Did Brokeback Mountain Really Break Cultural Barriers?

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Even before it opened, Brokeback Mountain picked up a label it may never shake: The gay cowboy movie.

To some, this spelled box-office disaster. While it’s an overstatement to call gay-related subjects “the last taboo” of commercial film (would a sympathetic look at, say, bestiality get a Hollywood greenlight?), gay themes have long been off-putting for mainstream audiences. (Few westerns have drawn long lines at ticket windows lately either.)

So much for conventional wisdom. Ang Lee’s sensitive drama—about the ultimately doomed love between a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy—has skyrocketed past $100 million in international grosses, and its eight Academy Award nominations (including a win for Best Director) outpaced all its competitors.

Which raises some questions: Is the success of Brokeback Mountain changing mainstream moviegoers’ attitudes toward gay cinema? Or had society altered its mindset already, with Brokeback fever simply confirming the change? Will actors be more willing to “play gay” in future films? Most importantly, will the picture’s hit status make Hollywood more open to gay subjects in the future?

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger star in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005).

“I’m not a prognosticator, so I can’t predict what Hollywood is going to do,” says James Schamus, one of Brokeback Mountain’s two producers and co-president of Focus Features, the film’s U.S. distributor. “But when a film works this well in every single marketplace, from Fort Worth to Little Rock—when the numbers are extraordinary in smaller markets as well as large ones—you can be sure Hollywood will pay attention. You know there is an audience for movies like this out there.”

That’s for sure, and there’s nothing mysterious about it, according to Diana Ossana, who co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain with Larry McMurtry.

“When I first read the [E. Annie Proulx] short story back in 1997 in The New Yorker,” she recalls, “I recognized immediately that it was a powerful story with the potential to touch many people. Our intentions in adapting it were never political in nature… Audiences always have—and always will—respond to smart stories with compelling, believable, honest portrayals of character, whatever the subject matter.”

More than just responding, people have turned Brokeback Mountain into “a touchstone event,” says Paul Dergarabedian, the president of Exhibitor Relations Company, which tracks and analyzes box office results.

“There have been many taboo subjects,” Dergarabedian explains. “But when The Passion of the Christ was released, it became the vehicle through which people could talk about religion in an open way—at the office, at dinner parties. Fahrenheit 9/11 did the same thing for politics. Brokeback Mountain is breaking those barriers with regard to sexual orientation. A very popular movie can be a catalyst for discussion—even a kind of scapegoat—because you’re just talking about a movie.”

Brokeback Mountain wasted no time showing its commercial strength, but its popularity has taken on different forms. “Public interest in Brokeback has come in stages,” says Ellen Huang, a former movie executive who now runs The Queer Lounge, an organization promoting gay and lesbian pictures with crossover potential. “At first it was driven by [the curiosity] to see two hot, hunky movie stars in these roles. Then there was a big push for the movie in the gay community, where I think lots of people are seeing it multiple times. And now its [Oscar] nominations have been fueling interest from broader audiences.”

“Audiences always have—and always will—respond to smart stories with compelling, believable, honest portrayals of character, whatever the subject matter.”

Not everyone in the gay community has joined the push to cheer Brokeback on, though. Craig Chester, who sees his own Adam & Steve—which he wrote, directed and stars in—as a romantic comedy “dessert” to the hearty “meal” of Brokeback Mountain, applauds Brokeback as a true crossover film, “not like Philadelphia, where gay people said ‘It’s not really for us, it’s for the mainstream.’” Yet he notes that “the story is tragic. One main character winds up alone and the other one’s dead, and some gay people don’t like the message they see there.” Still, he adds, “the important thing is that it has created a whole dialogue about Hollywood and gay love.”

Helping spark that dialogue is the subtlety of the movie’s performances—especially those of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, the straight actors who earned Oscar nominations (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively) for their work. “Gyllenhaal and Ledger have a tremendous amount to do with the success of the film,” says Stacy Codikow, founder and executive director of POWER UP, a professional organization for gay women in entertainment.

Codikow sees great importance in “the curiosity factor of two handsome straight men in these roles,” calling this “a fantasy that brings in [a diverse] audience” and helps moviegoers feel at home in unusual terrain. “The more awareness and acceptance gay lifestyles can achieve,” Codikow notes, “the more comfortable the [general] population will feel with these stories and subjects.”

Straight actors might also become more comfortable with portraying gay characters, although some find this to be an overrated issue. “Talented gay actors have been ‘playing straight’ for years,” says Ossana. “It ought not be any different for straight actors to ‘play gay.’ It certainly wasn’t an issue for the actors in Brokeback Mountain. Confident, talented, intelligent actors feel enabled to play whatever a great role might demand of them.”

Chester agrees. “Most straight actors in Hollywood know that if they play a gay guy they’ll be seen as real actors,” he says. “Historically, look at Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Charlize Theron in Monster, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman, which was 20 years ago. Playing gay is a surefire way of winning an Academy Award, so ‘playing gay’ is brave only if you think winning an Academy Award is brave! And since we live in a Star Magazine culture, more people will read about Heath Ledger’s baby than will see Brokeback Mountain.”

Malcolm Gets, Steve Geary and Craig Chester in Chester’s Adam & Steve (2006).

The combination of charismatic acting, first-rate moviemaking and mass-audience appeal is enough to put Brokeback Mountain on The Queer Lounge’s list of seminal gay-themed movies, which ranges from the serious (Philadelphia, Boys Don’t Cry) to the antic (La Cage aux folles, The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Like some of its predecessors, Brokeback Mountain is less interested in blazing new trails than in revising a time-tested genre.

“I saw Brokeback at a screening where Ang Lee was there,” says Huang, “and I asked him why he felt the movie was special. He said it’s because this is really a cowboy film. That was interesting, because the movie does take a familiar genre and turn it on its head. It explores a machismo kind of world in a way that’s been the genre’s last frontier, so to speak.”

All of this said, Schamus is a tad uneasy with the movie’s entrenched “gay cowboy” image. “Brokeback isn’t necessarily gay cinema,” he says. “I was involved in queer cinema with films like Swoon and Poison years ago, and I think it still has a powerful and provocative role to play. It deserves its own identity.”

Also dissatisfied with the “gay movie” tag is Richard Peña, program director at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center.

“There’s a double standard here… The people who marketed titanic didn’t call it ‘the greatest straight love story ever made,’ so why should we call this ‘a great gay love story?’”
—James Schamus

Brokeback isn’t gay cinema in the sense of work that came out of the gay film festival movement,” he notes. “It’s a mainstream film, [and] TV probably prepared the way with shows featuring sympathetic gay characters. To my mind, the film is perfectly calculated to wrap the ‘shock’ of the characters’ homosexuality in as pleasing and familiar a package as possible.”

Ossana also feels Brokeback shouldn’t be classified under the gay cinema label. “This is not a film that can be reduced to a single tagline or genre,” she insists. “It is universal in its humanity, but very, very specific in its intimate, detailed telling of a doomed love between two Wyoming ranch hands in the 1960s and 1970s… It is both universal and very specific.”

The movie’s gay identity has been questioned most trenchantly by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books, where he argued in February that to see it as a story of “universal human emotions” is to diminish its importance as a “specifically gay tragedy” about “psyches scarred from the very first stirrings of an erotic desire which the world around them… represents as unhealthy, hateful and deadly.” He adds that Lee and the screenwriters made a “specifically gay tragedy,” but that its promotion has too eagerly stressed the “universal appeal” angle.

Schamus defends the film’s promotion. “There’s a double standard here,” he says. “The people who marketed Titanic didn’t call it ‘the greatest straight love story ever made,’ so why should we call this ‘a great gay love story,’ especially since anyone who sees the trailer knows exactly what it is? We’re very straightforward about everything in the film. We don’t shade anything.”

Raul Julia and William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

At the same time, Schamus acknowledges that Mendelsohn is “onto something” in his argument. “In many responses to the movie,” Schamus says, a “logic of displacement” has been at work. “People say it’s not [really] a gay movie; it’s a romance. But it’s not a question of one or the other—the movie is both. There should be an ‘and,’ not a ‘but,’ when people talk about it.”

Box office magic notwithstanding, it won’t be clear whether Brokeback is a momentary blip or a real milestone in gay cinema until Hollywood starts processing the implications of its appeal.

“Everybody thought The Blair Witch Project would breed all sorts of imitators,” Dergarabedian points out. “People thought The Passion of the Christ would open the floodgates for religion-based films to make $100 million, and that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would do the same for subtitled, martial-arts pictures. It hasn’t happened—at least not yet—because these movies that capture lightning in a bottle are of their time and place. But they do open the minds of people who otherwise might not want to enter this particular discussion, and that’s more important than whether a lot of [similar] movies get made.”

Still, it does seem that a corner has been turned, at the movies and in culture at large. “We can’t lay claim to making the changes that are going on in society,” states Schamus, “but those changes are happening. People are getting tired of pressure from cynical, right-wing manipulators. People are starting to feel a little used and they’re saying, ‘Wait a second here.’ Americans course-correct. We are not intolerant people.”

New frontiers aside, had the movie been a mediocre one, none of this would even matter, according to Schamus. “My job is first and foremost to make as good a movie as I can,” he concludes. “If this movie stank, we wouldn’t be having this conversation!” MM

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