There’s a moment in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain where the film’s two male leads meet for the first time in four years and realize that they are, indeed, in love with each other. They share a series of passionate kisses and embrace underneath a stairwell. For a fleeting moment, they forget that it’s 1967, that they’re committed to other women, and that Wyoming’s machismo set wouldn’t quite know how to embrace the fact that they’re embracing. So the men retreat from the hunger for something they cannot yet articulate and keep their love for each other hidden as they continue their relationship—for 20 years.
And so it goes in one of the most talked about movies of the year. Headlined by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback was being touted as “one of the most important films of the decade” long before its release this winter. Why? For starters, Ledger and Gyllenhaal had officially made Hollywood Hunk status and while that never hurts ticket sales, it would be their on-screen love scenes in Brokeback that eventually generated big buzz. Beyond that, Lee, the Taiwan-born Oscar-winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, would be bringing Annie Proulx’s heart-tugging short story, which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1997, to the big screen. This would be the first time since 1982’s Making Love that the nation’s filmgoers would be watching a serious gay romance.
And serious it is. Ledger and Gyllenhaal morph into two wholesome, blue-jean-wearin’, boot-stompin’ cowboys (Ennis and Jack) who meet in the early ’60s when they take a job as sheepherders in the Wyoming mountains. Eventually, they share a surprise embrace—and more—in a tent. (Yes, the two go “bareback on Brokeback.”) They struggle to identify what it is they really feel for each other and, by summer’s end, fall off the cliff of conventionality and into each other’s arms somewhere deep in the valley of “what the heck is this?” It’s not that the two men fight to find love that makes Brokeback so hypnotic—their love is never really in question—it’s that they must conceal their true feelings for each other and maneuver around the maze of their milieu.
Still, most people, especially gay men, will want to know one thing: do Ledger and Gyllenhaal rise to the occasion? For the most part: Yes. Ledger offers the strongest acting here and delivers one of the finest performances in his (short) career. He fully owns his character, Ennis—I know, interesting choice of names and after a few cocktails, one can imagine what the club set will do with that one. He evokes a sense of longing, confusion, uncertainty. It’s heartbreaking. You can’t help but feel for this man. He wants to come out of the closet but there’s nobody there to welcome him with open arms. Well, in truth, there’s Gyllenhaal’s Jake, but these two gents are in living in the ’60s, long before gay civil rights began to snowball. Jake would love nothing more than to run off with Ennis, but Ennis is tepid. His marriage, his daughters—how would it all work?
These plot nuggets from Proulx’s story, and how Lee handles them with grace, add dimension to this understated but daringly deep film. As moving as it is haunting—something about Brokeback stays with you long after you leave the theater—Lee, more than anything else, wanted to remain true to Proulx’s material, which was adapted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.
“I was just so moved by Annie Proulx’s writing,” Lee said in a recent round table interview with Bay Area journalists. “It was a rare piece of literature. And it does have this [feel] of the macho western, but with the gay love story. That makes it very unusual and very attractive to me. It was some new angle—to check into [the characters’] humanity. But there was another thing that was interesting to me about Brokeback Mountain, and it’s ‘looking for love and affection.’ The guys spend 20 years trying to go back to something they didn’t understand in the first place. They get choked up. So it’s the nature of the two that was very intriguing to me to tell this love story.”
For the most part, Lee was not plagued with the potential controversy that Brokeback could spawn. Could middle-America actually embrace a gay cowboy story, regardless of how poignant and universal the tale actually was?
“The movie was a vehicle for me to check into what’s really important; what’s real, what’s transcendent,” he said. “To me, it’s about love and affection, and are you willing to fall for it; go to the unknown? Are you reserved? How honest are you? Those were the big things for me. I would imagine there would be political ramifications when it comes out. I’ll just deal with it, I guess. Mixing a western and a gay love story is like constantly walking a tight rope … It’s a little risky, career-wise.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Lee faced opposition. Back in 2003, most critics panned his Hulk. Still, the film was a bonanza at the box office and seemed to be the perfect mainstream follow-up to his award-winning foreign treat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As a filmmaker, Lee’s works are often found fascinating if not visually mesmerizing. It must have something to do with the fact that a great deal of them—the gay-oriented, The Wedding Banquet (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger … (2000)— offer stunning, often expansive scenery or landscapes that juxtapose many of the characters’ inner struggles.
Brokeback is like that.
Lee says choreographing Ledger’s and Gyllenhaal’s emotional dance was harder than maneuvering any of their physical soirees. “You think it’s hard to do—[the sex scenes],” he noted, “and you get all worked up and psyched up, but once it happens and you shoot the scene, they deliver and they both do it and it’s convincing and it’s tough, but the emotion makes it work as a movie and that’s a bigger job. They had to divulge their private feelings in the film, and be very willing to expose themselves that way, and even in the lovemaking scenes. It’s not how they act it that’s provocative to me, it’s the silent things they go through; the confusion they go through. I think that’s more shocking and realistic than anything.”
Doing the math, there’s but a troika of “intimate” physical moments between the Ledger and Gyllenhaal in Brokeback. “I thought I would do no more, no less, than what it needed dramatically,” he noted. “To me, Brokeback [Mountain] is a third character.”
The film also benefits from a solid supporting cast that includes Anne Hathaway (as Gyllenhaal’s wife), Michelle Williams (as Heath’s) and Randy Quaid. Curiously, you feel for the women in this film as much as you do the two men in torment. And who would have guessed that Hathaway (Princess Diaries) would command the screen in her role as Jake’s wife. Williams evokes the most sympathy, though, as Ennis’s broken-hearted wife—she discovers early on that her husband’s true affections lie elsewhere.
“Professionally, I’ve learned that there is no [acting] method,” Lee said of working with all of the film’s stars. “You just have to deal with the individuals. They come from different backgrounds and different dispositions and they offer different things to the camera. My job is to make them function; use the best part of their performance and blend it together so I don’t have five movies—I have one. That’s my biggest job. I feel sometimes I can dictate them; tell them what to do, inspire them.”
As for his two main boys, Lee noted that before the nine-week shoot in Wyoming he actually sent Ledger and Gyllenhaal to “cowboy boot camp.” Ledger, who grew up on a ranch in Australia, breezed through it while Gyllenhaal, a “city boy,” needed a bit more time to learn the ropes, as it were.
Regardless, the Oscar-winning director continues to impress with his ability to dig deep and draw out the best in any of his performers. Perhaps the secret to Lee’s magic that he works best when using metaphors.
“I just think every actor is like a big pumpkin that I have to carve over.”
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