By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
When word got around among gays that Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, hunky Hollywood hotties du jour, were set to play ranch hands who fall in love in the idyllic mountains of Wyoming, there was a certain giddiness: Tight Levi's galore! The homoerotic Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue writ large! A mainstream, romantic, holi gay cowboy movie!
Then a herd mentality started to sink in, like a gay church praying at the altar of "Brokeback Mountain." There's a countdown on Gay.com ("It's finally here!"), E-vites are landing in in-boxes ("Let's watch it together!"), and blogs are keeping tabs on the film's awards, including yesterday's seven Golden Globe nominations -- the most of any film this year. The message is: If you're a self-respecting homosexual, you had better get in line -- as so many did this past weekend in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, where the movie opened in five sold-out theaters -- and see this film, pronto. It opens in Washington, and 13 other cities, Friday.
"This is our gay 'Gone With the Wind,' " says Neil G. Giuliano, the former Republican mayor of Tempe, Ariz., and current president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a national organization that tracks the representation of gay men and lesbians in the media. Early Sunday night, GLAAD sent out a press release touting the film's three-day box office take of $544,549 in five theaters -- "the highest per-screen average ever for an adult drama, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc." Adds Giuliano: "This is a monumental gay film."
Yet what's most surprising about "Brokeback" is that it's not a gay film. Not in the way gay films, especially those about gay men, usually are.
Alec Papazian, who saw "Brokeback" in an advance screening at the Regal Gallery Place in downtown Washington last week, echoes many who've seen it when he says: "I'm not really sure how my friends -- my gay friends -- would categorize it."
This is not a film about gay men and AIDS, a la "Philadelphia," which won Tom Hanks an Oscar, or "Love! Valour! Compassion!," the film version of the Terrence McNally play. It's neither comedic nor campy, nothing like "In & Out" or "The Birdcage." It's no "Kiss Me, Guido" or "Trick" or "The Broken Hearts Club," all set in big cities, with stereotypical gay characters -- a thespian with the perfectly decorated Greenwich Village apartment, a West Hollywood muscle queen hooked on drugs -- trapped in flamboyantly worn-out narratives.
But "Brokeback" is the anti-"Queer as Folk," the TV show that depicted the urbane, sex-crazed gay lifestyle.
Based on a spare short story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Proulx and directed by Taiwanese American Ang Lee ("Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), it tells the story of Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger), two vagabonds whose lifelong affair begins in Brokeback Mountain on a chilly night in 1963. Then they part ways, marry women who don't know their secret and have children, only to reunite four years later with a deep, fiery, longing kiss that is arguably the most passionate man-on-man kiss to have been put on screen.
"Theirs is a story of a love that was repressed," Lee, who is married and has two kids, says in an interview. "That's really what drew me to the story."
Year after year, spanning two decades, Jack and Ennis reunite in Brokeback Mountain, frustrated, scared, still in love -- and giving new meaning to "goin' fishin'," the excuse they tell their wives. There is one sex scene in the movie, which Lee describes as "animalistic," "spontaneous" and "aggressive"; it stands in stark contrast to the kissing scene, which is meant to be "sexy." If you don't buy that kiss, Lee adds, then you won't buy the love affair.
The film's old-fashioned romanticism wasn't what some early viewers had expected. "It doesn't fit into the current gay culture as we know it. It's not about sex; I was actually surprised that there wasn't that much sex in it. It's not about legal rights. It's about straight men trying to dress like gay men," says Jonathan Rosales, 21, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California who saw "Brokeback" in Los Angeles.
Joseph Wiedman, a 31-year-old lawyer who saw the film in San Francisco, adds, "The big thing is: The movie is really well done and really accessible, for gays and straights. It's not preachy, as one of my friends pointed out, and not at all political. It's very personal."
"Brokeback" pushes the boundaries on two fronts: It's a Hollywood romance, but with gay men; it's a gay film, but with broader, more universal themes.
"They can call it whatever they want to call it; just don't call it a 'gay cowboy love story.' That's upsetting to me," says Paul Pecoriano, 35, an actor and waiter who works in the XES Lounge in Manhattan -- that's SEX spelled backward, in case you missed it. For months now, he's heard one too many recycled jokes about the film, the most popular being that it ought to have been called "Bareback Mountain" -- "bareback," in gayspeak, is a word for unsafe sex.
"It's a love story, period," says Pecoriano.
It's a "sweet and gentle and touching and well-observed" film, says Michael Musto, a columnist for the Village Voice. He adds that if the film accomplished anything -- if it truly lives up to the groundbreaking, landmark status that film critics and gay rights groups have bestowed upon it -- it's shown that a "gay love story is as banal as a straight one."
"That is a measure of achievement," says Musto. "Now we just have a love story that hits a lot of formulaic points that happens to be between two guys."
The film made Peter Luger, 40, think back to 1978's "Same Time, Next Year," with its romantic tryst between Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. "That in itself maybe tells us that, gay or straight, a love story is a love story," says Luger, who caught an early screening here last week.
But back to that herd mentality business -- the pressure, the expectations, the lobbying, the near-bullying, "be-there-or-be-a-bad-gay" attitude of it all.
If you go on opening night at Loews Dupont Circle (it'll also be at the Landmark Bethesda Row), you're likely to spot Scott Shumaker and 40 to 45 of his friends, most of them gay men, who are all planning to see "Brokeback" Friday night. Shumaker, a self-described film buff and "definitely a gay-film buff," he says, organized the gathering, which will move afterward to Halo, the popular bar on P Street NW, for a post-movie wrap-up. The 33-year-old graphic designer says most everyone's big question will be: Can a straight director and two straight actors make an authentic gay movie?
Judging from the reaction so far, authentic enough.