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Cowboy Wrangler

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

"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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