Subversive Western poses special challenge for Ang Lee and Focus

“Brokeback Mountain” is out. Not in theaters, of course — the film doesn’t open until early December — but its ill-fated love story about two gay cowboys has sprung from the closet.

In July, Focus Features released the film’s one-sheet showing denim-clad stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger side by side with the provocative tagline: “Love is a force of nature.” On Aug. 26, Focus rolled out trailers — which show the young heartthrobs embracing — on 1,200 screens. Earlier this month, Gyllenhaal graced the cover of Out Magazine and Ledger will be the newsstand face of the Advocate for December. And at fests from Venice to Telluride to Toronto, Ledger’s performance in particular, as strong silent-type cowboy in longing Ennis Del Mar, has already been declared Oscar solid.

After nabbing the top prize at Venice, “Brokeback” bowled over audiences at Toronto, where North American critics got their first glimpse of the handsome cowboys engaging in raw, passionate sex with one another, and their subsequent tragic love affair. Reviewers liked what they saw: The film was hailed as no less than a “landmark” by the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman and “a shift in scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era” by the Guardian’s B. Ruby Rich.

Variety‘s Todd McCarthy described the film as “marked by a heightened degree of sensitivity and tact, as well as an outstanding performance by Heath Ledger.”

But during a time of increased homophobia across the U.S. (hate crimes based on sexual orientation have risen dramatically since 2003), the macho caballeros of “Brokeback” might be wrestling with prejudices more obstructive than thousand-pound bulls and runaway sheep.

Gay characters are no longer strangers to the mainstream, what with “Will & Grace,” “Queer Eye” and ’90s box office successes “In & Out” and “The Birdcage.” But a serious love story about two men goes against the still popular portrayals of gays as comedic sidekicks; hustlers; psycho killers; or as in the case of Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning perf in “Philadelphia,” men who keep their sexual desire offscreen.

Jon Gerrans, co-prexy of Strand Releasing, which distributes indie and gay-themed programming, acknowledges a greater acceptance of gay and lesbian characters, but “only in a safe way,” he says. “We don’t see our market growing. If you read a review and it says gay, gay, gay, then I’ve lost half my audience.”

So while Focus is acknowledging the film’s gay content and working with gay organizations, the thrust of its campaign extends much further. Marketed as a sweeping melodrama in the vein of “Gone With the Wind” and “Doctor Zhivago,” the movie is being targeted heavily to the female demo, from women’s progressive groups to book clubs to college coeds.

As director Ang Lee says in the film’s press notes, “To me, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is uniquely, and universally, a great American love story.” The sentiment has been repeated at press conferences, on talkshows and in interviews.

“I always thought of it as a doomed young men story,” explains novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, who adapted the E. Annie Proulx short story with Diana Ossana. “There’s such a great tradition in American literature from ‘The Great Gatsby’ to ‘The Sun Also Rises’ to ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ and I saw it like that.

“It’s a doomed love story,” echoes Ossana. “Maybe it’s because we’re writers we don’t make those kinds of judgments (about gay vs. straight). It’s more about real life.”

Identifying the film’s experience as one that can touch all individuals is an age-old Hollywood tactic, according to Ron Gregg of the U. of Chicago’s Committee on Cinema and Media Studies. “Ever since ‘The Children’s Hour’ (1961) and ‘Advise and Consent’ (1962), they would say this isn’t a lesbian or gay thing, but a universal thing. Even with ‘Boys in the Band,’ of all films, you get William Friedkin saying in interviews, ‘This isn’t a gay film. All people will identity with these struggles.’ “

Gregg also suggests the actors’ “Oscar-worthy” performances are partially based on the actors being straight. “Like the strategy of ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘Monster,’ they’re isolating performance from character, and assuring the audience that the actors are stretching their talent.”

Furthermore, critic and author B. Ruby Rich says, “I don’t believe they would have ever allowed an openly queer director to make this movie, nor do I believe that actors of this caliber would have signed on. In a long line of ironic outcomes, it took these guys with impeccable heterosexual credentials to make this kind of breakthrough.”

Some film scholars have connected “Brokeback Mountain” to a handful of Westerns that they say include homoerotic undertones. For instance, Chris Packard, an adjunct professor at N.Y.U. and author of “Queer Cowboys,” claims Howard Hawks’ “Red River” — with its “pistol-as-penis handling and the crotch-cruising between Montgomery Clift and John Ireland” — can be seen as a precedent.

But Rich points out, “the brilliance of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is that’s it’s not subtextual. That’s what’s so groundbreaking about it.”

A clearer antecedent, argues Rich, is John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “which picked up on the appeal of the cowboy and queer desire,” she says.

But the Dustin Hoffman-Jon Voight drama is markedly different from “Brokeback,” she argues, in that neither Ratso Rizzo nor Joe Buck has the “nobility” of the Ledger and Gyllenhaal characters.

Nominated for seven Oscars and winning three, including picture, “Midnight Cowboy” stands as an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ openness to gay material.

Gerrans, an Academy member, points to another multiple Oscar nominee “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” “That was a small film that had nothing behind it, but look at how the Academy embraced it and acknowledged it. That’s a good example of the Academy not having those phobias.”

General audiences, on the other hand, might be a different matter.

While GLAAD president Neil Giuliano sees the film’s honesty and realistic portrayal as a “positive opportunity for a greater dialogue about sexual orientation issues,” Ossana sees the challenges in getting people to see the movie.

“But I guarantee you this,” she says, “you can have all the preconceived notions you want, but when you go see that film, by the end a lot of those notions will be shattered.”

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