BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN directed by Ang Lee, written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from the story by Annie Proulx, with Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. 134 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (December 16). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Jake Gyllenhaal is sprawled com fortably on a hotel sofa, grinning like a big cat.
It's day three of Brokeback Mountain's publicity blitz at the film festival, and he's already become a crowd favourite, smiling for photographers, pausing to sign autographs, taking it all in with those big baby blues.
After asking whether I mind if he smokes, he takes a drag. Not in a guilty, "I know I shouldn't be doing this" kind of way, but in a pleasurable after-dinner manner.
He's got a lot to be pleased about. Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, has just won the top prize at Venice, and there's lots of good buzz in and around the sold-out screenings.
Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, two dirt-poor Wyoming cowboys. They meet one summer in the 1960s to tend a flock of sheep on the top of the titular mountain. After a lot of bonding, some surreptitious looks and a bout or two of drinking, their friendship takes a sharp turn one cold night as they unbuckle those chunky belts, shuck those well-worn denims and wordlessly get it on.
Over the ensuing months on their mountaintop paradise, and then years later when they move apart, get married and raise families but still meet for occasional "fishing trips," they genuinely experience a love that dare not speak its name.
"I'm not no queer," says Ennis early on, followed by Jack's "Me neither."
Funny, then, that the media have jumped on the "gay cowboy" phrase, something neither character would ever identify with.
"I think that comes from people who haven't seen the movie," says Gyllenhaal, with his head-on gaze.
"After you see it, you don't really think in those terms. In a way, all this fuss is a perfect example of why it's such a struggle for these two to be together. They have nothing to do with labels. What draws them together is love."
Albeit a kind of love that hasn't been captured much on film outside of the independent scene, and never with such up-and-coming big-name stars and a major director like Lee.
The originality of Annie Proulx's 1997 short story, on which the film is based, was one of the reasons why both actors signed on.
"It was like Annie was walking through the forest and came across some myth that had never been heard or seen before," says Gyllenhaal, who recently added a terrifying performance as a bulked up U.S. Marine in Jarhead to his growing resumé, which includes the cult classic Donnie Darko.
"It was a story that you couldn't not say or tell. I like things that are alive and fresh, things that haven't been done before."
He's quick to say that he's less interested in the film's political potential than its emotional charge.
"Movies are very powerful, and they can change people they've done that to me," says the actor. "But this wasn't about politics. I don't think I could play a part with a political agenda. I work in the world of emotions, not politics."
It seems like a pat phrase, but one look at his puppy-dog eyes and you believe it. Think of Gyllenhaal's most memorable roles and you don't remember his one attempt at a big blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow but the smaller, wrenching performances, like his tortured teen who carries on an affair with Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl and the boy who loses his girlfriend in Moonlight Mile. He's like a more emotionally available Tobey Maguire.
Brokeback Mountain wrestles your feelings to the ground because of Jack's touching vulnerability mixed with Ennis's deep-rooted fears of exposure.
That openness comes naturally. Gyllenhaal grew up in an enviously glamorous and liberal milieu. Both his parents are filmmakers, and his sister Maggie is an actor. Growing up, the idea of same-sex love was never a big deal.
"The fact that I have two godfathers who are a gay couple and a lot of my friends came out when they were 15 or 16 probably helped it all seem not that foreign," he smiles.
"But I'm not naive. I'm totally aware that there are people out there who hate gays. The thing is, sexuality isn't about left or right, conservative or liberal. It affects everyone. A lot of people, no matter what their political stance, are dealing with this issue."
Despite one explosive scene in which Ledger inadvertently bashed Gyllenhaal's nose in during a kiss, the dark-haired actor says the emotional scenes were harder to film.
"The intimate scenes and the fight scenes are related," he points out. "These are two guys who deal with animals, and their instinct is to treat each other and themselves like animals.
"But that emotional territory is way more complicated. I think that's why everybody is so fascinated with the physical aspect, because it seems easier to talk about. Emotions are scarier."
The elegiac tone of doomed love hovers over each gorgeous frame of the film. And while a tragic turning point near the end is ambiguous, Gyllenhaal points out something that no one else has mentioned in any analysis of the film. Proulx published the piece exactly a year before Matthew Shepard's gay-bashing. Shepard, ironically, was also from Wyoming.
"When the story came out in the New Yorker, there were very real fears about gay-bashing. It was a reality. Maybe in another eight or 10 years it won't even be a fear."
And what if he, movie star Jake Gyllenhaal, could talk to a real life Jack Twist today?
Gyllenhaal's big eyes get even bigger and that grin curls up.
"I'd tell him, 'Gosh, I wish I could find a love that was so deep in my life. Oh, and don't worry, man. I've got your back.'"
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee) Rating: NNnN
This eagerly anticipated film, based on Annie Proulx's short story, tracks the decades-long love affair between cowboys Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger). Hired to herd sheep one summer atop Brokeback Mountain, the two wordlessly share a sleeping bag one freezing night and basically do what a man's gotta do. Though both get married and raise families in different states, they occasionally hook up to go "fishing," although that's not enough for Jack, the needier of the two.
After all the thinly veiled homoeroticism of traditional westerns, there's something cathartic about seeing two men go homo on the range, and the two actors commit to their roles physically and emotionally. The theme of unfulfilled love is heartbreaking, and it's handled with taste and restraint.
As in all Lee's films, the pace occasionally lags, but the wide-open country vistas (it was shot in Alberta) demand the slower pace. Each scene from the film stays with me vividly even months after seeing it.
Donning gay apparel
Brokeback Mountain is rustling up a lot of attention because of its gay lead characters, and other holiday releases (Transamerica, and Breakfast On Pluto - both reviewed in this issue) depict people of various sexual stripes. Here's a look at a few other gay and (sadly too few) lesbian characters seen on the big screen in 2005.
CAPOTE Philip Seymour Hoffman's a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination as gay scribe Truman Capote. He gets the fey mannerisms and babyish voice down pat, but the filmmakers censor his relationship with his long-term partner, Jack Dunphy (an overly sober Bruce Greenwood ). I suppose they figured it was enough that Capote was effeminate and a tortured writer. Why show him having any sexual feelings?
MYSTERIOUS SKIN Gregg Araki's haunting, dreamlike film shows two teens who've been affected by childhood sexual abuse. One ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt ) has become a cold-hearted hustler, while the other ( Brady Corbet ) is an oddball who believes he was once abducted by aliens. Araki, adapting Scott Heims's novel, offers up no trite theories about sexuality, but he does deliver some brutal truths about power and survival.
C.R.A.Z.Y. Writer/director Jean-Marc Vallée, who is straight, amazingly shows us what it might have felt like to grow up gay in a Quebec suburb in the 60s and 70s. Not only does he have the period details down, but through Zac (the astonishing Marc-André Grondin ), one of five brothers, he also shows us how anger and denial affect queer identity, and how the fashions of pop culture can temporarily become a liberating form of self-expression.
MY SUMMER OF LOVE Two teenage girls from different sides of the tracks fall truly, madly and deeply in love in this gorgeous coming-of-age thriller about faith and social boundaries in rural England. The relationship is handled tastefully, and newcomers Emily Blunt and Nathalie Press deliver fresh, committed performances. The film's denouement is a shocker.
WALK ON WATER One of the year's most underrated films is an exacting look at masculinity. An emotionally distant Israeli assassin ( Lior Ashkenazi ) is assigned to spy on an open and frank gay German tourist ( Knut Berger ) whose grandfather is a Nazi war criminal. The film's sexual politics are more intriguing than its melodramatic Nazi-Jew plot.
WEDDING CRASHERS A harmless, dumb comedy made palatable by Vince Vaughn's over-the-top character. But did we need the pale, greasy-haired brother ( Keir O'Donnell ) to fall in love with Vaughn and paint his nude portrait?
MR. & MRS. SMITH John Smith ( Brad Pitt ) asks a pretty office worker if she's a vegan, and the woman responds: "No, but my girlfriend is." Small detail, but I'll bet more people caught this clever little line than the combined audience for all of the other films.