Nov. 11, 2005 Ang Lee's 'Brokeback' explores 'last frontier'
By Anne Thompson
There's no doubt that a $13 million quality movie like Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," which has wowed festivalgoers and reviewers in Telluride, Venice and Toronto, will play well in big movie markets around the country. The question is, how broad will it go?
No one knows that answer, because no one has ventured into this territory before. The movie is a groundbreaker. There's never been a homosexual cowboy movie, and while the indies have been supplying gay romances to the art house circuit for years, and gay series like "Queer as Folk" and "Will & Grace" have been pulling big numbers on TV, there hasn't been a mainstream gay love story since 1982's "Making Love," which bombed and was blamed by many for damaging Harry Hamlin's career. "It's the one last frontier," says Lee.
So what took Hollywood so long to make a gay love story?
It's been 12 years since Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia," which starred Denzel Washington as a homophobic lawyer defending AIDS patient Tom Hanks, who won the Oscar; the movie grossed $77 million in North America. But "Philadelphia" was less a romance (the gay couple didn't kiss) than a courtroom drama about fighting for justice. Last year's "Alexander" was an epic adventure with a gay subplot, but Oliver Stone's movie didn't disappoint at the boxoffice just because of its candid depiction of a bisexual conqueror. It was a badly reviewed muddle of a movie.
In an industry that happily explores the outer limits of gore and violence, movies that smack of realistic intimacy are taboo -- especially between men. Gallup polls have shown Americans as growing increasingly tolerant of homosexuals, but movie audiences have never been confronted with a gay western. Conservative blogger Matt Drudge has already weighed in on "Brokeback Mountain," asking, "Will a movie even Madonna calls shocking sit with the heartland?"
"Brokeback Mountain" could be the mainstream gay romance that many people have been waiting for. One Toronto wag called it "the gay 'Gone with the Wind'." "Of all the gay-themed films I've watched," says Damon Romine of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, "this is the first one I've seen about two men in love, told in a way that straight people can relate to. People don't have to be gay to understand loss and longing and unrequited love. Hollywood churns out endless variations on the theme of forbidden love. This is a new take on that genre, a film that has tremendous potential to reach and transform mainstream audiences."
In the end, a Hollywood studio didn't greenlight "Brokeback Mountain." It took a studio specialty division, Universal's Focus Features, to back the movie. New York veteran indie producers James Schamus and David Linde, accustomed to setbacks in making challenging material, had been trying to make "Brokeback" for years. When they took over Focus in 2002, they brought along the script, which had been adapted by Western author Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove") and screenwriter Diana Osana from Annie Proulx's 1997 short story.
As soon as Lee, who has collaborated with writer-producer Schamus on many of his movies ("The Hulk," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") agreed to direct the movie, Focus went ahead with the production, which was filmed near Calgary, Alberta. It helped that ever since 1997's "The Ice Storm," Lee's strong support from foreign markets has given him "more creative freedom," he says.
"Brokeback" got made because of the emotional power of the material. A tragic romance set in the '60s and '70s, "Brokeback" is about two lovers who can't overcome the obstacles to achieving a permanent union. The two rough-hewn ranch hands can express themselves physically, in secret, but they have no words for their feelings. They both suffer. And they ruin their lives. "The cultural obstacles to this kind of romance," says Osana, "are within each one of us."
Osana and McMurtry's script became known in the film community as one of the great unproduced screenplays. "It's a story of doomed love that is clearly about two homosexual men," says Osana. "It's also a story about the women who marry homosexual men," adds McMurtry.
Director Gus Van Sant ("Elephant") and producer Scott Rudin ("The Hours") tried to make "Brokeback Mountain" at Columbia Pictures, but they couldn't get any actors "to commit," says McMurtry. "They'd say it was the best thing they'd ever read, and then they'd waver and anguish. Their agents were afraid and steered them away from it." Eventually, says Osana, "Gus had to take a paying job."
Schamus and Linde took it over, and finally Lee decided to go forward with "Brokeback" in 2004 with young actors who are "innocent in the beginning." This time, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger jumped at the chance. "Actors want to have juicy parts," says Lee. "Heath is the brooding, macho, shy man whose temper holds a lot of fear. There is a lot of self-denial, guilt and twisted psychology in that character, a bit like the Hulk. Heath carries the elegiac mood, that sense of loss you read in cowboy poetry. Jake is a good counterpart. He is the more brave one who comes to accept the romance."
When the time came to shoot the first love scene, Lee was moved by the "exposed private feelings" shown by the two actors. "It's rare to see," he says.
For his part, Lee has always refused to play by the rules of any culture, be it his native Taiwan or Hollywood. His breakthrough movie, 1993's "The Wedding Banquet," a touching story about a gay man coming out to his family, broke boxoffice records in his native country. In 1995, Lee directed Emma Thompson's script of Jane Austen's romantic comedy of manners, "Sense and Sensibility," which earned seven Oscar nominations and won for best screenplay. "Repression is a main element of my movies," says Lee. "It's easier to work against something than along with something."
2000's Chinese action adventure "Crouching Tiger" mixed Western and Eastern movie aesthetics, grossed more than $213 million worldwide, scored 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, and won the best foreign-language Oscar. "People say I bend or twist genres," Lee says. "I think I'm twisted. It's a tricky thing for foreigners. You're not molded to cultural convention. You can do it as authentic as you want. That's the advantage of the outsider."
Talk about genre bending. The movie Western has long defined iconic American masculinity, from Gene Autry and John Wayne to Clint Eastwood. "You have Montgomery Clift. It's always there," says Lee, who insists that "Brokeback" is "not a Western. No gunslingers. I don't want to undermine the sanctified image of the American Western man. It's a love story of real people in the West."
Lee leaned on documentaries about rodeos, the photography of Richard Avedon and Western experts Proulx and McMurtry, who took the director around their haunts in Wyoming and Texas. The only Westerns Lee cared about were the ones based on McMurtry's books: "Hud" and "The Last Picture Show." "Everything he needed to know about the West," says McMurtry, "was in the screenplay."
Schamus is on a mission to prove that there is pent-up demand for this material. "We have never made an apology from the beginning for making this movie," he says, "which we believe will deliver an emotional experience to a larger audience than the art house. The movie gives us the tools to create that appeal. We're saying, 'Here's the movie, here's what it looks like, come join us.' "
Focus will release "Brokeback" in limited situations through the holidays -- as the big studio guns play themselves out -- and widen it in January. Since the trailer went out, Focus has placed a registration page for advance sales on the "Brokeback" Web site. The initial marketing push is to women and younger moviegoers. "You're looking for people who are empathetic," says Schamus, "and able to reach their emotions. And younger folks are way out ahead on this stuff. Overall, they are not worked up about gay issues." Becoming an Oscar contender should push "Brokeback" into must-see territory, as it did "Philadelphia."
Middle America will have plenty of gender-bending diversity to choose from this holiday season, from the big-budget studio musical "Rent" to Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto," starring Cillian Murphy as an Irish cross-dresser. "These are the movies with all the buzz," says Romine, "which should send a clear message to Hollywood that gays and lesbians are interesting people with interesting stories to tell. Films like 'Capote' and 'Brokeback' and 'Transamerica' show that the time has come for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters to come out on the big screen and take center stage."
Moviegoer response to these movies will finally give Hollywood the wealth of market data it so sorely needs.