Cowboy Wrangler

A dozen years after his queer hit The Wedding Banquet, director Ang Lee finds comfort in taking on another pioneering gay love story, the long-awaited Brokeback Mountain

BY Howard Feinstein

November 21 2005 1:00 AM ET

“A cowboy
is always homoerotic for the gay community, right?”
asks director Ang Lee asks rhetorically, with his
characteristically naive inflection. “Like the
Chinese martial arts heroes in the East. The thing
about Westerns is that there’s a lot of homo
subtext.”

The soft-featured
Taiwanese-born filmmaker—who garnered the top prize
at this year’s Venice Film Festival for
Brokeback Mountain, as he had 10 years
earlier at Berlin for his immensely successful coming-out
feature The Wedding Banquet (homo subjects serve him
well)—is justifiably at ease chatting about gay
issues in the vernacular. “People say I twisted
the Western genre in Brokeback. I think I untwisted
it.”

Adapted by Larry
McMurtry and Diana Ossana from Annie Proulx’s short
story, first published in The New Yorker eight years
ago, Brokeback Mountain chronicles the secret
love affair between two handsome virile cowboys.
Quietly seething Wyoming native Ennis Del Mar
(Heath Ledger) and extroverted Texan Jack Twist (Jake
Gyllenhaal) begin the movie as cowpokes hired for the
summer of 1963 to tend a herd of sheep in virtual
isolation high up on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. On
one bitterly cold night they share a sleeping mat in the
single tent, and Jack makes an impulsive move. Ennis
responds, taking Jack savagely from behind.

That night
unfolds into a summer of unarticulated physical
affection—wondrous landscapes (Canada subbing for
Wyoming) providing the emotional resonance that the
two protagonists are, at that point, incapable of
conveying. But the summer ends, and the men return to their
separate lives. The remainder of the film chronicles their
relationship over the next 20 years.

Responding to the
endless gossip about the film’s treatment of same-sex
affection, Lee maintains that no one snipped sex scenes from
the screenplay or in the editing room. In fact, he
added some passionate smooching—set not long
after the men’s initial coupling—that was in
neither the short story nor the script.

“The
kissing scene is more tender and, to me, more sexy, more of
a commitment,” he says. “What happens
between them in the first sex scene is out of the
blue, confusing. They are two lonely souls. They live
together, and love brews. It just happens. They don’t
know what hit them. I needed to see them commit to
love before I could continue with the rest of the 20
years.”

Over that period
Ennis and Jack both marry and have children but do
arrange from time to time to meet up for what they tell
their wives are “fishing trips.” At one
point Ennis’s harried wife, Alma (Ledger’s
real-life love, Michelle Williams), sees them making out.
“Everyone was happy with the result [of that
kissing scene],” says Lee. “Then we moved
in for a close-up of Michelle, whose character is stung and
confused. The guys thought their job was done, so they
just kind of held each other [off-camera]. Michelle
said, ‘Guys, I need it. Give me something.’ So
they started necking. She got pissed off and started yelling
at them.” Is it ironic that Ledger impregnated
Williams shortly after filming wrapped?

Lee hastens to
add that “the two actors did not enjoy kissing but as
professionals were able to do it at that moment.” Got
it.

The director
notes the different acting styles of his two leads, whom he
had sent to cowboy “boot camp.”

“Jake
positions himself this way, then that way. He tries
everything—like De Niro or something,”
Lee says, then cackles. “Heath is not like that.
He has a specific target within him. I don’t have to
bring him back from here or there. He’s also
very easy to photograph, easier than Jake. You
don’t have to avoid anything.”

Lee, 51, is
comfortable navigating Brokeback’s
predominantly masculine world in part because of his
Taiwanese childhood. After finishing his directorial
debut, Pushing Hands (1992), about the ties
that bind father and son, Lee realized he had mishandled the
movie’s female lead because, he says, “I
was male-centered. I had grown up in a very male
chauvinistic environment in Taiwan. My father was that way.
Then I learned from my wife and friends that that
wasn’t right.”

A quick study,
Lee has since presided over films offering a wide range of
relationships, including father and daughter in Eat Drink
Man Woman
(1994), sisters in Sense and
Sensibility
(1995), and heterosexual lovers in
The Ice Storm (1997) and Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(2000). Brokeback
Mountain
, which opens in limited release on
December 9, has a point of view somewhere between the
supermacho tone of Pushing Hands and the gay frisson
of The Wedding Banquet. It brings him full
circle.

As in
Proulx’s story, Ennis and Jack engage in rough
behavior, both during and outside of sex.
“It’s different from a heterosexual
relationship,” says Lee. “A heterosexual love
affair also involves violence, but of a different
sort. Here we have two strong bodies, like two edges
of a sword. When I shot the kissing scene [that Alma
witnesses], I joked to Jake and Heath that you can never
kiss a girl that hard. I told them, ‘Give me
the most Western-heroic kiss.’” He laughs.

With violence
occasionally breaking the film’s surface and with its
Wyoming setting, Brokeback inevitably conjures the brutal
1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. Yet Lee points out
that Proulx wrote it a year before Shepard died.
“An old ranch hand told her about the secret life of
being gay in that environment,” Lee says.
“That inspired her to write a gay love story
set in Wyoming. Still, she said that even then, she was
scared while writing it.”

Several other
directors, including Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher,
tried unsuccessfully to get Brokeback Mountain
green-lit after the story was published. “I
read it before I made Hulk,” Lee recalls,
referring to his 2003 venture into comic-book adaptation.
“After that wrapped, I was planning to take a
long break. I asked James [Schamus, Lee’s
frequent producer and screenwriter and currently copresident
of Focus Features, which produced and is releasing the
movie] how the film version of Brokeback
Mountain
had turned out. He said that it
wasn’t yet made. Once he saw that I was so
interested, he acquired it. If somebody else had done
the film, I’d have been very jealous.”

Yet the film came
at an emotionally delicate moment in Lee’s life.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to do it
[after Hulk],” he says. “My
father had just passed away. But it turned out to be a
healing process, being surrounded by so much
love.”

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