The already-famous hot gay cowboy sex arrives fairly early in Brokeback Mountain. Without spoiling any of the cowpoking—and really, not since The Crying Game have genitals played such an important and odd role in a plot—it’s safe to share that it’s really fairly graphic and accurate. For Bound, the Wachowski siblings had to recruit sexpert Susie Bright to coach Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly on their girl-on-girl sex scenes, and that was probably the last time same-sex sex looked so totally right onscreen.
But for all the hubbub about the getting it on, little doggies, and for all the suppositions that straight men in the theaters will start flipping out as if they were having their eyelids taped open Clockwork Orange–style for a proctologist’s training video, and for all the endless tasteless puns on the title of Brokeback Mountain (and poor Senator Brownback!), the flick’s masterful man-wrangling-on-the-range isn’t what’s remarkable about the film, the much-anticipated unveiling of which will begin on Dec. 9.
What is remarkable is that the steamy-sex-in-a-tent-on-the-range scene is where the movie establishes that these two fellers are in love. Not deciding whether to fall in love, like Shopgirl. Not intellectualizing the meaning of love, like The Squid and the Whale. In fact, Brokeback Mountain may be the first film to come out of Hollywood since God knows when which doesn’t whimper over the difficulties of finding love, assessing love, complaining about love or denouncing love.
Our Brokeback dudes, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, are in love from Scene 2, and never a doubt about the romance itself enters into any range-rider’s mind. It’s how society treats lovers, and what being in love does to them, that is the central concern of Brokeback Mountain.
And that’s all just more than a little weird and alien—especially after all the endless stream of heartbreak and trauma and quibbling and the being In Her Shoes of modern Hollywood.
“I find there’s not a lot of mystery left in stories between guys and girls; it’s all been done or seen before,” is one really quite strange thought attributed to Heath Ledger in the Focus Features press package for the film.
And yet—haven’t we seen this love story before? The Hollywood Reporter quoted a quip that Brokeback Mountain is the gay Gone with the Wind (uh, if that phrase isn’t redundant). As in that era of films, which depicted sure and determined—if often doomed—love, Brokeback dismisses contemporary, over-therapized, narcissistic questions about love. Hi, Romeo and Juliet, anyone?
Brokeback Mountain is not the movie that tells the most shocking contemporary love story to come up from behind on the Cineplex. It’s a place—pictured by the end of the movie in a postcard, as though it were a long-ago taken and unrecoverable honeymoon—where love has no doubts, where it’s protected from its enemies. The small canvas tent where Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist fall in love is an unspoiled emotional utopia, a truer if slightly reductive version of the belabored myths of “the West.”
But closer to home, the tales of crusty Manhattan critics spending two hours weeping in the screening rooms are flooding the city; while at a screening yesterday a few could be heard sniffling, one of New York’s most jaded reporters admitted afterward that he found it impossible to be cynical about the film—and this admission was somehow even more shocking than tears.
Could it be that this is the first film since Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers, both of which present a certain amount of irony—and maybe, to really push it, Titanic—in which any of us has been presented with an actual operational model of love? Even Brokeback’s geographic neighbor, Badlands, cheated us out of conscious devotion.
And so, like Titanic, doesn’t Brokeback Mountain have more to do with the ever-strengthening audience of women? This isn’t really about gay sex at all in some ways: It’s emotional porn, an array of hot, spread-eagled men with feelings. You could make the oh-so-late-90’s case that our gay cowboys are just women being battered by the mean man of Homophobic Society. In any case, it’s men being victimized by society for being gay (or, at least, for being in love with a man), which superimposes an erotics of powerlessness on the chiseled rodeo riders. It’s the horse opera become pomo soap opera.
Brokeback Mountain is being hailed as a risky vanguard. An incredibly well-crafted publicity machine has set the film up as the Oscar-worthy event of the year—this year’s The English Patient—long before it hit theaters. Harvey Weinstein couldn’t have done this kind of hype better himself— though he would have cut 20 minutes from the flick, and he probably would have been right. The film will be rolled out in cunning stages: From the coasts will come 16 markets in mid-December, 20 more on Jan. 6, and then 55 more in mid- and late January—and on it goes, with 38 more markets opening the film in early February. It’s a masterful plan for hype-building house-packing.
And all the while, Hollywood is twisting its arm to slap itself on the back for its forward-thinking politics. Go, team gay mafia!
But the eight years it took to make Brokeback suggests something else: Hollywood isn’t leading, it’s lagging. Newsweek, in its Nov. 21 issue, described how Hollywood producers thought playing gay would trash the careers of Mr. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Ledger when they took their parts. Yeah, they’re way ahead of the social curve out there.
Screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana bought the rights to the E. Annie Proulx story themselves shortly after its publication in The New Yorker in 1997. They worked that screenplay up one side of town and down the other. Mr. Gyllenhaal met with a director—not Ang Lee, who was attached after dispensing with his surely painful Hulk duties—about Brokeback back when he was a teenager and too young to take the part he eventually played.
And for all the gay-sex chatter, there’s actually only about 38 seconds of onscreen man-wrangling in Brokeback Mountain, roughly about as much time as Richard Gere and Julia Roberts spent doing it in Pretty Woman. There’s some making out, and of course that early and really rather hoo-doggie spit-in-the-hand cornholing consummation—enough, in short, to cause most straight guys to hit the theater ceilings and leave the cinema with a possibly quite real sexual crisis. But for all the publicity talk, you’d think this was on the order of Roseanne making out with Mariel Hemingway—a TV spectacle, of course, recalled more for its improbability than its Sapphic zest. (And that was aired, of course, in 1994, roughly 9,000 years ago in Hollywood time.)
If Hollywood’s so damn liberated, well then, what’s everyone so worked up about?
And what exactly took eight years to get the cowboy-on-cowboy action into the multiplexes? And why has the phrase “gay cowboy” turned out to be the ultimate goldmine in movie publicity? (Try it: “Gay sanitation workers” just doesn’t have the same oomph.)
For the latter, at least, there’s something of an answer in Jarhead, this season’s other Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle. Witness the women streaming from the movie theaters fanning themselves not over the film’s careful ideological arguments, which unfortunately don’t exist, but over the specter of naked Jake sweating it out in the desert with other naked men, playing football in the buff, and generally providing an Abercrombie & Fitch atmospherics to the psycho-macho antics of the Iraq War the movie depicts. It’s the women who are picking up the erotic in Jarhead—and in The Dying Gaul as well—and the women who’ll get it in Brokeback.
In Japan, a fascination by women readers with gay male fiction morphed into a whole genre of female-consumed manga books, called yaoi, which all feature man-on-man love interests. Or check out African-American women reading the serious gay sex scenes in E. Lynn Harris books on the subway. It is directly from these margins that Brokeback Mountain mines, which makes it official: Brokeback Mountain declares that boy-on-boy is the new girl-on-girl.
Sure, some women literally just like to watch guys get it on. But there’s a whole lot more who get off on watching a man cry—and not in that nasty Last Seduction way. For women Brokeback Mountain viewers, there’s sympathy, empathy, romance and—well, yes—just a teeny Myra Breckinridgian overtone of in-the-butt proto-feminist vengeance.
But more overtly, Brokeback takes those Hollywood manly legends and turns them on their ass. All those Paul Newmans towering shirtless, looking gorgeous and unreachable; all those Steve McQueens who would never trade their trademark cold glint in the eye for a sensitive word: Brokeback turns the 70’s macho movie—like Mr. McMurtry’s own Hud—inside out in a way that Dog Day Afternoon just wasn’t ready to do.
And the producers are now ready to triumphantly take advantage of that, socially late as they may be. Focus Features has even bifurcated their public-relations campaign—a separate company is handling “gay P.R.,” even holding a screening this week for “gay influencers,” whoever, and whatever, they are. (It may yet be proven true that all the real gay influencers are actually in the closet, and probably therefore didn’t attend the screening.) But apart from the big gay roundup, surely the real scheme is to rope in Oprah and her legions.
Box-office hopes for the sustained invasion of mid-America over the next three months are high—not that it matters, as the foreign sales have already helped the flick recoup. But more importantly, what could easily have been a humiliating two-hour-and-15-minute episode of tummysticks-on-the-range in the hands of a lesser director and writers is saved through the sheer coldness of the combined one-two of Ang Lee and Larry McMurtry.
But even these intrepid fellows fall short of the strength of their characters. The event that serves as the wrenching climax of the movie is withheld from the viewer. In a movie where the camera is perfectly omniscient, the scene that sends the movie down to its darkest depths is vague, gauzy and wide open to interpretation. It’s almost as if they just didn’t have the balls to make the kinds of hard choices that their gay cowboys would have. Still, it’s because of the Arctic chill that surrounds them, like that of a night alone in the wilds, that they let all this softness come flowing out.