It’s the afternoon of the first critics’ screening of his new movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” the notorious “gay cowboy” movie that passed through directors Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher, among others, before Ang Lee corralled what all agree is “delicate” material for a premiere at the Venice Film Festival earlier in the week. In four more hours, there will be a last-minute crush at the first public screening at the Toronto Film Festival, by which time the buzz will be reaching critical mass and Ledger’s performance will be heralded as “a revelation” by critics. A just-arrived Lee will miss a breakfast interview the next morning when he has to fly back to Venice to accept the Golden Lion grand prize. By the time of the Focus Features premiere party that night on the balcony of the Toronto restaurant Flow, there will be teenage girls four deep pressed against the picture windows, vying for a glimpse of Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal, the romantic leads of this unlikeliest of love stories.
The short story by Annie Proulx on which “Brokeback Mountain” is based created a minor sensation when it appeared in the New Yorker in 1997, with its epic tale of two ranch hands in 1963-era Signal, Wyo., who stumble into an accidental romance that somehow outlasts wives, girlfriends and one-night stands over the course of the next two decades. As adapted by Larry McMurtry and writing partner Diana Ossana, the result is something like “Lonesome Dove” refashioned as “Doctor Zhivago,” with a serial grandeur attained largely by adhering closely to the 30-page source material, populated by characters without the emotional vocabulary to cope with the profound changes wrought in them.
“Ennis Del Mar is probably the most masculine character I’ve played to date,” says Ledger, weighing his words carefully and perhaps struggling with his incidental role in the larger drama he has only just stumbled into — one of politics, gender and biology. “For me, I think the violence in Ennis is from the battle against his genetic structure. The beliefs that have been handed to him from his father and his father’s father are what he’s competing against. This is a somewhat homophobic guy who’s in love with another man. That’s his story, and that’s what I was attracted to about the role — his choices, or his lack of choice. It’s why the violence is so important, because he doesn’t accept it himself. He needs someone else to kick the shit out of him.”
What sets Ledger’s character apart from Gyllenhaal’s more romantic, demonstrative dreamer is the physical transformation he undergoes as the character ages from 20 to 40: His voice deepens and becomes gravelly, his posture reflects a mounting resignation and his upper lip freezes, paralyzing the lower half of his face and turning him into a sort of Tommy Lee Jones before our eyes.
“A lot of the ranch hands I’ve met in Australia, they keep their top lip like that,” says the Perth-raised Ledger. “I figure it’s because they’re trying to keep the flies out of their mouth while they’re talking. And then the way they walk: When you’re a cowboy, your shoulders and everything slumps when you’re on horseback all day. So when you get off, you stay in that shape.”
Even as his professional world transforms around him here in Toronto, Ledger looks perpetually disheveled in jeans and a red T-shirt, his signature blond tresses shorn to a buzz cut that crests in an imposing widow’s peak, with sparse scrags of beard that suggest the outback of his native environs. At once laconic and focused, Ledger resembles nothing so much as the surfer and itinerant wanderer he might have become if Columbia hadn’t cast him as Mel Gibson Jr. in “The Patriot,” and then, on the strength of that film’s dailies, again in a starring role as the Chaucerian cheesecake of “A Knight’s Tale.” Except he can’t seem to sit still, fidgeting with his napkin, his wine glass and the table’s condiments. “My nerves come out through my fingertips,” he says, apologetically. “When I’m with my girlfriend or when at home, I’m quite the opposite. I’m a pretty relaxed guy.” In fact, at the V Life photo shoot a week later, he appears introspective and vaguely guarded until his girlfriend — “Brokeback” co-star Michelle Williams, who is then eight months pregnant with their child — arrives, at which point his intensity melts and he seems to take on her inherent glow.
Gyllenhaal, also reaping a whirlwind of praise for his performance here in Toronto, has his own take on Ledger: “Everyone says, ‘Oh, he’s so insular’ or ‘He’s repressing’ and all these things, but I think just the opposite. I think he is incredibly sensitive, and he wears his heart on his shoulder — in the performance and in life. I remember when we first started shooting, he said to me something like, ‘I think this character is really sensitive to light, and that’s why he’s squinting or looking down a lot; sound and light are really hard for him to take in.’ ”
edger is part of a generation of Australian actors that has capitalized on common language and cultural heritage to make the 8,000-mile trip from Down Under into the spotlight. “We definitely all know each other. It throws you together, in a bonding way,” he says. “But there’s no conspiracy. We don’t sit around planning some great overthrow. We’re all in different age groups; we’re not going out for the same stuff — me and Geoffrey Rush and Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett and Nicole (Kidman) and Naomi (Watts). Mel Gibson. Certainly with me, I’m not competing with anyone.”
In that sense perhaps, Ledger most closely resembles the generation of British expatriates who found their way to Hollywood in the mid ’60s — Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, et al: rugged, thoughtful, intellectual types who spent their downtime drinking at the Coach and Horses on Sunset Boulevard and seducing our most desirable women. On that latter front, Ledger has already made some solid headway, having been linked romantically to Heather Graham, Watts and now Williams.
But unlike those angry young men often schooled at the Royal Shakespeare Company and weaned on the classics, Ledger is largely self-taught and has turned self-improvement into a kind of spiritual quest. Braced for stardom in 2000, his face gracing the “Knight’s Tale” poster and the cover of Vanity Fair, Ledger began a five-year walkabout through big-budget adventure sagas and small-frame character studies that few saw in equal measure. He also perfected a host of native accents in many of these: upper-crust British toff in “The Four Feathers,” lilting Irish brogue in “Ned Kelly” (Australia’s national hero), deep Southern drawl in “Monster’s Ball” and generic American in “The Order.” The cumulative effect was akin to hiding in plain sight, using what most wrote off as box-office disappointments to turn in a series of increasingly powerful performances that were invisible to all but the most steadfast observer. Even so, such choices were still a far cry from the committee-run franchises and comic-book royal histories that pass for sure things these days.
“I think there are obvious choices in this business that will guide you toward financial success,” Ledger says. “It can be a curse, that being your primary goal, because I think longevity is not part of that plan. So I guess early on, I wasn’t afraid to be a little more ruthless with my choices, purely because I felt I needed to destroy my career a little bit anyway, so I felt like I had room for error — to take the shine off it a little. It’s like anything in life, visualizing the old man you’re going to become: As long as you have a clear picture of that — the life you want to lead — eventually you’ll probably get there.”
Asked to describe the career he’d like to grow into, Ledger cites patriarch Jack Nicholson as well as Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Jeff Bridges and Gene Hackman — all serious actors who became stars (even, like Depp or Bridges, when trapped in the body of a matinee idol). This year alon
e, Ledger will have had five films released: Sony’s “Lords of Dogtown,” in which his hapless skateboarding impresario brings to mind Val Kilmer with “Nutty Professor” teeth; Dimension’s “The Brothers Grimm,” in which he manages to hold his own against Terry Gilliam’s shaggy-dog story blown up to woolly-mammoth proportions; “Candy,” a junkie romance from Australia; and most prominently, Lasse Hallstrom’s swashbuckling “Casanova” for Buena Vista, a big-budget costume epic coming out on Christmas Day. But it’s “Brokeback Mountain,” with its built-in marketing challenge, flashpoint politics and early Oscar buzz, that will separate the first half of his career from the second.
“It’s definitely a transitional time,” Ledger says. “Definitely. It hasn’t begun yet. We’re all just sitting around talking about it at this point. But my personal life is where all the transition is happening, having a child. It completely outweighs any excitement in my career. It completely pulls this rug of hype out from under my feet and keeps me grounded.”
rokeback” producer and Focus co-founder James Schamus made the claim from the Venice press conference dais that there were no gay cowboy movies before this one — a statement he insists was irony that failed to translate, having in mind at the very least Montgomery Clift in “Red River” and “The Misfits,” Randolph Scott in “Ride the High Country,” or Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the proto-buddy film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In fact, it’s not inconceivable that the Venice jury, seeing in the film’s protagonist an embodiment of the Western macho ethic, massively repressed, with no recourse in negotiating his feelings but sporadic and inopportune violence, might have been sending no less subtle a message to America and its elected leaders than Cannes did when it awarded Michael Moore the Golden Palm for “Fahrenheit 9/11.” (Norman Mailer made this explicit parallel between sexual repression and political violence in his 1967 novel “Why Are We in Vietnam?” about Texas boys on a hunting trip who similarly discover their truest nature while bedded down in a tent on the Alaskan peninsula.)
But what Focus intuited early on, and the rest of us are only starting to glean, is that there might be an untapped female audience for gay love stories. “We already know who the audience is,” says Schamus, whose Focus release “The Laramie Project,” about Wyoming gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepherd, shares some of the same physical and psychic terrain with “Brokeback.” “The audience is literally anybody who likes a true, epic love story. And clearly, that starts with women. Of course, we have a core audience of art-film and gay and lesbian filmgoers, who I think will seek it out. But this film appeals to female viewers almost without exception — which is a wonderful place to be, obviously, because women drive the arthouse film business.”
Yet of all the popular renditions of gay relationships in mainstream American films, it’s hard to think of even one that presents an outright, unabashed love story, much less between movie stars: “Philadelphia” and “Longtime Companion,” even “Angels in America,” are all AIDS dramas, redolent of disease and decay; “Torch Song Trilogy,” “To Wong Foo …” and “The Birdcage” are camp and played for laughs; onscreen kisses between two men in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Deathtrap” and “Six Degrees of Separation” (and full-frontal nudity in “The Crying Game”) are calculated for shock value and occur almost incidentally to the drama. The lust in “Priest” is furtive, in “Gods and Monsters” unrequited, in “Far From Heaven” guilt-laden, in “De-Lovely” secondary, in “Midnight Cowboy” (and every other buddy movie of the ’70s) subtextual. Ensemble dramas from “The Boys in the Band” to “Queer as Folk” diffuse their impact by dispersing the sex among a host of unknowns. In retrospect, each of these approaches seems to feature an escape hatch, spot-welded on to accommodate studio fears.
But if the Focus strategy is borne out in the marketplace, this will be the second time — after “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — its executives will have identified a market demographic lurking undetected in the culture. Both are Ang Lee films.
For his part, Lee just sees this as business as usual. “Whatever I do,” he says, “especially in Asia, it’s always an 80% female audience. I just see rows and rows of women, with guys being dragged to my movies. So when people say this is a movie for women, it feels pretty natural. I think it’s probably the romance, the love, that sensitive feeling that gets to them — although I didn’t have women in mind when I made this movie, or a gay audience even. I just don’t think like that.”
If the early Oscar handicapping is at all prescient and the actor ballot contains the names of Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote,” as well as nods to “Transamerica” and “Breakfast on Pluto,” we’ll be hearing a lot more about all of this. But at this exact moment in time, at a corner table in a quiet bistro in the Toronto Park Hyatt, three hours shy of superstardom or corrupting hype, with the buzz just coalescing and the future looming somewhere over the event horizon, Ledger stands atop a great divide of his own making. It runs between the avenues of the human heart, between opposing sides in the coming culture wars and between the rival halves of his brief life: before and after.
“I don’t have any films on the horizon,” he says.” I’m certainly ambitious in terms of wanting to improve what I do between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ but I’m not that ambitious in terms of searching out my next job. I kind of like the choices to fall from the sky and land in my lap.”
SIDEBAR: Ledger on Paparazzi
With the rise of high-speed digital cameras and a 24-hour tabloid news cycle, a new breed of techno-stalkers — armed with walkie-talkies, police scanners and GPS trackers — has emerged. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, no stranger to the glare of the flashbulbs himself, has signed a bill that will subject overly aggressive paparazzi to treble damages should they assault or injure a celebrity. Heath Ledger describes the media crush from inside the bubble:
“I could never imagine myself, in the position I’m in, raising a child in Hollywood. There are three cars that wait down the street to follow you anywhere. They’re in your eyeline, so you can’t ignore it when those guys swerve in front of you, or you’re filling up your car or getting your groceries. It’s a hard feeling to describe, when you’re invaded. Sometimes I’ve been sitting with my girlfriend (Michelle Williams) — you’re out in the park somewhere and you start to kiss her; it’s the most romantic moment of your day, your week, your year. And suddenly, a car pulls up two feet away from you, with another one right behind it, and guys will jump out of the car and just stand there two feet away from you taking photos. It actually feels like someone reaches out and whaps you in the face.
Unfortunately, you can’t push these photographers back because it’s illegal. But you want to. Everything inside of you wants to get their cameras and smash them over your knee, ram your car into theirs. I’ve got a 1970 Mustang with 500 horsepower under the hood, so I can outrun them really easily. And I know the streets — I can duck and dive all over the place. But you’re shooting red lights, you’re doing U-turns with trucks coming at you, it’s really dangerous stuff. And with my girlfriend, she’s pregnant, she wants to go to yoga or whatever, she’s not going to outrun them; and she’s sensitive — they’ll take photos of her leaving yoga, or they’ll chase her, and she’ll burst into tears. And then she comes home and we become prisoners in our house.
All of these are really good reasons not to live in Hollywood. (In Brooklyn), I walk my laundry down to the Laundromat, I get my groceries and carry them back; photographers don’t live out there, and local people don’t care. The people in Brooklyn have been living there thei
r entire lives; they’re not transient whatsoever. And so it’s the most peaceful and attached to life I’ve felt. It’s beautiful. It’s the best change I’ve made, physically, in my life.”