Lee lassoes duo for gay oater

Number of high-profile young thesps were circling roles

NEW YORK — Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are in negotiations to play the cowboy lovers in Focus Features and director Ang Lee’s adaptation of the E. Annie Proulx novella “Brokeback Mountain,” which chronicles an intense relationship between two Wyoming stockmen.

Casting of the two leads has been the subject of heated speculation since the project was announced late last year, with a number of high-profile young actors circling the roles. Colin Farrell, Josh Hartnett and Billy Crudup have been mentioned, the latest indicator that one-time reticence of Hollywood actors to take on gay roles is fading.

The adaptation originally was in development at Columbia with Scott Rudin producing and Gus Van Sant attached to direct. It was put into turnaround and picked up by Good Machine, making its way from there to Focus.

In addition to Lee, whose skill with literary adaptations has been proven in films like “The Ice Storm,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Ride With the Devil,” the cowboy project boasts a screenwriter with a consummate feel for the West in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, who adapted the book with writing partner Diana Ossana.

Ossana will produce, with McMurtry and Michael Costigan serving as exec producers and Callum Greene as line producer.

Published in Proulx’s short story collection “Close Range: Wyoming Stories,” “Brokeback Mountain” is an epic love story set against the sweeping landscapes of Wyoming and Texas, about a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy who meet in summer 1961 while driving cattle on a mountain range. They forge a lifelong connection that endures despite intolerance and prejudices — including their own — but is eventually severed by tragedy.

Gyllenhaal will play ranch hand Jack, with Ledger as Ennis, who drifts away from his friend to travel the rodeo circuit, but their lives continue to intertwine for many years.

The project marks the continuation of Lee’s long association with Focus co-presidents David Linde and James Schamus, who have been involved in the packaging, production, sales and — in Schamus’ case — screenwriting of the majority of the director’s films. Focus is aiming for a summer start date.

Repped by CAA and Management 360, Gyllenhaal recently completed shooting “Proof” for director John Madden and Miramax, alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. He also stars in Roland Emmerich’s upcoming “Day After Tomorrow” for Fox. This month, Gyllenhaal will co-host the Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony with Zooey Deschanel.

Ledger, also at CAA, stars with Orlando Bloom and Naomi Watts in Gregor Jordan’s “Ned Kelly,” which Focus will release March 26. The actor just wrapped the Dimension Films-MGM co-prod “The Brothers Grimm” for director Terry Gilliam, with Matt Damon, Jonathan Pryce and Monica Bellucci.

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