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The Brokeback Mountain effect: the historic cultural success of Brokeback Mountain owes much to the film's quality and emotional power--and a little to George W. Bush and the antigay right. But can a movie advance say equality?

West Hollywood, Calif., resident Doug Eichler strolled into Regal Cinemas' Avenue 13 multiplex the day after Christmas, keen to see the film his friends and neighbors (including this writer) had been raving about--the so-called gay cowboy flick Brokeback Mountain. Visiting his in-laws for the holidays, Eichler had no reason to think it would be difficult to find a seat: The Avenue 13 is in Rolling Hills Estates, a posh bedroom community on the Palos Verdes peninsula 20-odd miles south and a world away from the liberal gay enclave of West Hollywood. Voters here in 2004 favored George W. Bush by 15 percentage points.

And yet when Eichler walked into a large stadium-style theater showing Brokeback, it was absolutely packed. Eichler saw families, older married women and men, groups of teenage girls, and straight high schoolers on dates. He saw precisely one gay male couple. And he saw that the only seats left were literally in the front row. As Eichler settled in for the trailers, he couldn't help but wonder if these people had any idea what they were about to see.

He needn't have Worried. There were no groans, no inappropriate titters, no popcorn thrown at the screen. The audience watched ranch hands Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) mad Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) fall in love while herding sheep in the Wyoming mountains in 1963--and then furtively continue their romance over 20 years while marrying women and building separate families--with rapt attention. Well, save for one moment. When Ennis and Jack engaged in their first sexual encounter in a pup tent on a cold Wyoming night, a teenager sitting directly behind Eichler turned to his girlfriend and whispered, "Oh, man, he's getting it in the butt." His date immediately shushed him: "Shut up! It's art."

As the film concluded and the credits began to roll, the audience even broke into applause.

Never before has a gay-themed film been as written about, reviewed, lauded, awarded, discussed, dissected, parodied, and hyped as Brokeback Mountain, so it's easy to forget amid this din that the film is deeply moving millions nationwide one theater and one screen at a time, communities sitting together in the dark and emotionally connecting with this story. And not just where one would expect. A theater manager in Mason City, Iowa, reported receiving a petition asking him to bring the film to his screens (he was planning to anyway). The AMC Southroads 20 in Tulsa, Okla., received thank-you calls after it started screening Brokeback on January 6; there was so much demand, in fact, the theater had to add a screen for the first few showings. Newspapers from Columbus, Ohio, to Tallahassee, Fla., to small-town Joplin, Mo., have all run stories essentially saying the same thing: Good news, folks, Brokeback Mountain is coming to town!

"In the movie business, there's a hit movie, and there's a phenomenon," says Craig Zadan, an out Hollywood mogul who knows what he's talking about--with partner Neil Meron, he executive-produced the 2002 phenom Chicago. "Phenomena come out of the box. They're unexpected. They insinuate into every aspect not only of the entertainment industry but across cultural America. [Brokeback Mountain] is one of those cases. This is not a hit movie. This is a phenomenon. People who are tough, cynical moviegoers who basically don't like anything [love the film]. People have surrendered to this movie in a way that I've rarely ever seen. I'm almost shocked."

So how did this gentle, bucolic film--tremendously acted by its cast, gracefully written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from Annie Proulx's short story, and elegantly directed by Ang Lee--reach such saturated, pop-cultural heights? It is certainly not the first critically acclaimed, award-winning gay story with well-known actors (Gods and Monsters), established directors (Sunday Bloody Sunday) or both (Far From Heaven). Even Bays Don't Cry could be seen as a tragic love story set in the open rural West. And yet none of these films exactly broke any box ofrice records.

"Brokeback Mountain is a very mainstream, traditional movie," says B. Ruby Rich, film critic and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, citing the film's visual beauty (both its landscapes and its actors), linear pacing, and accessible story line as factors that set it apart from gay-themed films of years past. "At the same time, because of the subject matter, people can go to see it and feel they're being very cutting-edge. That's a great combination: something that's totally accessible, goes down easy, and yet has a kind of aura of transgression or hipness about it. Not very many films come along that mix up that kind of cocktail."

Philadelphia did, taking on the then white-hot issues of AIDS and antigay prejudice within the agreeably familiar conventions of the courtroom drama. And yet that film, though it won Tom Hanks his first Oscar, was not nearly as well-received as Brokeback Mountain.

Ron Nyswaner, Philadelphia's screenwriter, thinks he knows why. "I would say [Brokeback's] success has to do with quality," he says. "It's just such a fucking good movie ... [and] I think the filmmakers did not feel compelled, as we did when we made Philadelphia, to insert a message. Philadelphia was made at a particular time with a specific goal in mind: to illuminate the issue of AIDS and homophobia for people who don't want to think about those two things. In some ways Philadelphia is a little unsubtle because that was its goal." For Brokeback, Nyswaner speculates, "I can't imagine [the filmmakers] standing around saying, 'Gee, what will be the impact on the culture in terms of homophobia if we do the scene this way?' I think what they talked about was 'Well, what's true? What would Ennis do at this moment? What would Jack do at this moment?' I felt that they were relieved of some kind of social obligation. They told a story, and they told it as truthfully as possible."

To be sure, Brokeback is far from the only film with queer themes in the past year or so. American cinemas have recently unspooled a matchless string of LGBT films and characters: Val Kilmer's no-nonsense private dick Gay Perry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Gary Beach and Roger Bart's all-nonsense theater queens in The Producers; the AIDS-stricken, pansexual bohemians of Rent; popcorny genre fare like Eating Out and D.E.B.S.; and highbrow art-house films like Mysterious Skin, My Summer of Love, The Dying Gaul, and Breakfast on Pluto. And then, of course, there are Transamerica and Capote. Their respective lead performances from Felicity Huffman (as a pre-op transsexual parent) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the singular gay writer Truman Capote) have already captured critics' awards and Golden Globes and threaten to make this year's Academy Awards the gayest on record. (And that is saying something.)

As Nyswaner points out, all of these films were more interested in telling a story than delivering a political lecture, and yet taken together they appear to carry a rather pointed message: Despite recent efforts to the contrary, LGBT people will not be denied an integral place in American life and culture.

"The whole 'new queer cinema' movement [in the early 1990s] came out of similar attacks under Reagan," says Rich. "Now I think that culture has become an alternative to politics, insofar as you can ever divide those two. People feel, Well, maybe I can't vote somebody into office, but at least I can go see the film I want to see, or At least I can go make the film I want people to see."

"It feels like an inadvertent backlash to the state of the country right now," observes producer Zadan. "If [these films were released when Bill] Clinton was president, you wouldn't bat an eye. It's not just a coincidence ... that this success is occurring during the height of repression in America."

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, takes that point even further. "We are in fact living in a gay moment in history," he says. "There is an exceptional and unprecedented amount of focus in this country on gay issues. I'd like to say the LGBT movement could take credit for that. Frankly, that isn't the case. Our opponents, with their vast resources, have put gay people on the tip of their wedge to try to divide this country. They have elevated everything about gay people to this extraordinary level, so disproportionate to our percentage of the population. So the pump's been primed."

If Foreman is correct and President Bush and the religious right are karmically responsible for sowing the cultural fields in which Brokeback is currently frolicking, the Right may know it too. Reports about Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller's last-minute decision to yank Brokeback from one of his movie theaters notwithstanding, as of this writing the religious right has not launched a concerted campaign against any of the high-profile gay-themed films of 2005.

"Southern Baptists, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America--you haven't seen them take up the cudgel," observes Foreman. "That, to me, is a very interesting development. They're lockstep on almost everything. They have frequent meetings; it's no coincidence [they've been silent]. In and of itself, it is a wonderful statement that the [antigay] Right now understands that they can actually help us by being vociferous [against a gay film]."

This is not to suggest that gay and gay-friendly audiences are lockstep in their praise of Brokeback either. Critics of the film have grumbled that the apolitical Ennis and Jack aren't "gay enough"; that Aug Lee's tasteful aesthetic leaves little room for explicit sex; that the film ends with one gay man dead and another emotionally barren; and that claims Brokeback is "groundbreaking" ignore the long history of gay cinema both implicit and overt, from Montgomery Clift in Red River to Harry Hamlin in Making Love.

"I don't take any of those kinds of criticisms lightly," says James Schamus, who not only produced Brokeback Mountain but co-runs the studio, Focus Features (a division of Universal Pictures), that made it. "When things start to sound too hype-y, [it is useful] to go back to the history and make sure that you do give moments like these in the culture a proper context. I fully expected, quite frankly, a lively debate within the LGBT community about aspects of the film. I welcome it. That strain of discussion should not be drowned out by the shouts of joy at the success of the movie."

"I think that there's a particular identification that the gay community has to our films,'" suggests Rich. "[LGBT] people feel implicated by the representations on the screen in the way that a heterosexual audience in a multiplex on a Friday night never, ever would be. They don't come out of a serial killer movie and say, 'That's bad for the heterosexuals.'"

Indeed, what is groundbreaking about Brokeback has more to do with its success than its content--for three days following its four Golden Globe wins, Brokeback became the first same-sex romance to be number 1 at the box office. With that accomplishment, however, come decades of expectations carried by gay people hungry not only to see themselves on that big screen but to see themselves live happily ever after. "No movie is going to capture everything we want to have captured about our lives," offers Foreman, a native Westerner whose parents have ranched in Wyoming. "Our lives are too complex; our history is too complex. [Brokeback] does indeed capture a slice of our community at a period and place in time in an amazingly effective way. It wasn't sad for every gay person in Wyoming in the '60s and '70s and early '80s, but it was sad for a lot of us."

Anyone who has read the countless testimonials posted in the "Share Your Story" section of Brokeback's official Web site can see how deeply resonant and universal that specific sad story has been for so many moviegoers. But, it must be asked, will it last? Remember, Philadelphia packed a similar emotional wallop for viewers, yet the film quickly dissipated into the cultural ether; Hollywood has yet to tackle another contemporary story about AIDS. [For more on gay-themed films in the Hollywood pipeline, see "Fun With Harv and George?" page 41.]

It's something Ron Nyswaner does lament, but he says, "To me, the most profound impact of Philadelphia [was] personal rather than cultural. People still walk up to me now, 12 years later, and say, 'Oh, you know, I came out after I saw your movie,' [or] 'My parents didn't speak to me because I was gay, but then they saw your movie and they asked me to come home.'"

Just don't start thinking Brokeback is going to change many minds overnight. "We know from years of polling and focus groups that moving people along in accepting gay people is a series of steps," says NGLTF's Foreman. "There is virtually no 'aha!' moment where people flip from being antigay to pro-gay. For people who have already made steps in their own minds about gay people and our place in society, Brokeback Mountain could put them solidly over the top for our side. For other people, it's going to move them one step closer. It's all positive."

Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has a unique perspective on this question. His mother recently passed away, and when he went back to Tempe, Ariz., for the funeral, he held a small reception for old friends, mostly straight colleagues from when he was mayor of the city. Once they learned he was working for GLAAD, Giuliano reports, "everyone wanted to talk about Brokeback. No one had a problem talking about two male characters dearly having sex inside a pup tent. I think it was telling that people [could] talk about this like it was just another movie, because it is just another movie. That is advancement. It's not legislative advancement in Congress or legal advancement in the courts, but it is advancement in people's hearts and minds, and that kind of advancement is extremely significant."

"To have so many people who are not gay men identify with our characters in this movie so strongly and to invest in it so absolutely and so powerfully, to me, that's very moving to hear," agrees Brokeback producer Schamus. "That's a big deal." More than anyone, it is probably Schamus who deserves the lion's share of praise for Brokeback's financial achievements. He took on the film with producer Diana Ossana. He brought it to Ang Lee, his longtime creative partner. And he helped mastermind the film's brilliant marketing strategy, which he says stemmed from the decision "to simply never acknowledge that there was a problem [with marketing the film]." He even knows firsthand what a long-term struggle it has been to get gay movies made; in 1991 and 1992 respectively, Schamus executive-produced two seminal queer films, Todd Haynes's Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon. Just don't try to get him to bask in the thrill of victory.

"It would be easy, especially with [the success of] Brokeback, to toot our horns and crow about how we've made the decisive change in the culture, blah blah blah," he says. "I think we can pause and take note and be happy with what's been happening, but [let's] not sit on our laurels.... I'll tell you, the next challenge I'd love to be a part of is to have a truly out movie star become a universally recognized sex symbol in a hetero movie."

By way of example, Schamus mentions that one of his favorite films is Pillow Talk, the fizzy 1959 romantic comedy starring Doris Day and the very closeted Rock Hudson. "I can only imagine what it would be like if, 50 years after Pillow Talk--it may have to be that [long]--the next Rock Hudson could be openly gay and still be the huge romantic comedy movie star. That seems like a pretty big challenge, though, doesn't it?"

At this point, it is pointed out to Schamus that while an openly gay matinee idol does still seem improbable today, most people wouldn't have guessed even two years ago that a film about two men in love would be the front-runner to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. "I'm with you on that," he laughs. "Look, I'm not downplaying what potential changes Brokeback can represent. I'm saying there's still so much left to do."


Would you recommend Brokeback Mountain as a film for your mother to see?

Sign on to The Advocate's Web site before February 28 to cast your vote and leave your comments. Results will appear in the March 28 issue.

RELATED ARTICLE: Broke-ing the bank.

Brokeback Mountain may soon overtake Philadelphia as the all-time highest grossing drama focusing on gay or lesbian characters, Philadelphia made over $77 million domestically, earning five Oscar nominations and winning two, including Best Actor for Tom Hanks for his portrayal of a gay lawyer with AIDS. By its seventh weekend, Brokeback was more than halfway there, having earned $42 million and a number 5 spot on the top-grossing movie list for that weekend. Its momentum at that point was greater than director Ang Lee's previous surprise hit and awards magnet, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which grossed $37 million in its first seven weeks.

Gregg Kilday, film editor at The Hollywood Reporter, says domestic revenues may even climb to the psychologically important $100 million mark before the Oscars---as Crouching Tiger did in early 2001.

Although repeat business from enthusiastic LGBT viewers may be important to the film's success, it's clear that most of Brokeback's box office currency isn't in gay dollars, Kilday says. "If you look at smaller movies that appeal only to gay subject matter, they rarely get beyond the $3 million mark. So it's clearly a broader audience going to see this film. The gay subject aside, the fact is that it's a quiet love story."

Even if Brokeback were to stall short of $77 million, "no one will hold it to the standards of Philadelphia because [that] was a studio movie with established stars when it was released," Kilday adds, noting that Brokeback was financed and distributed as an art-house flick, with its estimated $]4 million budget just over half that of 1993's Philadelphia. "I think even topping the $50 million mark is a real win for this movie."

--Ryan James Kim

Vary also writes for Entertainment Weekly and Variety.
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Article Details
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Author:Vary, Adam B.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 28, 2006
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