Midnight Cowboys, Lonesome Doves

Casanova and Jarhead on the range: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Brokeback Mountain'
Focus Features

As the quieter of two cowboy lovers in Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger communicates more about stifled communication than any American actor since Rock Hudson. A ranch hand in '60s Wyoming, a man of secrets, Ledger's Ennis Del Mar has so much to hide that he appears to disguise even the fact that he's hiding something. Those tightly pursed lips of his...are they concealing a story or just a clump of tobacco? Words are few and far between for this cowpoke, but the voice--unnaturally low, as if adopted to discourage a "real" man's accusations--is telling. So, too, is the posture. Head down, legs crossed, back stiffly propped against the side of a barn, a 10-gallon hat obscuring all but the smoke and cherry of his cigarette, Ennis is first seen in a pose that's classic enough to pass for ordinary machismo. But he finds a niche audience in the form of Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who indicates his interest with a horselike shuffle--not a dig in the dirt, but enough to stir up a thin cloud of dust (and a little interest in return).

Haven't we seen these sagebrush studs somewhere before? Indeed, Brokeback Mountain is queer among Westerns only for turning the genre's standard subtext into text: That is, it dares to speak about the love that daren't speak its name. Call it the Western for the sadly contentious era of gay marriage. Can't all movies, it argues, have the right to talk in a familiar language without mumbling, without pursing their lips?

"Love is a force of nature," as the print ads put it--a rare case of truth in advertising. One of the beautiful things about Brokeback Mountain's bid to bait and switch the audience that favors conventional scenery over queer subject is the ease with which it sets out to naturalize what's deviant in Hollywood. The attraction between Ennis and Jack, hired to tend sheep one summer, develops (and reaches its early climax) beneath craggy mountains and puffy clouds, beside tall pines and babbling brooks--in what they call the heartland. (Picture postcards are made of this; even Ennis uses them to remember.) Thereafter, as the men strain to bury their dangerous passion under the convenient facade of family life--wives and kids, overtime shifts, bills to pay, TV to pass the time--the image of straight domesticity appears the most unnatural thing in the world.

Here, Ang Lee's directorial habit of stretching his third acts well past the point of dramatic purpose serves him well: Years pass and the men's secret "fishing trips" become more infrequent, replaced by one excruciating marital duty after another (and another). That the wives (vividly played by Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway) are generally intolerant of their husbands' emotional distance is both believable and, in demographic crossover terms, rather shrewd; that Gyllenhaal, no match for Ledger, fails to conceal his discomfort with acting the more comfortably queer cowboy works, too--particularly when it comes time for his Twist to straighten up and ride away.

If the Oscar is Brokeback Mountain's to lose (and many industry pundits would say that's the case), it's because, like any Best Picture-winner in history (including Midnight Cowboy), it doesn't fail to hit straight men where they live. Sure enough, take out a sex scene or two (or blame them on the booze) and what we have for the most part is not a "gay Western" but...a Western. A dozen years ago, Philadelphia appeared acceptably groundbreaking by the mainstream because, as some commentators maintained, it wasn't about being gay or having AIDS so much as it was about the universal condition of dying. Likewise, Brokeback Mountain--to its credit, I think--is designed to jerk tears out of tough guys who relate not to Ennis's desire per se, but to his tragic inability to talk about it with the other tough guy before it's too late. Lee aptly concludes Ennis's tight-lipped tale without dialogue, then, over the end credits, gives the last word to regular guy Willie Nelson. "He," Nelson croons, "was a friend of mine."

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