t’s official. With eight
Oscar nominations—including Best Picture, Best Director, Best
Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor—
is this year’s surprise hit. Yes, the gay cowboy
movie is not only a relatively big box office hit, but it has also
become the centerpiece of cultural anxiety about homosexuality.
Jay Leno makes jokes about it, the
ran a cartoon,
and even G.W. Bush fielded questions about it at a press conference.
All this is quite odd. Sure, it’s a well made film and Ang
Lee is a terrific director. But in ordinary times a film like this
would have a small, but appreciative audience and would perhaps
have won a best-of-something award. Instead, as of February 1,
had been nominated—with many wins—for 90
film awards, ranging from the Venice Film Festival to the Boston
Film Critic’s Awards. Clearly this is a film that has touched
many people. But why? Is it because it is a story about gay cowboys?
A story about doomed love? A story about the impossibility of happiness?
A story about homophobia?
By now everyone knows the basic plot. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllen- haal)
and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) are cowboys who get a summer job
tending a flock of sheep on Brokeback Mountain. They are straight,
poor, western guys who drink and joke and end up having sex with
each other. But not just sex. Eventually they fall so crazy in love
that they seem fated for one another. As the tagline puts it: “Love
is a force of nature.”
They eventually leave Brokeback Mountain and go on with their lives—getting
married, having kids, and working jobs they hate. But they meet
several times a year for intense love fests on Brokeback Mountain.
After 20 years Jack dies and Ennis is left with his grief and loneliness.
Not exactly your up-beat love story, but in the realm of tragic
love, perfectly reasonable.
All of the critics—in both the gay and straight press—have
praised the film as a classic love story. But is it a gay love story?
Here’s a sentence that appeared in a very positive review in
Gay Chicago Magazine
: “After their initial romantic
coupling, both men make a point of proclaiming that they are not
‘queer,’ and indeed their sexual bond is born out of loneliness
and isolation more than anything else.” Variants of this sentence
appear widely in the mainstream.
What strikes me as curious is that the message in the reviews seems
to be that the passion between the two men is less about desire
and lust and more about “loneliness,” “isolation,”
and those cold nights out on the prairie with the sheep. But E.
Annie Proulx’s short story, which inspired the film, gives
no indication that the lust of these men is about isolation.
They spend years cheating on their wives and can’t keep their
hands off one another. Yet, in many reviews, their sexual encounters
are described as urgent, yet incidental. Indeed, many of the reviews
praise the film for its lack of explicit sexual content. For the
first time in Hollywood history the lack of sex is being used to
sell a movie.
The film is being gingerly handled by publicists because, even in
2006, it was thought there would be no large audiences (heterosexual
women are described by the studio as the film’s target viewership)
for a gay male love story. Even as mainstream culture may be more
accepting of male homosexuality, heterosexual viewers would still
rather see the queenie antics of the Fab Five on “Queer Eye
for the Straight Guy,” than Ledger and Gyllenhaal.
Why the enormous attention? I suspect the excitement is a response
to the fight around gay marriage; that the mixed messages from the
reviews is emblematic of how deeply divided our culture is, not
only about gay marriage, but homosexuality in general. This ambivalence
is part of
’s basic narrative: gay
love and passion exist and are valid, but also tragic and doomed
and mostly not visible.
The contradictions that we see in the marketing and the reviews
are identical to how people in what
is commonly called “mainstream culture” view gay men:
not so much old-style pathetic, dangerous perpetrators of social
unrest, but attractive exotic creatures who are doomed to tragic
love. Public opinion polls showing nascent approval of gay people
is on the rise at the same time as voters are going to the polling
booths to pass constitutional amendments that, in many cases, would
not only ban gay marriage, but also most public—and sometimes
private— forms of partnership recognition.
The problem posed by gay marriage wasn’t so much a legal one
for many right-wing heterosexuals, as it was a physical one. How
do you reposition a fascination with gay people with an underlying
mistrust and fear of sexual difference? When you factor into this
equation the reality that most people are, on some level, unhappy
because their heterosexual marriage and life is not the ideal romantic
fantasy that they’d been sold by Hollywood, the potential for
social and physic unease is even greater.
The solution to this is a trip to
men are beautiful, passions run high, and no one is happy in the
end. It’s the perfect Hollywood homosexual fantasy for people
who’ve been disillusioned by the traditional Hollywood heterosexual
Bronski is an activist and freelance writer. He is the author of numerous
articles and books. His latest is