Knight at the Movies - ARCHIVES
Brokeback Mountain and The Producers
12-14-05 Knight at the Movies/Windy City Times column
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Brokeback Mountain has had the kind of advance praise that’s beyond the dreams of movie executives.
“Groundbreaking” from Newsweek, “A landmark” from the New York Times, “Unmissable and Unforgettable!”
touted Rolling Stone. We have been told that it’s “a rapturous Hollywood love story” that it’s “one of the most
beautiful things in movies this year.” Vanity Fair went so far as to call it “An instant classic.” This cacophonous,
excessive praise usually puts me on red alert but this time the worries are for naught. Because Brokeback
Mountain is worthy of all these hosannas from both the straight and gay media (who for once are in complete
agreement). Landmark, indeed.
So what is all the fuss about? You mean, aside from the fact that two of Hollywood’s hottest straight male stars,
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, are playing lovers onscreen? Well, based on the evidence, director Ang Lee has
once again delivered a quiet masterpiece with all the hallmarks of his signature films – The Wedding Banquet,
Sense & Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Like those, Brokeback is a vivid reflection of Lee’s
favorite themes – repression, social obligation vs. personal freedom and unrequited love. It’s a beautiful
realization of E. Annie Prolux’s short story. Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana wrote the screenplay and fleshed out
Prolux’s story, adding meaty supporting parts for the women in the lives of the two male leads.
As the film begins, it’s 1963 and we are plunked down in God’s Country – still the mythological Wild West of
America. Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), two wandering cowboys looking for summer jobs
are hired by the no-nonsense Joe (Randy Quaid) to shepherd in the high grasslands of Brokeback Mountain. Jack,
we quickly learn, is the talker, the failed rodeo cowboy eager to make friends with his equally taciturn new
coworker. But it’s weeks before Ennis guardedly reveals, almost in shorthand, the unforgiving events that have
brought him to Brokeback. Jack notes, with a laugh that that is the most that Ennis has spoken since they have
met. Ennis, with a wince of a smile, reveals that it’s the most he’s spoken all year. The ice is broken at last.
As the pair tend their flock against the impossibly beautiful vistas around them (Canada filled in for Wyoming), the
unspoken bond between the two men increase. Lee takes his time laying the groundwork so that by the time Jack
and Ennis become physically involved, we are as anxious for it to happen as they subconsciously are. Has there
ever been a pair as lonely as these two? Not surprisingly, soon the physical relationship deepens to love.
The idyll comes to an abrupt end and the two go their separate ways – each to the constraints of a socially
conventional and acceptable marriage. But four years after the summer of “Brokeback,” Jack finally drops Ennis a
postcard suggesting a reunion and Ennis practically knocks over the mailbox with his return postcard that reads
two words that pack a wallop: “You bet.”
From that point on, hemmed in by their marriages, children, adult responsibilities and recognition of the taboo
nature of their love, Jack and Ennis meet for quarterly love trysts which they define as “fishing trips.” As the years
pass, the frustration of their forbidden romance deepens and the contrast between that and their hardscrabble
lives becomes even harder for them to take. Jack is the dreamer, pining for a small ranch of their own who
sometimes wishes he could quit Ennis while Ennis is the hard bitten realist who says “If you can’t fix it you gotta
stand it.” How can their outcome – knowing the time and place of their story – be anything less than tragic?
Ledger gives what amounts to a career altering performance. What Monster did for Charlize Theron, Brokeback
should do for Ledger. With just a few words, he imbues Ennis with the complexity of emotions of a man who has
no way to articulate all that he is feeling. Naturally, anger and frustration are often front and center and Ledger is
frighteningly intense at moments – as when he lashes out at Michelle Williams as Alma, his wife (and eventual
ex). Gyllenhaal matches Ledger in the early scenes but doesn’t have Ledger’s finesse as the characters age.
Williams and Anne Hathaway are memorable as the wives, as is Kate Mara as the emotionally guarded Alma Jr.
who has a wonderful scene near the end of the movie with her equally guarded father.
The filmmakers have argued strongly that this is not a “gay cowboy movie” but rather a love story – that just
happens to be between two men. They’re right. “Gay cowboy movie” doesn’t begin to describe what is essentially
a glorious example of one of the oldest of film genres – the tragic romance. Look no further than the film’s poster
– designed to remind moviegoers of the last great tragic romance film – Titanic – as proof of that. Seeing Ledger
and Gyllenhaal – two young stars whose careers couldn’t be any hotter – becoming the new faces of Doomed Love
(and gay lovers at that) in place of their heterosexual, Doomed Love predecessors (played by )Leonardo DiCaprio
and Kate Winslet is nothing short of astonishing. It’s something that hasn’t happened in the movies before.
So – for the moment – let’s bask in the reflected glory of this gay movie Writ Large, sigh in satisfaction that the
mainstream FINALLY has an example that might make them “get us” (as they finally seemed to “get us” with
Philadelphia and sorta with Boys Don’t Cry). Brokeback Mountain affirms that we’ve reached an artistic place
where that’s possible (even if politically, we have far to go). But keep in mind that they’ve “gotten us” with a
movie that has a lot of handicapping to help soften the reality: the story is placed squarely in the easily dismissed
past (it begins 40 years ago and concludes in the early 80s), both men are married and given children which will
help uneasy hets “normalize” the situation, and they don’t exactly live happily ever after (how typical is that).
But with those caveats in place, let’s raise our expectations for next time. Because one mainstream tragic gay
romance for now, great as it is, is plenty. Next year perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to review a mainstream
contemporary gay romantic love story – say with Tobey Maguire and Paul Walker as the lovers or its perky lesbian
counterpart (though I contend that D.E.B.S. came pretty darn close). Until then, I don’t mind settling for these
crumbs – they’re magnificent.
The cup of gay moviegoers is not just overflowing this weekend – it’s gushing. After you’ve taken your share of
Heath and Jake, leave time for Nathan Lane (unabashedly one of our own) and his ever present sidekick, Matthew
Broderick in the blissfully artificial world of The Producers. I had the good sense, apparently, to miss the
mega popular Mel Brooks musical stage version of his 1968 film and have arrived at this delightful movie unaware
of the tinkering that Brooks and company have done with the story. Not to mention the hilarious songs (and plenty
of dances – thanks to director-choreographer Susan Stroman). You don’t get much subtlety with Mel Brooks – nor
do you want it. He gives you permission to scream with laughter at the most stereotypical material and a lot of this
stuff had me in stitches. I found the revisions and additions mostly hilarious and successful and sat through the
film with a smile on my face. Partly because the original movie was unabashedly heterosexual while this musical
version was nothing less than gay central (even the straight characters are like a gay person’s version of a
And what an old fashioned musical! At any moment I expected Streisand to come around the corner belting out
“On A Clear Day” or a dubbed Richard Beymer from West Side Story to join her in a duet. Lane is finally allowed to
belt it out onscreen (movie audiences have been missing a huge part of his talent) and Broderick certainly holds
his own in the vocal department (in his opening number, especially). Though big marquee names like Will Ferrell
(as the nutzy German) and Uma Thurman (as the Swedish secretary/starlet) have been added to the supporting
cast for insurance and do adequate work, it is those retained from the stage version – Roger Bart and especially
Gary Beach – who have the most impact on screen. Beach’s number “Make It Gay” and his Hitler impersonation
were decided highlights.
This is the theatrical maven Stroman’s first feature and apparently she’s made the sensible decision to simply wrap
up the stage version and shoot it as she directed it there. New York has not been imagined onscreen in so thrilling
an artificial manner since Little Shop of Horrors. The “opening up” numbers shot in Central Park were much less
successful in my book and I wish the entire production had been left to the fantasy of the studio. In some ways,
this throw back of a musical (it’s a lot more old hat than Rent) is a much riskier proposition than Brokeback
Mountain. Whatever the box office outcome, however, both movies coming at the same time have me on Cloud
Nine. We’re here, we’re queer – and that goes for big time mainstream movies, too.
A landmark for mainstream cinema, Mel Brooks' oh so gay musical