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The Brokeback
Mountain effect

The Brokeback
Mountain effect

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The historic cultural success of Brokeback Mountain owes much to the film's quality and emotional power--and a little to George W. Bush and the antigay Right. But can a movie advance gay equality?

West Hollywood, Calif., resident Doug Eichler strolled into Regal Cinemas' Avenue 13 multiplex the day after Christmas, keen to see the film his friends and neighbors (including this writer) had been raving about--the so-called gay cowboy flick Brokeback Mountain. Visiting his in-laws for the holidays, Eichler had no reason to think it would be difficult to find a seat: The Avenue 13 is in Rolling Hills Estates, a posh bedroom community on the Palos Verdes peninsula 20-odd miles south and a world away from the liberal gay enclave of West Hollywood. Voters here in 2004 favored George W. Bush by 15 percentage points.

And yet when Eichler walked into a large stadium-style theater showing Brokeback, it was absolutely packed. Eichler saw families, older married women and men, groups of teenage girls, and straight high schoolers on dates. He saw precisely one gay male couple. And he saw that the only seats left were literally in the front row. As Eichler settled in for the trailers, he couldn't help but wonder if these people had any idea what they were about to see.

He needn't have worried. There were no groans, no inappropriate titters, no popcorn thrown at the screen. The audience watched ranch hands Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) fall in love while herding sheep in the Wyoming mountains in 1963--and then furtively continue their romance over 20 years while marrying women and building separate families--with rapt attention. Well, save for one moment. When Ennis and Jack engaged in their first sexual encounter in a pup tent on a cold Wyoming night, a teenager sitting directly behind Eichler turned to his girlfriend and whispered, "Oh, man, he's getting it in the butt." His date immediately shushed him: "Shut up! It's art."

As the film concluded and the credits began to roll, the audience even broke into applause.

Never before has a gay-themed film been as written about, reviewed, lauded, awarded, discussed, dissected, parodied, and hyped as Brokeback Mountain, so it's easy to forget amid this din that the film is deeply moving millions nationwide one theater and one screen at a time, communities sitting together in the dark and emotionally connecting with this story. And not just where one would expect. A theater manager in Mason City, Iowa, reported receiving a petition asking him to bring the film to his screens (he was planning to anyway). The AMC Southroads 20 in Tulsa, Okla., received thank-you calls after it started screening Brokeback on January 6; there was so much demand, in fact, the theater had to add a screen for the first few showings. Newspapers from Columbus, Ohio, to Tallahassee, Fla., to small-town Joplin, Mo., have all run stories essentially saying the same thing: Good news, folks, Brokeback Mountain is coming to town!

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