollywood with movies like A Knight’s Tale, Monster’s Ball and the Lords of Dogtown.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been in moviegoers’ sights thanks to both his boyish good looks and his acting chops; starring in films like the cult favourite Donnie Darko, and the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.
“I was immediately drawn to Brokeback Mountain because love stories haven’t been told this way in a long time. Movies I’ve seen in recent years have avoided the struggles and the trials that it takes to actually be in love and keep that going. When I heard that Ang Lee was going to make it, I thought, “I have to do this movie”, says Gyllenhaal who portrays the cocky Jack.
Heath Ledger, who plays the reserved, mumbling Ennis, had similar feelings when he read the script, “…it was mature and strong, and such a pure and beautiful love story. I hadn’t done a proper love story, and I find there’s not a lot of mystery left in stories between guys and girls; it’s all been done or seen before.”
Their performances are remarkable, not only because, as two straight men, they were able to look beyond their own sexuality; presenting a remarkably honest portrayal of two people in love, but also because they successfully convey the maturing of two men over a number of years.
“I’ve never really been attracted to men sexually, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it happened…” – Jake Gyllenhaal
Ledger admits that he had some reservations about the role; “I had fear going into it, but that was all the more reason to do it; it was exhilarating when I committed to [the movie].”
Brokeback Mountain not only deals with the repercussion of a hidden love on Jack and Ennis’s lives, but also how it tragically affects the women that they marry in an attempt to maintain a semblance of a ‘normal’ life.
In talking about the marriage between Ennis and Alma, Diana Ossana, one of the screenwriters and co-producer, says that, “There may have been a physical attraction, but also a sense that, “this is what I’m supposed to do – get married and have children.” Ennis cares for Alma and loves her, but his love for her is not passion. It is nowhere near what he feels for Jack.”
Gyllenhaal paints a similar scenario between his character and the woman he marries: “He probably makes a decision to go be with her because that’s his mask; going with what society says is the right thing to do. All this time, there’s this aching to be with Ennis and to have a life with him.”
Before shooting began, the actors had to prepare for the physical aspects of the roles – especially vital for Gyllenhaal, who was the less experienced of the two leads in the ways of cowboys. “I knew nothing about riding horses. I came up a month before we started shooting, for, as we called it, “cowboy training camp.” I learned how to ride horses, how to wrangle sheep, and how to do the cowboy things”, says Gyllenhaal.
The filming of Brokeback Mountain was completed in August of 2004, and post-production was finished in early 2005, marking the end of the story’s eight-year journey to the screen. The film was then unleashed on the world, impacting the cultural zeitgeist in unexpected ways.
Those expecting a diatribe on gay rights or a cowboy sex romp will be disappointed. Brokeback Mountain is a classic tragic love story – but between two men. During its making, speculation abounded on whether the filmmakers would choose to steer away from depicting gay sex between the characters. And while there is indeed a sex scene between the leads, the film is primarily concerned with telling the story of a forbidden romance set a universe away from the nascent sexual revolution of the sixties.
After seeing the movie, Madonna described Gyllenhaal and Ledger as “brave” for taking on their roles, leading to Ledger’s response that, “I hate to call it “daring” or “brave”; fire-fighters are daring and brave. I’m acting. I didn’t get hurt and I’m not mentally wounded from this experience.”
Gyllenhaal, who has often been at the centre of rumours about his sexuality, told Details magazine that, “You know, it’s flattering when there’s a rumour that says I’m bisexual. It means I can play more kinds of roles. I’m open to whatever people want to call me. I’ve never really been attracted to men sexually, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it happened”.
As it slowly opened across the USA in a strategically staggered approach, Brokeback’s audience continued to grow, as did its critical acclaim. It also touched some raw nerves, with conservative groups’ condemning the film as homosexual propaganda. Some cinemas in one American state even refused to screen it.
When asked if he’d seen Brokeback by reporters, President George Bush stumbled over his words, seemingly unsure how to respond lest he unleash a political storm. And Country Mus