After Brokeback

BY Charles Kaiser

January 30 2006 12:00 AM ET

The upper west
side of Manhattan is one of those demilitarized zones
where you never expect to encounter any of the prejudices
still prevalent in all those red states west of the
Hudson River. So when my boyfriend and I went to Loews
Lincoln Square at Broadway and 68th Street and ran
into three teary-eyed friends exiting Brokeback
Mountain,
I naturally expressed my enthusiasm for
the movie—out loud.

Then a
middle-aged stranger darted out of the crowd. “What
did you like?” he asked.

Brokeback Mountain,” I replied.

“Oh,” he said. “I thought it was
beautifully made. But I thought it was just a pile of
crap. It’s just homosexual propaganda.”

We’re all gay,” the five of
us thundered back.

“Oh,” he said, “I don’t really
believe in gay people!” Then he disappeared
into the night.

This reminded me
that even in Manhattan there are still plenty of people
astonished (or repelled) by the notion of gay
cowboys—yes, Virginia, even cowboys. And
that seems to be what is most revolutionary about this
gay-themed landmark—if these masculine archetypes of
the American West can fall in love with each other,
absolutely nothing is sacred anymore.

God knows it took
us long enough to get here. It was 1971 when Peter
Finch planted his lips firmly on Murray Head’s mouth
in Sunday Bloody Sunday—the very first
big-screen gay kiss in a mainstream movie. When
Cabaret came out a year later, it was even more
satisfying when Michael York said, “Screw
Fritz,” Liza Minnelli said, “I do,” and
York responded, “So do I!” In 1975 we
thought we were on a roll when Paul Newman optioned
The Front Runner. But 30 years later those gay
athletes still haven’t made it to the big
screen.

Hollywood will
make anything as long as there is money to be made, and in
a world where adolescent girls still make most of the
movie-ticket-buying decisions, gay movies remain a
hard sell. But if Brokeback does sweep the
Oscars and stays strong at the box office, maybe more than
one gay movie will get made every five years.

That’s
certainly the hope of producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron,
who optioned Randy Shilts’s The Mayor of
Castro Street
15 years ago and now have out
director Bryan Singer attached to the Harvey Milk
biopic. “We believe, for the first time, this project
is viable,” Zadan told the Los Angeles
Times.
“We are getting nothing but enthusiasm
from Warner Bros.” But so far the film hasn’t
actually been green-lighted.

The one thing
that hasn’t changed in Hollywood is the need for
straight actors to reassure fans that they’re
really straight. Although Heath Ledger and Jake
Gyllenhaal both give superb performances as tortured gay
men, Ledger went so far as to father a child with costar
Michelle Williams—having agreed to appear in
the movie only after he convinced director Ang Lee
that the only gay cowboy he could play was the one who
is the top.

And yet any doubt
about the existence of Ledger’s inner gay man is
obliterated by his portrayal of a charming fop in
Casanova. Even in Hollywood, it’s
possible for a male actor to reveal his feminine
side—but only when playing history’s most
famous ladies’ man.

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