In 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” Manhattan hustler Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) tells male prostitute Joe Buck (Jon Voight) that his Western getup is effeminate. Ratso takes it one step further, accusing John Wayne of being gay. To Texan Joe, that’s the ultimate insult. Ironically, Joe and Ratso have formed a powerful friendship, which some would say has a homosexual undercurrent.
“Brokeback Mountain” takes this relationship one step further. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx with a script from Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove,” “The Last Picture Show”) and Diana Ossana, the film follows cowboys Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) through a sexual odyssey that starts with a sublime sheep-herding summer and ends in brutal death. It breaks through any macho barrier established by the late John Wayne’s he-man image (although the Duke’s “Red River” with Montgomery Clift has its own gay subtext) and shows a side of manhood which can be life-threatening in the badlands of America.
Directed with painstaking detail by the versatile Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility” and “Hulk,”) “Brokeback” is a love story like no other, only because it’s about two men forbidden from experiencing what they feel in the world where their existence as lovers is not allowed.
Despite their tryst on Brokeback Mountain at age 19, they carry their lives into conventional marriages with children…only to meet intermittently on the aforementioned mountain for “fishing trips” which yield no fish, but a whole lotta love.
In the Proulx story, the couple’s dangerous liaisons are haunted by allusions to the Matthew Shephard Wyoming murder in 1998. Ennis responds to Jack’s vision of a dream ranch where they both can live in harmony by saying, “This thing gets hold of us at the wrong time and wrong place and we’re dead.” Ennis also refers to a childhood scene where his father showed him the lynched corpse of a local gay man: “My dad, he made sure me and my brother saw it. For all I know, he did it.”
Despite the threat of death, Ennis and Jack continue their forbidden love affair, at the expense of their wives and children. While their love is real, they display a selfishness in their passion’s inevitable destruction of the families. Ennis’s wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), spots them furiously making out, but holds her pain inside until it explodes later in one of the film’s most powerful sequences.
“Brokeback Mountain” is the year’s greatest love story and the first of its kind in the history of Westerns or mainstream Hollywood movies.
I wonder in which direction it would set Wayne spinning?