How The West Was Won Over
It's a love story (sigh) between men (yikes!) and a western (yawn). So why is everybody talking about Brokeback Mountain?
By RICHARD CORLISS
In certain events that leave their mark on pop culture, there comes a flashpoint when everyone's talking about the same thing. Call it the Bennifer blitz, the Monica moment, the Janet Jackson distraction. Ground down and fed up by news that matters, Americans lock their vision on a movie-star romance, a sex scandal, a Super Bowl oops as tabloid headlines and talk-show hosts exploit and orchestrate the public's evanescent fervor.
In a more benign and constructive way, America is now experiencing the Brokeback breakthrough.
Brokeback Mountain, a western about two cowboys, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the convulsive, frustrating, 20-year love affair they endure, has quickly become the favorite topic of every late-night TV host. Jay Leno imagined Clint Eastwood and John Wayne as gay caballeros. Jon Stewart displayed a doctored Brokeback poster with Senators Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd. Letterman's website invited fans to submit their own "Top 10 Rejected Titles for Brokeback Mountain." (Among the winners: Oklahomo, Little Bathhouse on the Prairie and The Good, the Bad and the Fabulous!) Jack's plaintive cry to Ennis, "I wish I knew how to quit you!", is already on T shirts.
Critics' groups had heaped awards on the stars, director Ang Lee, producers Diana Ossana and James Schamus and screenwriters Ossana and Larry McMurtry. The scrolls gave way to statuettes, handed out at the Golden Globes in front of almost 19 million TV viewers. Brokeback won for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. The film is the front runner for the Oscars. No film is even second. Brokeback has sucked all the helium out of the balloons.
The next step is to turn buzz into bucks, cachet into cash, and Brokeback has been doing just that. Opened in a mere six theaters Dec. 9, the film has expanded its screens each week, to 683 last week--still fewer than one-third of the number for Glory Road. Yet Brokeback outgrossed that movie and all others for three nights after the Golden Globes. Late last week, it had amassed $34 million--a take that could easily reach $100 million between the announcement of the Academy Award nominations (Jan. 31) and Oscar night (Mar. 5). It has now expanded to 1,190 screens, but theater owners are impatient. "They want us on 2,000 screens right away," says Schamus, sounding like the chef of a family restaurant that just got a four-star rave in a national newspaper. Schamus is double lucky. Besides producing the film, he is a co-president of the film's distributor, Focus Features, a Universal subsidiary.
The film has managed to carry the luster of its daring, as one of the rare Hollywood movies that are frank about gay sexuality, without provoking the sustained ire of social and political conservatives. Says Jack Foley, Focus' chief of distribution: "America didn't resist the film for a second." Well, maybe for a second: the other night on CNN's Larry King when conservative radio host Janet Parshall said, "What we're witnessing, Larry, is the homosexualizing of America." And there are plenty of liberal straight guys like Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, who wrote a puckish Op-Ed in the New York Times, confessing, "Cowboys would have to lasso me, drag me into the theater and tie me to the seat" for him to see it. But most of those who disapprove of Brokeback--or think they would if they saw it--have curbed their outrage. They believe it's a serious, sensitive movie.
All that for a gay western art film--a triple whammy of unfashionable genres. Brokeback is slow and studied. Jack and Ennis, who come together on the range one cold night in 1963, are neither heroes nor villains--and never masters of their fates. They cannot articulate to each other or themselves the love and need they feel. They express their passion as often through roughhousing as with caresses and incursions. "I ain't queer," Ennis insists, and he weds the doelike Alma (Michelle Williams). "Me neither," Jack affirms, and he marries a take-charge Texas gal, Lureen (Anne Hathaway). But during the '60s and '70s, the men keep their furtive rendezvous, betraying their wives and kids. The movie doesn't judge any of that. It observes, compassionately, and that's the secret of its hold on audiences of all social and political persuasions. The movie is heartbreaking because it shows the hearts of two strong men--and their women--in the long process of breaking.
The process of making a movie of Brokeback was long as well. McMurtry and Ossana bought the rights to Annie Proulx's 11-page story soon after it appeared in the New Yorker in 1997 and have nursed it ever since. But for years it seemed one of those Hollywood dreams doomed to eternal turnaround. Directors Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher were attached to it, then cut loose. Finally Lee shook off his grief over his first Hollywood epic, the massive, leaden Hulk, and signed on. The Brokeback story is set in Wyoming and Texas, but it was shot, reportedly for a thrifty $14 million or so, in Alberta. Lee and Schamus submitted the film to the Cannes festival--where their martial-arts collaboration, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, began its stellar career--but were rejected. Not until the fests at Venice (where it won the Golden Lion for best film), Toronto and Telluride, Colo., did the Brokeback team get its first sniff of roses.
Focus had a marketing strategy that may be called a modified limited rollout. It released the film at a pace as measured as Lee's direction. The studio purposefully sent the movie first to urban cinemas, but not necessarily the gay neighborhoods, and relied on word of mouth. But it also spent big, more than the movie cost to make, on marketing, especially to women. It figured the men would go along if they "do not want to look like a complete troglodyte to [their] girlfriends," says Schamus.
The Focus folks didn't conceal the subject matter (as, for instance, Miramax did with The Crying Game). "We never tried to hide what it was, so we never had to play defense," says Schamus. Still, in some cities the ads showed the married couples rather than the two men, implying that the sexual action is mostly hetero. Not everyone is fooled. "Some straight friends said they want to see it, but it's not the type of movie you can go see with the guys," said G.P. Theriot, 31, after seeing the film with his girlfriend in Dallas. "And you can't go alone because people will think you're weird."
And, of course, the movie's stars are all hetero. "No one paying attention will fail to know that Heath Ledger just had a child by the woman who plays his wife," says Larry Gross, director of the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, "and that Jake has been dating Kirsten Dunst." But then, every macho Hollywood star is straight--or must pretend to be. "The film says it's terrible that you couldn't be openly gay as a sheepherder in Montana in the '60s, but you can't be openly gay as a successful young actor in Hollywood in 2006," says Gross. "When an A-list romantic action lead comes out, that will be a Jackie Robinson moment."
So how much of a cultural shift does Brokeback represent? "This is the first sort of red-state gay movie," says producer Craig Zadan, who won a Best Picture Oscar for Chicago three years ago. "It's a movie with macho, masculine, acting-straight guys on horses, and it turns out to be a gay love story."
Schamus disputes that a chasm exists between big cities and God's country. "This whole red-state-- blue-state thing is absurd," he says. "The film has performed amazingly in Little Rock, Birmingham and Fort Worth, Texas. The fact is, Americans are Americans. There may be places where their politics in the aggregate tilt one way or the other, but do you cross a state boundary and turn into some other kind of animal? No. Americans talk to each other. Americans are listening to each other. And Brokeback is proving it."
Add it all up: Shock value. Curiosity value. Armfuls of awards. A lovely lead performance or two. A film that makes you think, lets you cry. It's no wonder Brokeback broke through.
With reporting by Adam Pitluk/ Dallas, Reported by Amy Lennard Goehner/ New York, Desa Philadelphia/ Los Angeles
I give it to you, just as I read it. Just spend some time reading it. It does worth the effort.