[This is the first in a new regular series of “First Person” articles written by members of the film community. It is meant to showcase the opinions of our readers. indieWIRE readers interested in contributing a future “First Person” column should contact us by email: office AT indiewire DOT com.]
In 1997 when I read Annie Proulx‘s short story, “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker, I sat in bed stunned. I had never read such an intensely literate love story that packed such an emotional punch. I re-read the piece at least three times in a row and couldn’t believe the New Yorker had the courage to publish such an honest tale of two men who accidentally fall in love.
Not so much a “gay western” as its been easily branded, “Brokeback Mountain” is really a romantic and tender love story between two working class men set against a picturesque American landscape.
In 1998, an agent friend who knew what a fan I was of the short story slipped me a draft of Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana‘s adaptation of the short story. The short story had been expanded to a slim, but substantial 98 page script. I read the script and was amazed at the adaptation. The script was as faithful and true to Ms. Proulx’s prose and what had been fleshed out provides true fidelity to those characters. Having read that script, I thought it would be perfect fodder for Gus Van Sant, who was then rumored to be attached. Reading that draft made me wonder, who would have the balls to actually finance it.
Needless to say, the script sat for many years in development limbo, announcements had been made that Joel Schumacher was going to direct it, and like many other projects like “The Frontrunner” or “The Dreyfuss Affair“, I assumed that it would forever flounder.
One day in 2002, I read a trade announcement that James Schamus and Ang Lee were going to make “Brokeback Mountain” into a film, and my heart leapt! I immediately called James, a longtime colleague and friend, to congratulate him and begged him to let me know all the developments with it. I followed along as rumors flowed from the gay underground that they had obliterated the work and “straightend it” to suit the masses, that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal had absolutely no heat or passion whatsoever, and shied away from any of the sex scenes. Even when I prodded James for answers, he just played his hand with a poker face.
Finally, when “Brokeback Mountain” screened in Toronto this year, it was a dream come true. What I saw unfold on screen was Lee’s perfectly realized version of Ms. Proulx’s story and Mr. McMurtry and Ms. Ossana’s adaptation. With visual nods to Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper they created a uniquely gay American love story like no other. Beginning in 1963, this is the story of two men who have no idea of how to pronounce the name of their love, other than “queer” well before the term had irony. Amazingly, Mr. Ledger and Mr. Gyllenhaal convincingly have a romantic chemistry that hasn’t been seen on screen in any straight or gay film in recent memory.
While Ledger and Gyllenhaal are certainly easy on the eyes, Proulx’s description indicated a much more ordinary couple, amazingly these actors never seem apprehensive, they seem as comfortable in their roles as if they had lived those lives. What’s remarkable for me as a gay viewer, is that it feels so fresh I feel like I am seeing a complex, realistic romantic gay love story for the first time. A story long before AIDS, one where we’re not the sassy best friend, the crazed murderer, the victim or a teenager coming of age. Its pretty much a simple intimate love story that has an elegance of just being a tale well told.
This team of filmmakers has crafted a film that reminds why I am proud to be in this profession. Everything that I have worked for in this business is epitomized in this film, and, hopefully, “Brokeback Mountain” will find an appreciative audience in middle America.
I really have to applaud Focus Features for having the courage to take such a gamble on this movie. Even for a specialty division of a studio to get behind such a daring film, it defines them as an organization that understands the term, “independent spirit.” If the film succeeds commercially, it will hopefully raise the bar for gay cinema and prove that there is an audience to support it. If anything, the film has already garnered some of the highest praise from critics as well as having won the top prize in Venice to validate it.
Personally, even after four viewings, I still get a lump in my throat by the film’s conclusion. While the “New Queer Cinema” has produced some substantial GLBT films, this film just feels like an intelligent, smart piece of cinema that happens to have at its core a gay love story.
When “Brokeback Mountain” opens this Friday, the sad and beautiful love story of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist will forever be an indelible part of our American folklore, their romance will be a part of an iconography that is every bit as weighty as Romeo and Juliet.
[Marcus Hu is Co-President of Strand Releasing and on the Board of FIND, Film Independent as well as the Advisory Board for Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT film festival.]