Two weeks ago, Ang Lee showed his new film to an audience in Los Angeles, and afterward he stuck around to answer questions from the crowd. Director Q&As are pretty common in the movie industry, and Lee--who won an Oscar for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and has directed such acclaimed films as "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility"--has done more than his share. But something strange happened this time--the same thing that happens almost every time Lee screens "Brokeback Mountain." "People don't have many questions ," he says. "Most of the time, they just stand up and tell me how they feel." When they're still crying, he already knows.
Based on the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx ("The Shipping News"), "Brokeback" is the tale of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two ranch hands who, in the summer of 1963, are hired to herd sheep on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain. There, separated from the rest of the world, their laconic friendship develops, almost by accident, into a sexual relationship. As the summer ends, the two men are forced to separate, and they discover that their feelings for each other are stronger than they imagined. Jack dreams of buying a ranch together. Ennis thinks they'll be killed if anyone suspects their relationship. And so they marry women and have children, and for 20 years live apart, seeing each other only on rare camping trips, trying to hold on to the innocence and beauty of that first summer on the mountain. Inevitably, the longing and frustration, the years of repression, lead to a devastating conclusion.
Proulx's story caused a sensation when it appeared in The New Yorker eight years ago. Its raw masculinity, spare dialogue and lonely imagery subverted the myth of the American cowboy and obliterated gay stereotypes. It also felt like a sledgehammer to the chest. "This is a deep, permanent human condition, this need to be loved and to love," says Proulx from her home in Wyoming. "While I was working on this story, I was occasionally close to tears. I felt guilty that their lives were so difficult, yet there was nothing I could do about it. It couldn't end any other way."
The film, written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, is a near-perfect adaptation of Proulx's work. It has already earned the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and is almost certain to be an Oscar contender. More than that, though, "Brokeback" feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people's ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, it's already upended decades of Hollywood conventional wisdom.
The day Jake Gyllenhaal was cast in "Brokeback," the chatter around the industry was not about what a wise choice he'd made. "It's the most stupid move he could make," said one top producer over lunch that afternoon. "It'll alienate his teen-girl fan base and could kill his career. What a waste." It's always been considered risky, if not career suicide, for actors with A-list aspirations to play gay roles. Tom Hanks's performance in "Philadelphia" helped a little, but even Hanks didn't kiss another man on screen. Gyllenhaal and Ledger don't dodge it. The kissing and the sex scenes are fierce and full-blooded. But if the actors were taking a risk, they sure don't seem to think so. "I never thought twice about it," Ledger insists. "For one thing, I never felt like I had anything at stake, and I think if you make decisions based on society's opinions, you're going to make boring choices. What terrified me was self-doubt. I knew that if I was going to do justice to this character, to this story and to this form of love, I was really going to have to mature as an actor, and as a person."
There's no doubt he rose to the challenge. It is, without question, his most powerful performance ever. Far from killing Ledger's career, which was in trouble after a string of failures, the movie has reignited it. Gyllenhaal isn't exactly hurting for work either. "They were like the beta-testing guys," says James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features, who has produced all of Lee's films and is releasing "Brokeback." "They've had to go through the endless questions about 'So, what was it like to kiss a guy?'"
Yes, they get asked about the sex a lot. "I'm amazed, really," Gyllenhaal says, laughing. "Everybody is soooo interested in it." And their conversations with journalists have given them fresh insight into straight-male psychology. After seeing the movie, Gyllenhaal says, male reporters will enter a room to interview him and almost always follow the same routine. "They come in and they're all, like, 'I just want you to know I'm straight'," he says, and laughs. If they've been moved by the film, he says, they often rationalize it by saying things like "Well, it's really more of a friendship." No, it isn't. "It's a love story," Gyllenhaal says. "They're two men having sex. There's nothing hidden there." Ledger has a theory about why the movie makes some men uncomfortable. "I suspect it's a fear that they are going to enjoy it," he says. "They don't understand that you are not going to become sexually attracted to men by recognizing the beauty of a love story between two men."
That discomfort would seem to make the movie difficult to market. When the trailer plays in theaters where there are a lot of young men in the audience, it's often met with snickers or outright laughter. How do you get those guys to see the movie? You don't. "If you have a problem with the subject matter, that's your problem, not mine," Schamus says. "It would be great if you got over your problem, but I'm not sitting here trying to figure out how to help you with it." In an early meeting, Schamus told Lee that, from a marketing standpoint, they were making this film for one core audience. "Yes, of course," Lee said. "The gay audience." No, Schamus said. "Women."
When it came time to design the poster for the film, Schamus didn't research posters of famous Westerns for ideas. He looked at the posters of the 50 most romantic movies ever made. "If you look at our poster," he says, "you can see traces of our inspiration, 'Titanic'." Still, questions remain about whether the film will play in rural America, and whether it can make a profit if only women and gay men go to see it. But Schamus says that by selling off the international distribution rights, Focus has already broken even on the film. "Literally, if your mom and my mom go to the theater, we're in profit," he says, laughing.
And it's likely that more than our mothers will buy tickets. The constant stream of positive word of mouth is turning it into a must-see for film lovers. More encouraging to the filmmakers, however, is that it's often having a profound effect on people--even the most seemingly cynical. At the Toronto Film Festival, Lee and the cast faced off against a room of reporters who had just seen the film. One blogger raised his hand and stood up. He didn't have a question, he said. He wanted to apologize. "For the last year on my Web site I've been calling this 'the gay-cowboy movie'," he said. "I just want you to know that I'm not going to be calling it that anymore."