Brokeback Mountain, the so-called ‘gay cowboy movie’ directed by Ang Lee, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and based on the novella by Annie E. Proulx (1997), has been lauded by critics and has won several major awards, including best picture at the Venice International Film Festival, and three Academy Awards. It would be hard to argue that the critical success of the film is unrelated to the current political climate of LGBT issues. As one of the few movies in mainstream American cinema featuring a romance between men, gay rights activists support it for revealing the brutality of homophobia, while religious groups protest the message it promotes. Given the political dimensions of this film it is relevant to ask whether Brokeback Mountain represents homosexuality positively.
On the surface, the film tells a tragic love story in the naturalistic, minimalist style for which Ang Lee is known. While working one summer on the mountain from which the film takes its title, two men, Jack and Ennis, fall in love during an era of brutal homophobia in rural 1960s America, but abandon their relationship in favour of traditional family lives. Several years later, their romance is reignited and the majority of the film explores how their relationships with each other and with their families suffer as a result of the inhibiting society in which they live—as well as the internal homophobia from which both men suffer. Certainly, seen in this light, the film offers a bleak picture of the way things were and indeed still are for many homosexuals.
It is not surprising, then, that so many supporters of LGBT issues see Brokeback Mountain as a powerful call to end homophobia. To achieve this power, however, the film must entice audiences to care, not only for Jack and Ennis, but more importantly for the love they share. Ang Lee achieves this empathy, but not without compromising his depiction of homosexuality, something that most commentators so far have overlooked.
Despite the harm that Jack and Ennis cause their families and each other, Lee successfully persuades audiences to care for their relationship. Like countless tragic lovers before them, Jack and Ennis are victims of their time as well as their own inability to imagine an alternative to the constricting norms of the homophobic society of which they were a product. Yet our interest in their romance makes us forgive the harm they do others. As such, the movie has been applauded for taking homosexual love seriously: Brokeback Mountain does not relegate the love of gay characters to the margins of a film but rather argues that their love is a subject appropriate for a grand narrative. Certainly a movie that will carve into our collective minds the thought that love between two men can be as painful and meaningful as that between a man and a woman is sorely needed. However, we should be attentive to the characters to which the cinema has privileged this story line: two men who in all appearances are, essentially, straight. Brokeback Mountain may have managed to get audiences to fall in love with the romance of Jack and Ennis, but it does so by cleansing the lovers of any characteristics that would signify, in our Western society, that they are gay.
By this I am not saying Jack and Ennis should have behaved more camp or fem—indeed it was important to show how heteronormative behaviour was imposed on them by their community. Rather, I’m pointing out how the film aggressively exaggerates the outward heterosexuality of Jack and Ennis to make the viewer more comfortable with their relationship because of its overt ‘straight-ness.’ To achieve Jack and Ennis’s heterosexuality, the film appropriates the conventions of the cowboy and Western genre—one which celebrates heterosexual masculinity. This also distances Jack and Ennis from most urban audiences: it places them in a remote environment made mythic by early twentieth century Western films which many contemporary viewers find remotely primitive. As characters, Jack and Ennis are little more than archetypes lifted from this genre: Heath Ledger’s Ennis, though convincingly acted, is a John Wayne pastiche, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack could be any number of Wayne’s cinematic sidekicks—perhaps Jeffery Hunter, who played opposite Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers. In many ways Brokeback Mountain is a Modern Western. Here the gay proclivities of its characters have been appropriated to make the film edgier and sexier: a kind of fetishism. As such, the film is in actuality an exploration of the Western genre more than it is an investigation of genuine characters living with gay identities. Furthermore, by lifting their performance so carefully from the traditionally macho genre of the cowboy film, we are able to fall in love with Jack and Ennis’s romance without ever having to fear they might actually be gay.
Still, one of the most controversial aspects of the film is it displays graphic sexual encounters between men. But the one sex scene (though they do kiss at a couple of other key points) between them is in fact not graphic at all, and is rather brief. In truth, the only frontal nudity in the movie is female, and by far the most graphic sex in the film is between the men and their wives. The privileged place of heterosexual sex serves tacitly to sanctify the homosexual behaviour of Jack and Ennis, of which we catch only a glimpse. It emphasizes that, as far as social performance is concerned, they are as straight as any man, thus making their homosexual behaviour more palatable.
Even more revealing is the fact that much of the physical intimacy between the two men has a quality of brutality to it. Their first sexual encounter is almost a fist fight. In fact, later on in the movie, there is a physical fight between the two lovers which we see more graphically than we ever see their affection. Moreover, when they reunite after several years apart, their embrace is frantic and almost violent. These scenes, and the absence of nearly any others to counterbalance them, suggest that Ang Lee did not have confidence that audiences would care to see two men behave affectionately towards one another, or worse yet, it says that gay relationships are only interesting, sexy, and worthy of our attention when the performances of those involved most closely resembles the behaviour of that which classically signifies heterosexual masculinity. For gay men this sends a very dangerous message: internal homophobia lies deep within the gay community, even among those who have been out openly for many years, for whom the pressure to look and act straight is overwhelming.
Related to this point is the fact—much belaboured in the media—that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are straight. The public fascination with the contrast between their on- and off-screen sexuality is complex. The inclusion of straight actors would appear to speak of the audiences’ desire to see two straight men perform these roles, or perhaps their unwillingness to see it performed by anyone else. Is it more erotic to know while watching them perform the movements of gay men that they are actually straight? When they kiss, does the audience see both a symbolic representation of the characters of Jack and Ennis kissing, as well as the representation of the straight actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal kissing, thus transgressing their own sexual predilections?
The last insult to these gay characters occurs in the third act of the movie when one of the two men is killed by gay-bashers—without warning and seemingly without any explanation. It is as if to say: ‘well, I guess that’s what happened to gay men back then.’ One wonders, though, how many gay men, living straight lives (with wives and children at that) were in fact killed in Texas in the 80s for being gay, and whether this would justify the use of a gay-bashing assault as a plot device that requires no further explanation. To be sure, men have been killed for being gay. But, like Matthew Sheppard who was killed for this reason in Wyoming in 1998, this happens in exceptional circumstances which—if they are to be portrayed on film—deserve more explanation and attention than Brokeback Mountain is willing to offer. To throw this in at the end of a movie is at best melodrama and at worst reduces this important issue to a clever plot device. But it goes off in the movie without a hitch; few audience members would feel the need to question this occurrence. After all, so many gay people die at the end of movies it is beginning to seem unquestionable. Of course, the fact that gay characters all die of AIDS or are victims of violence is such a cinematic cliché (for a brief overview see The Celluloid Closet)that it is hard to imagine how this aspect of the film has not been criticised by movie reviewers.
It is disappointing that Brokeback Mountain is unable to redeem its failures by offering a new ending to a traditional story. And even more disappointing that many people have accepted this curious last minute plot twist, since it provides something that the movie sorely needs: a tragic conclusion to give the love of Jack and Ennis gravitas to secure the empathy of audience members. The movie resorts to killing one of its protagonists to ensure the audience’s empathy because it never really succeeds at showing us what the romance between these two men was all about. We hardly see them together talking or sharing something with one another, let alone having sex, nor do we learn what it was that made their bond so strong that they were willing to stay together for twenty years. In the meandering middle section of the movie, there is a lack of purpose, a purpose that is quickly regained with the tragedy of Jack’s death. But why couldn’t the movie have shown more of what their relationship was about instead of focussing on what it wasn’t?
One suspects it is because this would emasculate the characters, turning them into an embarrassment or something funny rather than a subject worthy of a film. The reality is, however, that love between two men looks funny to most people. Could anyone imagine a love film about two characters that were queens or camp? After all, who wants to see them fall in love? It would be a mistake, I believe, to see the avoidance of the queer stereotype as some sort of success or progress, as Daniel Mendelsohn suggests in the New York Review of Books. He argues that ‘there’s no such thing as a typical gay person, a strangely different-seeming person with whom Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar have nothing in common.’
It is true that it is damaging that most gay characters in contemporary media conform to a certain stereotype. But the most offensive thing about this stereotype is surely that these characters do not participate in a broad range of life experiences, such as falling in love, building lives and families, realizing dreams. Rather, they live on the sidelines, dropping clever one-liners, being the best friend to the female lead. They are stereotypes for precisely this reason. Rarely do they ever fall in love like Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis and Jack. And even Ennis and Jack must continuously reaffirm their masculinity and demonstrate that they are ‘real’ men and that we should care about their love. Ultimately, though, it is a love that dare not show itself—not in 1960s Wyoming, and certainly not in contemporary mainstream cinema.
Steven Stowell is a DPhil student in the History of Art at Linacre College. His thesis is on the art theorists of the sixteenth century in Italy and their concept of allegory.