Pride Month: Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Picture it: Southern Maryland, 2005. A small Catholic high school.
Brokeback Mountain was a joke. The gay cowboy movie. People in my class made fun of it. The idea of a movie where two cowboys—gasp!—kiss and maybe bang was a joke. The reaction at my high school was reflective of the larger narrative around the movie. While it was beloved critically, and made boffo money, the film had its share of ridicule. The larger narrative just didn’t know what to do with it. Brokeback Mountain is a strange film for the mid-2000s America. It was a gay movie, but not the kind of gay movie the nation was used to. The film is sweet, heartbreaking, romantic, tragic, and complicated.
It’s no secret that male homosexuality can be a punchline in media. Male homosexuality is threatening, since so much of male pride comes from sexual domination. The idea of “submitting” to another man is scary. That’s why it is easy to portray gay men as sassy and effeminate, nonsexual props for straight women. Brokeback Mountain was a landmark movie at the time—it showed rugged, “masculine” men falling in love and lust. While both Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) are forced to perform heterosexuality, when they are alone together they express their desire and longing for each other. Brokeback Mountain was about two men discovering feelings for each other, feelings they didn’t even know how to express. Such a brazen romantic story between these two Western archetypes was almost unheard of at the time. Gay men lived in the cities on shows like Will & Grace. It was easy to accept male homosexuality because it could be seen as an Other. But the film takes two men who represent the John Wayne style ofAmerican masculinity and presents them as gay. That juxtaposition is partially why people just didn’t know how to react.
I am pretty sure I lied to my parents about going to see it (they might be reading this). For one thing, Brokeback Mountain was Rated R, and I was only 16. Also, I was afraid they would forbid me from seeing it. There was a lot of talk in the news and within the community about the film pushing the mythical “gay agenda” (you know, living peaceful lives). There were petitions, and calls for boycotts from media watchdog groups. Conservatives were speaking out against the movie. Randy Quaid sued the producers for misrepresenting the film’s chances at box office success and award potential; I guess he didn’t want to be associated with a gay movie if people were actually going to see it. There were scandals about the marketing—either the ads were too gay or not gay enough. It was a controversial picture when first released, but that seems crazy now, because this is an unassuming movie. It’s poetic and intimate, and not self-aggrandizing at all.
Brokeback Mountain is one of the most serenely gorgeous films. Director Ang Lee is a master of stunning, meaningful compositions; he and Oscar nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capture both the sweeping vistas of the mountain and the claustrophobic interiors to brilliant effect. The acting ensemble, including Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, deliver sensitive, human performances. This is a movie that could easily turn into false, manipulative drama. Instead it’s touching, emotional, and thoughtful. Ang Lee is a profoundly beautiful director. In his hands, the film is breathtaking and deeply moving.
That Brokeback Mountain didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar is almost criminal. It was an unforgettable experience, with an almost immediate cultural impact and the loss was met with instant backlash. We can only guess why the Academy didn’t choose the film as the winner. Maybe it didn't make voters feel as good about themselves as the eventual winner Crash. It doesn’t have a happy ending, nor does its sad ending pat anyone on the back.
Carol, the 2015 Todd Haynes lesbian romantic drama, didn’t score nominations for Best Picture or Best Director—perhaps that film’s complete rejection of the patriarchal order turned voters off. Of course, the next year would see Moonlight take the top prize, somewhat course correcting the Academy. Brokeback Mountain should have won in 2006. It’s a crucial movie, beautifully made and rather heartfelt. Even without the win, however, Ang Lee's film has a lasting legacy.