Not a gay movie

Though dubbed the “gay cowboy” movie, Brokeback Mountain is, at its core, simply a love story, one that could well appeal to straight women—but how about their hetero dates?

BY Ryan James Kim

December 09 2005 1:00 AM ET

The buzz
surrounding Ang Lee’s new tragic romance Brokeback
Mountain
has reached a fervor. Though it opens in only
three cities Friday, there are already whispers of
multiple Oscar nominations. And critics, bloggers, and
journalists nationwide have fallen all over themselves
to be the first to proclaim how brave straight actors Heath
Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are for having taken such
“daring,” “risky,” or just
plain “gay” roles.

It’s
praise well earned for this story of young Wyoming natives,
Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal),
who meet and fall in love in the summer of 1963. But
what’s truly surprising about this “gay
cowboy” movie is that the target audience
doesn’t seem to be gay men at all. In fact, it
seems that much of the marketing has been geared toward
young women, who haven’t seen much in the way of epic
big-screen love stories since Titanic. 

And
they’re going to love it, just as they did
Titanic. Because for all its hype Brokeback
Mountain
is not really a gay film at
all—and is much better off for it. Despite both its
protagonists being male, Brokeback is at its
core a classic story about loving someone you
can’t have, a proven theme at the box office.
Titanic became the most successful movie in
history with its story of working-class Jack and
privileged Rose, two people who come together by
chance and, despite societal objections that deem their
relationship impossible, fall in love.

Brokeback Mountain is Jack and Ennis’s
Titanic. Even though they’re living in
tents and subsisting on beans heated over an open fire,
tending sheep together in the high country represents for
these cowboys an escape into freedom—similar to
what Jack and Rose experience aboard an ocean liner at
the dawn of the 20th century. And just like those doomed
lovers, Jack and Ennis are ultimately destined for
disappointment.

After all,
it’s 1963 and—as Lee reminds us with the moody
wide-angle panoramas that are his
signature—we’re in the mountain state of
Wyoming, where minds are closed to a romance between
men. Just last month an obscure Wyoming playwright
said she had never encountered a gay cowboy in her
life, suggesting, on the merit of her enormous experience
and expertise, that there never were any.

No matter.
Whether or not one Wyoming cowboy ever happened to love
another in a way that was more than brotherly,
Brokeback—like Titanic—is
the kind of story that will get straight women into
movie seats, whereas a movie that dwells on its
“gayness” might not. This can be only
good news for the director, actors, and producers, because
where straight women go, their husbands, boyfriends, and
dates dutifully follow.

And why not? In
an interview the weekend before the film opened, Ledger,
who had a child with Brokeback costar Michelle
Williams in October, told Advocate.com, “Anyone
who fears this: They are not going to come out of the
movie and suddenly [be different]. [Being gay’s] not
a disease. It’s not contagious. [Straight
males] should understand that it’s a story of
pure love.”

And what does a
straight guy need to actually enjoy the film? Ledger
suggested, “I guess a little bit of maturity is being
asked for, because society has been immature in the
past. That’s about it.”

And straight men
may find the film less threatening than they fear. While
Lee doesn’t skimp on scenes of physical intimacy,
these moments are all very tastefully
shot—honest and rather tame. In fact,
Brokeback focuses more on Ennis and Jack not
having sex than their actually going through with it.

And if straight
women and men do turn out to see Brokeback, that
will mean good things for LGBT people too. The movie
challenges stereotypes in a way so-called gay movies,
which usually exaggerate those stereotypes,
cannot—even gay movies smart enough to subvert
assumptions. Here the stereotype that’s being
turned inside out is more universal. The movie
questions the “masculinity” we attribute to
emotionally unavailable men: By the end of the film
it’s the expressive Jack we consider brave and
the silent Ennis we find cowardly.

Is Brokeback
Mountain
a watershed in filmmaking? Definitely. But
is it a gay movie? No. Most viewers will remember
Brokeback not as a movie in which cowboys
kissed but as a love story they cannot
forget—straight guys included, if they’re
mature enough, or at least smart enough, to follow the
lead of the women they love.

Tags: World

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