THE 'BEST PICTURE' NOMINEES
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, both nominated for Oscars,
play two cowboys whose gay love affair deeply affects their lives.
36 Years After 'Midnight Cowboy'
A box office hit that breaks
new ground for Hollywood
By RON MILLER
If "Brokeback Mountain" wins the Best Picture Academy Award Sunday night, it's going to be called the first gay love story to be so honored. That will not be correct. In 1969, John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" won the Best Picture Oscar and, like it or not, it was a love story between two men.
But look at how differently the theme of homosexual love was treated 36 years ago!
"Midnight Cowboy" was X-rated when first released in 1969. Some slight cuts were made later to get it down to an "R" rating. And yet it never really showed its two leading characters making love, though Buck (Jon Voight) is holding the ailing "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in his arms on that final bus ride to sunny Florida.
Buck, the "cowboy" of the title, comes to New York to make his fortune, but he soon discovers nobody's going to hire him to be a male model. Instead, he succumbs to the life of a gay hustler, though the studio made sure he showed contempt for himself and his "clients" when they engaged in sex for money. We know Buck came to New York with some terrible things from his past haunting him. Was he a victim of homosexual rape in his youth? Whatever happened, it turned his sex life upside down because he doesn't seem to enjoy the women who pay for his services any more than the men.
Jon Voight, left, and Dustin Hoffman
shared a love that sustained them
in "Midnight Cowboy" in 1969,
a film that started out with an
"X" rating for its sexual content.
But then Buck meets "Ratso" Rizzo, a gimp-legged, tubercular homeless guy who's street-wise and helps Buck survive when the money runs out. Along the way, he also turns Buck into a caring individual who eventually nurses Rizzo when his lungs seem to give out and makes a valiant, loving attempt to keep his dear friend alive until they can reach the warmer climate he hopes will restore Rizzo to health.
It was a love story in which the two men profit from their co-dependent friendship that ultimately turns into love. They indeed do help each other survive in a world that's cold and hostile to them. Not once is the word "homosexuality" mentioned. We can assume what we want about Buck and Rizzo. If you want to believe they never touched each other, what you see on the screen won't contradict you.
It's quite another matter in "Brokeback Mountain," which is about two men who meet while they're living heterosexual lives. They both have wives and homes to go home to when their work taking care of a large flock of sheep until market time is finally done. But it's a lonely life and these are young, robust men forced to camp out in a remote and unforgiving countryside for months.
The fact that they eventually wind up having sex may not be as shocking as it seems. Don't we sort of suspect that happens to men in prison? Or maybe curious and sexually immature boys on long camping trips? If they do something naughty, it's no big deal because they can go back to their wives when they get out of prison--or their video games when they return from camp.
But Ennis (Heath Ledger) apparently has never done anything like that before while Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) seems to have some experience in that line. The result is that Ennis goes home to his perennially pregnant wife (Michelle Williams) and doesn't quite enjoy her the same way he did before. What he finds himself doing after that first experience with a man is dreaming about it and wanting it to happen again.
Meanwhile, Jack is perfunctory about his duties to his wife (Anne Hathaway), but she at first doesn't seem to mind. She seems more concerned about seeing her husband prosper in business and show up her domineering daddy. Jack doesn't pine away from Ennis the way Ennis does for him. In fact, he finds other partners while Ennis stews in his forbidden desires.
"Brokeback Mountain" does show both men kissing passionately and it shows them making love, but not explicitly. The nudity is shown from a great distance and is no more shocking than the male nudity in "Mrs. Henderson Presents," except that Ledger and Gyllenhaal are obviously in a lot better condition. Graphic sex is not what the movie has to offer.
What makes "Brokeback Mountain" an interesting film is that difference between these two men. Ennis is the one who's torn apart by the awareness that he may want this man more than he wants anyone else in his life, including his wife. He doesn't like the idea that he may be gay. The sex may not be the whole of it. In truth, he's fallen in love with a man. He wants Jack, not just gay sex.
The scene in which Ennis' wife finally realizes her husband is seeing another man, not another woman is devastatingly emotional. Williams, who is Ledger's wife in real-life, too, gives a heartbreaking performance. Imagine how it must feel to realize you have borne this man's children, only to discover he would rather lie with a man than with you. Williams proves she has real acting chops--the kind I never expected her to acquire after watching her for years on TV's "Dawson's Creek."
Ledger and Gyllenhaal also deliver career-changing performances. These are supposed to be inarticulate men on the fringes of society. Gyllenhaal plays Jack like a man who may realize he's living on borrowed time, crossing a line you just don't cross if you live in rural Wyoming where men are supposed to be men. Ledger's Ennis is a man drowning in his own self-doubts, so conflicted that he's lost all notion of who he is and where he belongs.
Director Ang Lee brings the most out of all these fine actors, never letting them go over the top, as dramatic as some moments become. Ledger plays a tightened-down Ennis who wishes he could break this thing off with Jack, but can't. In the latter part of the film, when Ennis has broken away from his family and is living a desolate kind of life, he has a meeting with his grown-up daughter, who's about to be married. She wants him to come to her wedding and the aching that Ennis feels inside for all he's lost in life is clearly etched in Ledger's otherwise stoic expression.
"Brokeback Mountain" is a beautifully filmed, strongly acted film that examines the kind of relationship that sometimes develops despite the societal taboos against it. It shows the pain these things can cause those involved and those around them. Yet it also makes us understand that some people don't recognize their own nature until it's too late.
The reason "Brokeback Mountain" has defied taboos and become an immense hit is because it's honest and deeply moving. You come to care for Ennis even if you think he was a fool to ever let that first sexual encounter happen. You suffer with him and if you should find yourself reaching for a Kleenex in the final moments, at least it may be comforting to know most everybody around you will be doing the same thing.
©2006 by Ron Miller. The photo is courtesy of the official "Brokeback Mountain" website. The "Oscar" logo and the phrase "Academy Awards" are the registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. This column first posted Feb. 27, 2006.
FOR AN ALTERNATIVE VIEW OF "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN" BY MAURY ALLEN, CLICK HERE: BROKEBACK
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