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Not a gay movie

Not a gay movie

Brokeback Mountain

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?

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, "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.

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Ryan James Kim