Happy Brokeback Mountain Weekend,
The movie is now out and the blogosphere, along with the media, is going crazy. In jumping on the bandwagon, I offer you some of my favorite Brokeback stories (I’m not providing links because they are abundant – google it):
Although some unheard-of Wyoming playwright says she’s never met a gay cowboy, Annie Proulx based her story on her observations:
Proulx wrote the story about eight years ago, and said it was “generated by years and years of subliminal observation. But the incident that actually made me start writing it was one night when I was in a bar in Sheridan, Wyoming—the Mint bar. There was a ranch hand I used to see. This guy was back leaning against the wall by the pool tables. The bar was packed with good-looking women, and he wasn’t looking at them—he was watching the guys….He was about sixty, and he watched them with a kind of subdued hunger that made me wonder if he was country gay.” She counted back from his age and decided to set the story in the ‘60s, when he would have been a young man.
Proulx didn’t expect the tale to have much audience and was surprised when the New Yorker, not known for stories in rural settings – much less those with gay cowboys, snapped it up and printed it on October 13,1997.
On October 12, 1998, Matthew Sheppard was beaten to death 30 miles from where Annie Proulx lives. Proulx was called for jury duty but did not serve.
When the story was published it made an immediate strong and lasting impression. Randy Quaid, who has a supporting role in the movie, stole the New Yorker from his gym to finish the story.
Diana Ossana had insomnia and read the story late one night and cried. The next day she showed it to Larry McMurty (Hud, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, etc.) and they contacted Proulx the same day to purchase the movie rights. McMurty said “Only twice in my life have I read something that I wish I’d written—this story and Grace Paley’s ‘Faith: In A Tree.’” They did something they had never done, they purchased the rights with their own money.
Proulx has said she wouldn’t have sold the rights to anyone else. The screenplay is faithful to the story both in narrative and in language, although since the short story was only about 30 pages has much more detail and storyline. Proulx said that the three of them had no disagreements over the screenplay. “The journey was seamless,” she said. “I’ve come to the point where I think I wrote half of what they wrote.”
Although Proulx scoffed at the idea that the movie would ever be made, she is pleased with the final product. Proulx says it took years to exercise Jake and Ennis from her mind and after having seen the movie, they rushed right back in. “They were in my head quite ferociously at one time, so once I saw the film I felt I needed an exorcist.”
The screenplay languished for years as various directors and actors became linked and then backed out. It was considered as one of the best unproduced screenplays available. Studios were wary and James Schamus couldn’t pull it together until he became the head of Focus Features and could greenlight it himself.
Ang Lee was given the story and cried when he read it. Although he turned it down, he couldn’t forget the story. After the stress of Crouching Tiger and Hulk, Lee was discouraged and considered giving up directing. His father encouraged him to try again and hearing that Brokeback was still available he jumped at it. His father died two weeks later and Lee channeled his grief into the film.
This is not Lee’s first gay themed film. The Wedding Banquet, which Lee wrote and directed, showed Taiwan’s first same-sex kiss. It was a huge hit in his native country (and remains a favorite of mine).
Schamus told Lee that they were making the film for one core audience. “Yes, of course,” said Lee. “The gay audience”. “No,” said Schamus, “women”. The movie is marketing so closely to the Titanic audience that the movie posters are nearly identical.
Heath Ledger was recommended by McMurty based on his performance in a small role in Monster’s Ball. By now, everyone knows he met Michelle Williams on set and that they just had their first child. Heath has an uncle who is gay, and an arm wresting champion.
Early report suggested that Lee shied away from the sex scenes. This was not the case. Though they are not as graphic as in the book, this is more a result of Lee’s good taste than of any desire to “straighten it up”. Neither actor was hesitant to sexualize their character.
With a $13 million dollar budget, the film has already recovered cost by selling foreign distribution rights. Europe, based on the limited festival viewings, has a great interest in the movie. Wyoming’s tourism board has already noticed an increase in inquiry from European tourists.
A lot of pundits, especially those who tend to edge conservative, hinted that this movie was a huge risk, could hurt the reputations of the actors, and might not be seen in red-state America. Yet newspaper coverage from those areas suggest that there is interest in the movie. As the lament from Buffalo, Wyoming (not a thriving metropolis) goes:
Greg Haas, manager of the Buffalo Theater in Buffalo, says if he can get a copy of the movie, he’ll screen it. But obtaining a hot movie can be difficult for small theaters, which typically aren’t given release priority. It likely wouldn’t show in Buffalo before, say, February.
As to reputations, nearly every pundit agrees that Ledger will be nominated for Oscar’s best actor and the movie will be nominated for best picture. Although it was snubbed by Cannes, it took the golden lion (best picture) at Venice, was the “to see” item at Telluride, and is nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards. Insiders say it is a favorite for Golden Globes. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association just today named it best picture and Lee best director.
Reviews have been universally glowing and considering the budget and content of the movie it has been receiving phenomenal attention. The most respected reviewers have gushed with prominent coverage including the cover of Entertainment magazine. The few lone voices of dissent were from obvious homophobes or gay critics who object to the attention given to this movie while the more ghettoized gay-centric edgy movies are ignored.
Theaters in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco have been selling out. When I couldn’t get tickets for a showing today, I picked some up for tomorrow. Next to me, some straight couple was doing the same (“maybe it’s better, we can eat lunch first and make a day of it”). When the 20-something girls in front of them couldn’t get tickets, they decided on Geisha instead.
Almost no one involved in the writing, production, direction, acting, distribution, or other decision making aspects of this movie is gay (that we know of).
In casting the two lead roles, Lee says that his decisions were based solely on talent, and that the actors’ sexuality was never a factor. But he does admit that sexual identification might have made the process easier. “If they’re gay, I’m happier,” he says. “But I never asked if they were gay. I never checked with their agent.”
Gyllenhaal hears this and gives Lee a sly glance. “That would be job discrimination,” he says.
And, ironically, the lack of “gay perspective” may be what makes this the most anticipated, and perhaps most important, of gay movies. No one tried to inject “gay life” or “gay experiences” into a story that had little of either. Instead what was created and depicted was a human story, a love story, and one that audiences can connect with regardless of where their attractions lie.