I was up in Park City, Utah, attending the Sundance Film Festival, when word of Heath Ledger's death spread and the shock over it.
I met Heath during a Brokeback Mountain roundtable interview in NYC. I sat close to him, studying whether his lips were anywhere near as tight as Ennis'. They weren't. Ennis was pretty tightly wound!
I was interviewed by a TIME writer about the impact of Heath's death within the gay community. She asked whether I felt he risked his career by taking the role. I said no. I had forgotten he said as much himself during the interview.
So here's the story...
By Lawrence Ferber
Climbing a mountain can be a daunting, tiring, even dangerous task – but reaching the top can entail a monumental achievement. Such is the case with Brokeback Mountain, a supremely moving, validating, yet heart-wrenching tale of same-sex love in the not-exactly-accepting heart of 20th Century cowboy country. Ranchers Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meet while working as sheepherders. They end up rassling each other’s hearts in the process, and for almost 20 years – while each is married and living a “straight” life – carry on a clandestine affair. Jack eventually feels they should live together. Ennis, who can’t escape the childhood memory of a brutal homophobic murder, doesn’t. In a society that forbids their love, is this the best they can hope for?
Gay audiences have had high hopes for a film version of Brokeback Mountain, which debuted as a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx in The New Yorker magazine, since Gus Van Sant was attached to the project circa 1998. It’s been an uphill, rocky climb, but director Ang Lee has come through with a triumph indeed. “I think for great romance, you need great obstacles,” says Lee (The Hulk, The Wedding Banquet).
The story Brokeback Mountain won a Pulitzer Prize - and the attention of veteran Western novelist/screenwriter (and Pulitzer Prize-winner himself for 1986’s Lonesome Dove) Larry McMurty and collaborator Diana Ossana. McMurty admits the story’s gay angle was a shock, mainly because he had never thought to do it himself. “Why didn’t I write this?” he recalls feeling. After all, the Texas-born author had long known gays existed in cowboy country. “I had a cousin who was gay and lived with a schoolteacher in a small town,” he recalls. “Cousin X we’ll call him. Cousin X was a roper, and made his life around rodeos. I remember plainly that when we were about to go to family reunions in the late 1940s, early 50s, my parents would say ‘Be nice to Cousin X’s gentleman friend.’ His friend was a schoolteacher. We thought he was a very nice guy, so we were nice as pie to his gentleman friend.”
McMurty and Ossana optioned the story and by 1998 completed a screenplay. With it, they managed to attach a handful of directors and producers, including Gus Van Sant, Joel Schumacher, and Scott Rudin. But a lack of name actors willing to take on the roles (barring Joaquin Phoenix, who was interested) caused each successive effort to fall through.
The film ended up being greenlit by Focus Features, whose co-founder, James Schamus, had previously been attached to the project years earlier (while he was with indie house Good Machine). “I really do thank god every day I failed so badly to make this movie for years as an independent,” he laughs. Schamus felt the project was perfect for his longtime collaborator, director Ang Lee. “Clearly what made Brokeback right for Ang is it’s all about repression,” Schamus quips. “He could set up a franchise of repression. Like the chair massage places - you just come in and get repressed.”
The Taiwan-born, straight-identified Lee agrees that repression is a theme that runs throughout his work including 1997’s The Ice Storm, 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, and his gay breakout film, 1993’s The Wedding Banquet. “I do what’s truthful to my feelings,” says Lee. “[After The Wedding Banquet] I was confused [whether I was a ‘gay’ filmmaker]. To this day. At the time when I make these movies I think they’re gay movies. They’ve got to feel gay and real to you, especially this one. But I brought some universal feelings, whether gay or straight, about love, romance. I think I brought a lot of universality.”
While “blending the macho western drama and a gay love story,” was a tricky exercise in tone, Lee says that his greatest challenge in making Brokeback Mountain wasn’t subject matter. It was finding actors who could realistically age 20 years over the course of the film. “Each time you see them you have to fill in the [time] gaps by small things,” he says. “The way they carried themselves, their voices and body.”
Both in their 20s, Ledger and Gyllenhaal fit the bill. Lee credits Ledger as truly personifying the wound-up, tight-lipped, rarely talkative Ennis. “I had to go in and discover what was causing this inability to express and love,” Ledger says. “I felt it was some kind of a battle. He was battling himself and his genetic structure. His father and his father’s father’s traditions and fears that had been embedded into him. Once I had that and a few other things I wanted to physicalize it. Any expression had to be painful. I wanted him to have pins in his boots. To be a clenched fist. My mouth became clenched, too.”
Ledger, whose uncle is gay (and “the most masculine person I know!”), claims that there were no detractors when it came to taking the role. “I understand people found it risky,” he acknowledges. “But I hate when they call it daring and brave. Fuck. Firefighters are daring and brave. I’m acting. I’m safe. I’m not wounded by this experience.” That said, the first gay sex scene – a spontaneous, intense burst of animal lust and connection in a tent – was a challenge to prepare for. “The way we looked at it, they’re not actually love scenes for the sake of doing love scenes,” Ledger affirms. “They’re actually stories within those moments. The first moment for Ennis was very poignant because he had to be rough and fighting it, almost ready to punch [Jack]. Once that all settled it had to be this passionate adrenaline that took over him. And then another moment it was important to show a glimpse of Ennis in a vulnerable state. It is true intimate love they have for each other, because it has to set up the tragedy of the story and [their attachment to] Brokeback Mountain.”
There’s another half to the story of Brokeback Mountain: its women. “You couldn’t show the tragedy of Jack and Ennis without showing the disappointment and discouragement this was for [their wives],” remarks McMurty. Adds Ossana, “The story and film have so many themes, one of them being what happens when people feel forced to deny who they are and the ripple effect of that. It affects everyone in their lives.”
Michelle Williams plays Alma, Ennis’ long-suffering wife and mother of their two daughters. Early on, Alma learns of her husband’s affair – she catches Ennis and Jack kissing - but she chooses to keep quiet and carry on with their loveless marriage. “For so many reasons she stays with him,” Williams explains. “She’s attached to this idea of a husband and family and something that lasts. Everything that came before her was lasting. Whether or not it was good you stuck it out. People weren’t getting divorced willy-nilly back then. Where would she go, what would she do, what if people found out, how would her girls’ lives be affected? My mind begins to pinball when I think of all the reasons Alma stayed with Ennis as long as she could.”
Jack, meanwhile, marries the spunky Lureen, played by Anne Hathaway. Lureen is a pretty sassy, sharp character, and one wonders whether she had an inkling from the get-go that Jack is gay. “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” grins Hathaway. “Everybody wants to know the answer to that and I’ve made a choice not to say.” Perhaps drawing a little from real life, Hathaway reveals that she was once involved with someone she suspects was gay (“I don’t think he knows so I hope he figures it out.”).
The wives’ sham marriages cause profound changes in them. Alma manifests hers as an internalized knot of sorrow and loneliness. Lureen externalizes her situation through bigger and more garish hair and makeup, like a distracting disguise for her hollowness. Asked whether she blames Jack and Ennis or society for the women’s suffering, Hathaway says she feels “a lot more resentment about the society because I understand the situation Jack and Ennis were in. But of course, after playing the cuckolded wife, you would hope there’d be some honesty in the relationship. But that wasn’t the relationship Jack and Lureen had. And so we wanted to make her almost unrecognizable from the person you meet at the beginning, to say that when you have your soul drained from you year after year what does that do.”
TODAY AND TOMORROW
While Brokeback Mountain is set in the past, the filmmakers admit the story and its characters situations are very much relevant today. Ossana brings up a gay 45-year-old friend who lives an extremely closeted existence in Omaha, Nebraska. And Hathaway relays a recent conversation with someone who “spoke with a friend from Wyoming who said ‘I never met a gay cowboy.’ My reaction was ‘I bet you have!’”
Hopefully Brokeback Mountain will change the world and make things easier for those real-life Jacks and Ennises out there. But at the least, Brokeback Mountain could radically change future AMC Romance Classic Marathon line-ups by being the first gay title included. “Not that we were out to change the world, but for our movie we at least wanted that measure of respect,” admits Schamus. “We wanted to be judged a la Doctor Zhivago, The Bridges of Madison County, Casablanca. We want this to be one of the great screen romances.”