Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is without a doubt a culturally significant motion picture. The same-sex romantic drama won numerous awards, it was discussed all over the media upon its release, and has been labeled “groundbreaking” by numerous film critics.
Of course, the fact that those critics’ knowledge of film history goes as far back as Revenge of the Sith should not be held against Lee’s film. Yet, except for a few touching moments in Brokeback Mountain‘s second half, I was unable to become fully involved in the film chiefly because I felt its central relationship – between a Wyoming ranch hand and a second-rate rodeo cowboy – remained stubbornly underdeveloped.
Although screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have elongated E. Annie Proulx’s terse short story considerably more than necessary – Brokeback Mountain clocks in at 134 minutes – they have failed to convey the emotional basis for the undying bond between the two men. Compounding matters, stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal share precious little chemistry in their moments together, thus leaving it up to the viewer’s imagination to fill in the story’s romantic gaps.
Besides Rodrigo Prieto’s lyrical cinematography and Gustavo Santaolalla’s sublimely haunting score, what helps to lift Brokeback Mountain from the realm of averageness is not its “subversive” approach to the Western genre, but its underlying theme of the high cost of a life denied.
Generally remaining quite faithful to Proulx’s story, first published in The New Yorker in October 1997, McMurtry and Ossana’s screenplay follows the mostly long-distance, twenty-year love affair between the stoic Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and the lively Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), who get acquainted while herding sheep on Wyoming’s majestic (and fictitious) Brokeback Mountain in the summer of 1963. (The film was actually shot in Alberta, Canada.)
Missing from the screenplay, however, is a crucial detail found in the short story: A (however brief) description of encroaching intimacy, for Ennis and Jack fall in love after having formed a deep emotional and psychological bond – the result of several nights chatting by the campfire. In the film, Ennis is so uptight he hardly ever utters a word, and when he does talk – in a thick-as-mud drawl – he does it through his teeth, making the little he says nearly unintelligible.
Besides manly good looks, the on-screen Ennis doesn’t offer much else that would justify Jack’s strong attraction to him. Additionally, I saw no sparks between the two men that could have indicated any sort of mutual carnal interest. Thus, when Ennis and Jack’s first moment of physical closeness comes along, I found it as gratuitous as it is absurd.
Staged like similar sequences in hardcore films – a problem also found in Proulx’s story – there’s little that’s tentative about the sexual encounter even though it’s supposed to be their first ever: Ennis, after a little necking, is all ready to go. He unbuttons his pants and penetrates Jack, who, instead of hollering in pain, takes it all in like a real Man of the West – or rather, like any number of well-rehearsed adult-film stars. Mercifully, the scene ends before Jack can moan “gun’s goin’ off” as he does in the story. (Those who think of sex between cowboys as a “subversive” novelty surely have never heard of gay erotica.)
The next day, Ennis and Jack are in love. Magnificent landscapes and great sex can truly work wonders in the human heart. Even so, the two young men are loath to think of themselves as “queer.” But really, aside from some activists who welcome the label, who can blame them?
Once their summer job is over, Ennis and Jack part ways. During a brief reunion four years later, Jack is ready to set up house with Ennis, who refuses because he is terrified of being found out. That phobia comes from a backstory in which Ennis, while still a boy, is shown a purported gay man who had been tortured and killed by bigoted Westerners – as if such trauma would be necessary to justify a small-town man’s desire to keep his homosexual inclinations hidden deeply in the closet. (In a shameless plot contrivance, Ennis’ fears turn out to be, let’s say, potentially prophetic.)
Jack’s frustration with Ennis leads to excessive drinking and to the search for companionship elsewhere. “You have no idea how bad it gets!” he yells at Ennis in the film’s climactic confrontation scene. “… I wish I knew how to quit you.” Such all-consuming yearning is meant to be the result of a communion of souls, but that communion is nowhere to be found in the interplay between the two characters. Part of the problem lies with Ang Lee’s direction.
First I must say that Lee, who has dealt with similar themes before in The Wedding Banquet and The Ice Storm, does a generally good job in terms of skirting melodramatic pitfalls and, with the assistance of Rodrigo Prieto’s miraculous lenses, in capturing the magic of Brokeback Mountain and the vastness of the American West. The film’s first shot, later repeated under radically different circumstances, is one of the most striking ever put on screen.
Nonetheless, Lee fails to bring out the heat of passion when Ennis and Jack are together, and their inner emptiness when they are not. Their longing for one another is communicated through the dialogue, a handful of moments (e.g., Ennis’ throwing up after their first separation), and a couple of bear hugs and kisses, but it’s noticeably absent from the film’s atmosphere until its final sequence. To be fair, I’d also say that the two leading men are equally to blame for those shortcomings.
Much of the publicity surrounding Brokeback Mountain focused on presenting Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as hetero off-screen studs playing homo on-screen studs, as if “playing gay” – a couple of rough kissing scenes and a simulated sex act – is per se both a display of thespian courage and an example of great screen acting. Whatever those actors’ sexual orientation, perhaps it’s true that they were brave to tackle those roles.
That said, in their scenes together Ledger and Gyllenhaal are utterly incapable of conveying, whether through a sparkle in the eye or a quivering in the voice, the passion that Ennis and Jack are supposed to feel for one another. The chemistry between the two stars, an absolute must in such a film, is painfully lacking in Brokeback Mountain. (For real chemistry between two guys on-screen, check out Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke in Stephen Frears’ 1985 drama My Beautiful Laundrette, or Yehuda Levi and Ohad Knoller in Eytan Fox’s 2002 – talk about subversive – anti-military drama Yossi & Jagger.)
There are other problems with Ledger’s and Gyllenhaal’s performances as well, though of the two Ledger comes off best. Despite a few lapses, most notably during Ennis’ emotional confrontation with Jack near the film’s finale, the Australian Ledger creates a convincing Wyoming cowpoke, and his dramatic range is at times quite impressive. Ledger’s final moment in Brokeback Mountain, for instance, is nothing short of masterful. On the down side, he never makes his archetypal silent cowboy either mysterious or alluring enough to justify Jack’s perennial longing for him.
Gyllenhaal, for his part, succeeds only in showing the earnest efforts of a mellow big-city actor trying to pass for a rough cowboy. I should add that in Proulx’s short story, those men are not only truly rough, they’re also unattractive. Ennis and Jack were considerably softened and prettified for the screen.
Moreover, the role of the emotionally torn Jack Twist is way beyond Gyllenhaal’s range. When Jack has a climactic outburst during his last meeting with Ennis at Brokeback, Gyllenhaal gives his all but, tripping on his erratic Texanized accent, he fails to fully express Jack’s final eruption of anger, sadness, and despair. Also, though in their mid-20s, neither actor is at all believable as a teenager in the beginning of the film or as a man in his late 30s at the film’s conclusion. (The poor make-up job, especially on Gyllenhaal’s face, doesn’t help matters any.)
Ironically, Ledger has great chemistry in his scenes with (his then real-life partner) Michelle Williams, who, as Ennis’ frustrated wife, Alma, provides Brokeback Mountain with its most touching performance.
Williams’ reaction when she sees her husband kissing Jack in front of their apartment building is a classic moment of great screen acting; the actress alone gives pathos to a scene that could easily have derailed into farce. As a plus, she makes palpable Alma’s sense of confusion – knowing too much while being incapable of expressing her feelings to her husband or possibly even to herself. The reasons for her silence are never explained, but the actress carries her simmering resentment with such dignity that her motives almost don’t matter.
As cuckolded wife number two, Lureen, Anne Hathaway has some good light moments at first, but once her character goes dramatic she is thrown completely out of her element. On the other hand, Randy Quaid is outstanding in a few brief scenes as the tough rancher who gets Ennis and Jack their fateful summer job, while Kate Mara does a lovely turn as Ennis’ eldest daughter, Alma Jr.
One way of looking at Brokeback Mountain is to interpret the feelings those men have for one another as a love less for who they really are than for what they represent. For starters, McMurtry, Ossana, and Lee make sure we understand that heterosexual couples lead a hellish life; what with obnoxious in-laws, bratty little children, unfulfilling jobs, and worst of all, no one around the house with whom tough guys can do a little macho wrestling. (Michelle Williams’ Woman of the West is just too damn soft for such fun stuff. I swear, where was Mercedes McCambridge when you most needed her?)
Also telling is that in Proulx’s short story the two lovers never return to Brokeback Mountain after their initial meeting, though the locale remains the symbol of their thwarted relationship. In the film, they return to that serenely beautiful landscape each time they can escape from their respective real lives. One “negative” question the film avoids is: How long would Ennis and Jack’s love have lasted had they chosen to spend more than a couple of times a year together?
Instead, Brokeback Mountain opts for a “positive” – though, admittedly, equally valid – question. How much more fulfilling would have been the lives of those two cowboys had the pathologically uptight Ennis gotten over his fear of coming out of the closet? Even if their relationship failed to last, they would at least have known that they did try.
In the film’s heart-wrenching final scene, as Gustavo Santaolalla’s strings play one of the saddest slow crescendos on record, Ennis is by himself in his trailer, with the life he chose not to live represented by two blood-stained shirts and a faded picture of Brokeback Mountain hanging on his closet door. Outside, out of his reach, lies a patch of green grass.
“What other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart!” Nathaniel Hawthorne inquires in The House of the Seven Gables. “What jailer so inexorable as one’s self!” The uninvolving Ennis & Jack romance may form the core of Brokeback Mountain, but what gives the film its emotional resonance is the underlying tragedy of a self-imposed unrealized life. Through Ennis’ self-imprisonment, Brokeback Mountain reminds us all – regardless of sexual orientation – of the opportunities we have chosen to miss in our lives in order to conform. And of how our existence has been diminished as a result.
Photos: Focus Features
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005). Dir.: Ang Lee. Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Kate Mara. Scr.: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; from E. Annie Proulx’s short story.
Awards and nominations
Brokeback Mountain awards and nominations list
Unless otherwise stated, all awards/nominations for Brokeback Mountain are for the year 2005. (Image: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain.)
Academy Awards: 3 wins (best director, Ang Lee; best adapted screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; best original score, Gustavo Santaolalla);
- 5 additional nominations (best film; best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams; best cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto)
American Cinema Editors: 1 nomination (best-edited dramatic feature, Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor)
American Society of Cinematographers: 1 nomination (best cinematography - feature film, Rodrigo Prieto)
Australian Film Institute (AFI) (2006): 1 win (best actor - foreign film, Heath Ledger)
Boston Society of Film Critics: 2 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee);
- also, runner-up for best actor (Heath Ledger)
British Academy Awards: 4 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal; best adapted screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana);
- 5 additional nominations (best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams; best cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto; best editing, Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor; best music, Gustavo Santaolalla)
- 5 additional nominations (best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal; best writing, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; best composer, Gustavo Santaolalla; best song, “A Love That Will Never Grow Old,” by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bernie Taupin)
Central Ohio Film Critics Association: 3 wins (best actor, Heath Ledger; actor of the year, Heath Ledger, also for Casanova, Lords of Dogtown, and The Brothers Grimm; best screenplay,Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana);
- also runner-up for best film, best director (Ang Lee), and best formal design
César (French Academy) Awards (2006): 1 nomination (best foreign film)
Chicago Film Critics Association: 2 wins (best cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto; best original score, Gustavo Santaolalla);
- 6 additional nominations (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams; best screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana)
Dallas-Ft. Worth Film Critics Association: 4 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; best cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto);
- also, runner-up for best actor (Heath Ledger) and best supporting actress (Michelle Williams), and third place for best supporting actor (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Danish Film Critics Association Bodil Awards: 1 nomination (best U.S. film)
David di Donatello (Italian Academy) Awards: 1 nomination (best foreign film)
Directors Guild of America: 1 win (best director, Ang Lee)
European Film Awards: 1 nomination (Prix Screen International for best foreign film)
Florida Film Critics Circle: 4 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; best cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto)
Golden Globes: 4 wins (best film - drama; best director, Ang Lee; best screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; best song, “A Love That Will Never Grow Old,” by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bernie Taupin);
- 3 additional nominations (best actor - drama, Heath Ledger; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams; best music, Gustavo Santaolalla)
Gotham Awards: 2 nominations (best film; best ensemble)
Independent Film Spirit: 2 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee);
- 2 additional nominations (best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams)
Iowa Film Critics: 2 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee)
Las Vegas Film Critics Society: 4 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best actor, Heath Ledger; best score, Gustavo Santaolalla)
London Film Critics’ Circle: 2 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee);
- 2 additional nominations (best actor, Heath Ledger; best screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: 2 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee);
- also, runner-up for best actor (Heath Ledger)
National Board of Review: 2 wins (best director, Ang Lee; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal);
- also, one of the year’s top-ten films
National Society of Film Critics: Third place for best actor (Heath Ledger)
Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain
New York Film Critics Circle: 3 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best actor, Heath Ledger)
New York Film Critics Online: One of the year’s top-ten films
Norwegian Film Institute Amanda Awards: 1 nomination (best foreign film)
Online Film Critics Society: 2 wins (best adapted screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; best score, Gustavo Santaolalla);
- 6 additional nominations (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams; best cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto)
Phoenix Film Critics Society: 5 wins (best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams; best adapted screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; best cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto);
- also, one of the year’s top-ten films
Producers Guild of America: 1 win (best production, Diana Ossana and James Schamus)
St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association: 4 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best actor, Heath Ledger; best screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana)
San Diego Film Critics Society: 1 win (body of work award, Jake Gyllenhaal – also for Jarhead and Proof)
San Francisco Film Critics Circle: 3 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best actor, Heath Ledger)
Screen Actors Guild: 4 nominations (best ensemble; best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actor, Jake Gyllenhaal; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams)
Sight & Sound: 1 win (best film)
Southeastern Film Critics Association: 3 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee; best adapted screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana)
USC Scripter Award: 1 nomination (best adapted screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, from E. Annie Proulx’s short story)
Utah Film Critics Society: 2 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee); also, runner-up for best actor (Heath Ledger)
Vancouver Film Critics Circle: 2 wins (best film; best director, Ang Lee);
- 2 additional nominations (best actor, Heath Ledger; best supporting actress, Michelle Williams)
Venice Film Festival: 1 win (best film)
Writers Guild of America: 1 win (best adapted screenplay, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana)
E. Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” was originally published in the October 13, 1997, issue of The New Yorker. A prologue was added to the tale when it was included in Proulx’s collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Proulx won a Pulitzer for her 1994 novel, The Shipping News.
“’Brokeback Mountain’ was/is one of a number of stories examining rural Western social situations. I was trained as an historian (French Annales school), and most of my writing is focused on rural North American hinterlands. The story was not ‘inspired,’ but the result of years of subliminal observation and thought, eventually brought to the point of writing.” E. Annie Proulx, interviewed by Matthew Testa for Planet Jackson Hole.
Long before Brokeback Mountain, there was Song of the Loon. Directed by Andrew Herbert, and with a cast of unknowns (including John Iverson, Morgan Royce, Lancer Ward, Jon Evans, and Brad Fredericks), this no-budget 1970 film also revolves around a male homosexual romance set in the American West. Richard Amory (a nom de plume, as per the Arsenal Pulp Press) wrote the screenplay, based on his own 1966 novel.
As per the IMDb, Andrew Herbert worked as a sound editor in several films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and as a film editor in the first half of the ’70s. (Among his credits is the 1975 dramatic comedy Mr. Sycamore, starring Jason Robards, Sandy Dennis, and Jean Simmons.)
During its first weekend of release in five North American theaters, Brokeback Mountain earned US$109,485 per screen. According to Boxofficemojo.com, only 9 other films (all animated) had higher per-screen grosses since such tracking began in 1982. Adjusting for inflation, Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Evita (1996) had higher per-screen averages, though they were playing in only two theaters. (The fewer the number of theaters, the easier it is for a film to achieve higher per-screen figures.)
“For me, Brokeback isn’t rebellious at all. It’s a very ordinary movie. People call it groundbreaking or what not. It puts a lot of pressure on me. But I didn’t feel this way when I was making the movie. This is the way gays are. It’s just that they have been distorted. When two people are in love and are scared, that’s the way they are.” Director Ang Lee, quoted in the Associated Press. In the article, Lee expresses his disappointment that Brokeback Mountain failed to win the Academy Award for best picture.
According to a Taiwan News editorial, when Ang Lee won the best director Academy Award, the People’s Republic of China’s media made no mention of the fact that he was born in Taiwan. The director was described as “Chinese” or “Chinese-American.” The editorial added that Mainland China’s media “refused to report or dubbed out the director’s expression of gratitude of ‘Thank you, Taiwan!’ to his homeland upon receiving his Oscar.”
“We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good. And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash – excuse me – Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver.” Author E. Annie Proulx in “Blood on the Red Carpet” for The Guardian.
“What you didn’t see [at the Academy Awards]: Backstage workers gasp as Crash wins over favorite Brokeback Mountain. When presenter Jack Nicholson is asked if he is surprised by the win, he says, ‘I didn’t expect it because you heard so much about Brokeback,’ before confiding, ‘and that’s who I voted for.’” “The Academy Awards show you never saw” in USA Today.
The GLBT Community Center of Utah asked for a boycott of the holdings of Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, whose Jordan Commons Megaplex pulled out Brokeback Mountain right before the film was to open.
Among the films deemed morally acceptable by the Jordan Megaplex powers-that-be were the gory horror movie Hostel, the raunchy (hetero) sex comedy Grandma Boy, and even Thomas Bezucha’s very pro-gay The Family Stone, which probably passed the megaplex’s censorship board because it has no homosex scenes in it.
The Utah Film Critics Society was one of the many US-based critics’ groups that picked Brokeback Mountain as the best film of 2005.
Despite fierce opposition from Christian churches, Brokeback Mountain opened at one movie theater in Jamaica in late February 2006. The picture was given an adult 21 rating.
Brokeback Mountain was banned in the People’s Republic of China. In Taiwan, however, the film became a hit, earning more than US$1 million (by early March 2006) as per Taiwan News.
According to a Apr. 8, 2006, Reuters report, “a Massachusetts correctional officer is being disciplined for showing the gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain to inmates at the state’s largest prison because his boss determined that the film includes content inappropriate for a prison setting.”
Who Killed Jack Twist?
That said, Ang Lee directed Anne Hathaway in such a way that Lureen seems to be lying. One could see Lee’s touch as one of welcome ambiguity or as a contrived way of showing that Ennis may well have been right all along – a relatively open gay man is a dead man.
Some people have wondered if Lureen’s father ordered Jack killed. That seems highly unlikely, as it is implied in the film that her father has died – that’s why she becomes the head of the family business. In E. Annie Proulx’s short story, it is stated that Lureen’s father dies.
Ennis’ (barely audible) last words are: “Jack, I swear. . .”
Brokeback Mountain opera
June 2008 update: Variety reports that the New York City Opera has commissioned Charles Wuorinen to compose an opera based on Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” the source of Ang Lee’s acclaimed 2005 film.
“Ever since encountering Annie Proulx’s extraordinary story I have wanted to make an opera on it,” Wuorinen was quoted as saying. The composer had previously been commissioned by the New York City Opera for the 2004 production of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which was based on Salman Rushdie’s novel.
The Brokeback Mountain opera is scheduled to premiere in the 2013 spring season.