When Larry Miller, the macho owner of the Utah Jazz, made the news by banishing Brokeback Mountain from his multiplex, he offered clear testimony to the movie’s power to subvert our most cherished gender stereotypes. His reaction is probably not that different from that of a guy at my health club the other day who said, “Why would I want to watch a couple of tongue-tied cowboys bugger each other on a mountain?” But Brokeback Mountain has won the Golden Globe and most of the year’s critic’s awards by offering a depiction of the depth of physical and emotional connection that two men can have while remaining within the traditional model of masculine toughness. That has inspired intense loyalty, even love from its audiences.
The tale of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist began as a short story by Annie Proulx exemplifying what she calls “destructive rural homophobia.” Proulx, who lives in Wyoming and Newfoundland, has written about people trying to live in uncomfortable and underpopulated climes before (The Shipping News). In a Western bar in 1997, she spotted an old ranch hand whom the bartender indignantly fancied to be gay, which made her wonder about the lives of gay cowboys. She thought about what it would be like for boys growing up on isolated, hardscrabble ranches, wanting to join the Great Western Myth of Masculinity, and not making it, in a time and place when there was no other way to be a man. She then told their hard-bitten story, a story that had never been told before, of two aging men who bear up under their drab, empty, unbearably lonely lives as long as they can just escape a time or two a year to Brokeback Mountain, where, as teenaged boys herding sheep, they first found love, friendship, sex, and somebody who understood.
Much of Proulx’s short story was taken, almost word for word, gesture for gesture, by Larry (Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove) McMurtry and his writing partner and producer, Diana Ossana, for their screenplay. They then stretched it out and filled it in, documenting the passing years, the sadness and loneliness between the adolescent idyll of Brokeback Mountain and the climax of Jack and Ennis’s story.
Ossana gave the screenplay to Taiwanese director Ang Lee, whose appreciation of how and where people live was revealed in the details of films with such widely disparate settings as Sense and Sensibility, The Wedding Banquet, and The Ice Storm. In his movies, one truly comes to savor and inhabit the place and time he creates on screen.
The story is simple. A pair of dropout cowboys in their late teens, Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal from Jarhead) and Ennis del Mar (played by Heath Ledger from Monster’s Ball), are tending sheep for the summer on Brokeback Mountain. The scenery is stupefyingly beautiful, but it’s a hard life and unbearably lonely for the only two humans on a mountain full of sheep, sheepdogs, and an occasional bear. One night, drunk, they end up in the same tent. Jack wordlessly molests the virginal Ennis, who after an initial protest, gets fired up and buggers him back.
The next day, Ennis assures himself, Jack, and us: “You know I ain’t queer.” Jack assures him, “Me neither,” and in short order, they kiss passionately and do it again. They come to life, wrestling and playing like a pair of puppies. They’re kids again, and no longer alone.
The first half of the film, this adolescent idyll in a cowboy Garden of Eden, is magical in the shamelessness and intimacy it recalls from our shared puberty rituals. It’s innocence regained–so long as Ennis and Jack don’t try to reenter the real world of Wyoming. The story, while set in 1963, was written in 1997, the year before the homophobic murder of Matthew Shepherd in rural Wyoming.
Ennis then goes back to his drab, silent life, and marries his uninspiring, sad-faced wife, Alma (Michelle Williams). They make a pair of babies, and he works as a ranch hand. Four years later, a postcard from Jack arrives announcing that he plans to visit. When he does, the two guys fall upon each other with the hungriest and most muscular kiss in film history. (Alma secretly witnesses that kiss and dissolves in devastated horror as she sees her life with Ennis blown apart.) The boys then go off to Brokeback Mountain to fish, and never wet a line.
Jack reveals that he tried to make it on the rodeo circuit, failed, and married rodeo queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway), whose father owns a tractor company and hires Jack as a salesman. He tries to get Ennis to abandon his life and family and take up housekeeping and farming with him. Ennis digs in: he must see his commitments through. Anyway, Ennis recalls his father’s taking him to see the castrated body of a farmer who’d tried to live with another man. It can’t be done.
Ennis and Jack meet from time to time for fishing trips, and never bring home any fish. Jack gets through the interim with occasional encounters with strangers and tearful regret over the dream life he can’t achieve with Ennis. Lureen inherits the tractor company, and couldn’t care less what her hired-hand husband does with his sexuality. Jack says he could do his marriage by phone.
Ennis tries to have it both ways, while playing it straight. His mind is so far away on Brokeback Mountain that he can’t lead his life. He isn’t in love with men, or even with a man, but with the Jack of their youth together and the memory of coming to life with his skin next to the skin of another human being who didn’t require him to be more or better than he was.
The audience feels the inchoate longing for the time of innocence and freedom young men sometimes have, before stepping into the emotional straightjacket of manhood. It isn’t the sex–there isn’t much of that–but the tenderness of holding each other, and the kissing. Rarely have we seen such passionate kissing. It has far more wallop than sex could possibly have.
Ang Lee weaves his spell, finding the most beautiful paradise in the Rockies, and contrasting that to the stark towns, trailers, and prefabs Ennis lives in and the grim, barren home of Jack’s parents. It’s as if leaving Brokeback Mountain means stepping into Texas and becoming blind to the beauty of the earth.
Gyllenhaal’s big-eyed Jack is studly but naive, a swaggering seducer and dreamer who’s just as lonely as Ennis, but more verbal and thus better able to describe what it feels like to be him. He’s reckless and he has no guilt and little shame about what he and Ennis are doing. Jack could have anyone he wanted, but he’s imprinted, like a Conrad Lorenz duckling, on Ennis, perhaps because Ennis has the stubborn strength of character that Jack finds lacking in himself. The Thanksgiving scene in which Jack confronts his macho father-in-law about who’ll carve the turkey, delighting his wife, was inserted by McMurtry and Ossana, and is the one moment in the film that doesn’t ring true. Jack is both too weak and too opportunistic to do unnecessary battle when he could seduce someone instead.
Hathaway (from Princess Diaries) is a steely princess who’s made increasingly repulsive over time, with fluffed-up, bleached hair and excess makeup. Her flashy greed quickly distracts her from sexy, inept Jack. Williams (from Dawson’s Creek) as Ennis’s wife is flaccid and clinging. She has no interest in Ennis’ inner life, but just wants him to do what a man is supposed to do for her and the kids. Her poignant performance knocks us back into the reality that these grown guys are betraying a marriage and damaging the loved ones they’ve sworn to take care of. We don’t care what Jack does to Lureen, but we find ourselves, like Ennis, dutifully protective of Alma.
As Ennis, Australian Heath Ledger mumbles as inarticulately and evocatively as early the Marlon Brando or James Dean. His face seems to fade away as we look at him, and he carefully avoids making contact, except violently with his body in his various fist fights with strangers who don’t behave properly. He’s as masculine as John Wayne, but ordinary, with coloring as bland as a sheep’s. He could be John C. Reilly’s “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago (“They walk right past me, look right through me, and no one knows my name”). Ennis’s character shines through, though, much like Robert Duvall’s did in Tender Mercies, with the honesty of plain, unadorned virtue. A depressed orphan who can’t leave his kids, he doesn’t seem to expect much from life. He requires nothing more that a roll on Brokeback Mountain with Jack to keep his minimalist life going.
The two most talked about performances of the year, Heath Ledger here and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, are both, to different degrees, gay. Hoffman fits the stereotype of the swishy, feminine “queer,” while Ledger is a fully masculine cowboy who leads an otherwise straight life, but is in love with another man. While Capote affirms the myth of the black/white, all/nothing differentiation between straight and gay, Ledger blurs, or even blows apart, that reassuring distinction, calling into question that traditional refuge of sheer masculinity: the great American West.
The Code of the West enshrined in nearly a hundred years of Hollywood films, glorified the fierce, masculine loyalty of “partners” and “mates.” But the tenderness of men for men, the emotional substrate of that male bonding, even if not acted upon, has rarely been explored as deftly as it is in Brokeback Mountain.
What’s so subversive about the movie is our realization that homosexuality is perfectly compatible with masculinity, and that all men might be capable of it. For many, this realization raises unsettling questions about the rigidly untender, all-or-nothing model of masculinity glorified in war, sports, Hollywood, and apparently much of Texas and Utah.
Men on film are rarely tender with one another–it just looks too gay for a mass audience. Nevertheless, Brokeback shows us how sex, like laughter, danger, and play, may remove boundaries that keep men from embracing their inherent tenderness and capacity for blood-brother affirmation. It also shows that while in the dust towns of the West the fulltime job of being a “real” man saves you from the danger of getting castrated and killed, you may pay the price of stifling your entire life.
Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.