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’Pokes peek
Heath Ledger scales Brokeback Mountain

Gay deceiver?
Opening up the Back pack

NEW YORK - "Peckinpah's Ride the High Country," says James Schamus, producer of Brokeback Mountain and right-hand man for Ang Lee for his last nine movies. "Why didn't those guys go in the tent and have sex? That's what I want to know after making Brokeback Mountain. Randolph Scott's live-in boyfriend for two years was Cary Grant. Not only was he gay, he was a lucky dude."

That raises laughs from a group of journalists in a New York hotel. But what about Peoria? What about Wyoming, where Brokeback is set and where Matthew Shepherd was murdered in 1998? (The film was shot in Calgary.) The poster offers a clue to how gay Brokeback really is.

"One of the thing I said was, 'Don't look at old Western posters,' " says Schamus. "Take the top 100 romances of all time and let's look at those posters. When we saw the Titanic poster, we saw their faces, we said, that has got to be it. So it was true that we were inspired by that."

Meanwhile, members of the cast have been playing down their character's sexual inclinations. Jake Gyllenhaal, who portrays Jack, the more assertive of the two, told Details he didn't think his character is gay at all.

Gyllenhaal isn't in town for the promotional junket because he's shooting his new film, Scorpio. But Heath Ledger, touted as a possible Oscar nominee for his portrayal of Ennis, the uptight other half of the couple, addresses the issue. "I think it's a touchy subject. If we say that they're not, there will be a lot of disappointed people who want it to be. But essentially it's two men that fall in love. I think maybe that's what Jake meant. Certainly with my character, I wanted to tell a story of just someone who transcends the label of gay or straight. He's just purely a human being whose soul falls in love with another soul that is in the vessel of a man."

Ang Lee is less evasive. "To me they are gay. Whether they admit it or not. I think that as actors who play them and as filmmakers who make the movie we need to know that. We need to know their hearts and physically what arouses them. They are sexually aroused, they are attracted to each other."

That aspect of the characters has kept actors from committing to the film since Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana wrote a screenplay based on the Annie Proulx story in 1997. Seven years ago, Gus Van Sant had the project and couldn't get anyone to say yes, including the then-18-year-old Gyllenhaal. What's changed?

"Maybe the time is right for actors," Lee says. He thinks each film with gay characters is a step in a process to normalize them. "I am talking about mainstream-movie territory, not gay cinema, and now actors are more willing to do it. Not all of them, and I think at this point they are still hesitant to do two in a row. But now one movie they will be a lot more willing to do."

As for the actual acting, Ledger found it no big deal.

"Everyone asks, 'What was the most difficult aspect of the movie for you?' 'Making out with Jake Gyllenhaal' is the really obvious answer to give. At the end of the day, once we got the first take out of the way, it was like, 'Oh okay, whatever. Let's finish the day. All the mystery has been taken away and we're still acting, it's a movie.'

"Is he a good kisser? Yeah. He's a really good kisser."


"Controversy" sells tickets, as long as it’s not controversial. Such hot-button films as the recent Syriana and the upcoming Munich purport to take on tough issues but in fact merely tart up generic fare with innocuous pretenses. Brokeback Mountain, the "gay cowboy movie," has built up a saucy reputation, moving the suddenly prim Madonna to declare it "shocking." But by the time viewers realize that it has less sex than the average PG-13 movie about heterosexual love, they’ll be drawn to it as a tearjerker. Credit a consummate performance by Heath Ledger and limpid, unmanipulative direction by Ang Lee for the year’s most affecting romantic movie.

Figuring, no doubt correctly, that more people will identify with loss than with gay lust, Lee gets the icky parts over quickly. Not only is it the love that dare not speak its name, it doesn’t speak at all. The film’s opening five minutes present a wordless mating dance as cocky kid Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a worried-looking Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) wait to apply for a job herding sheep for the winter. It’s 1964 and Wyoming, so Jack’s attraction to Ennis is limited to sidelong glances in his pick-up’s rear-view mirror, and Ennis’s shrunken body language screams repression. Later, tending the flock on the title peak, the pair eat beans and swap bits of their lives. Lee plays coy with the cliché’d lead-in to their first clinch. Will it be the nursing-of-the-wound scene or the campfire-has gone-out-come-share-the-tent moment? When it does arrive, it’s as blunt and sexless as a two-by-four, and during the rest of their idyll, they exchange more blows than blow jobs. The film seems to take a Rick Santorum approach to sexuality: if they hadn’t turned to each other, maybe they’d have resorted to the sheep. Nothing to upset that big Red State Market.

Once off the mountain they part, and real life begins. Ennis marries pretty Alma (Michelle Williams), who gives him daughters, bills, and non-comprehension. Jack appears to fare better, hitching up with cowgirl Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and landing an emasculating sinecure in her father’s company. The years pass, and Jack’s callowness deteriorates into dandyism; mustachio’d and duded up, he looks like a weedy version of Rock Hudson in Giant. And except for the occasional explosion of rage and frustration, Ennis shrivels up like a weathered saddlebag.

They have their get-togethers over the years, "fishing trips" that arouse the unstated suspicions of their spouses. These serve mostly to remind them, and the viewer, of the hopelessness of love and the inevitability of loss. Although he does indulge in the occasional, obligatory reference to The Searchers (tiny figures on horseback dwarfed by landscape; doors opening from dim interiors into radiant wilderness), Lee remains as laconic as his heroes. The simple authenticity of the gestures — the gift of a shirt near the end of the film will tear up the most hardened or homophobic — almost compensates for the lack of anything to back them up.

Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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