An acclaimed short story of unexpected [homosexual] love in the American northern plains is now a motion picture by Taiwan-born director Ang Lee. Alan Silverman has a look at Brokeback Mountain.
Jack and Ennis are barely in their 20's when they meet, by chance, in the summer of 1963. Itinerant ranch hands, the two young men hire on to tend a herd of sheep in the Wyoming high country, on the hillside pastures beneath Brokeback Mountain.
As the solitary weeks go by, a friendship develops; but one cold, windy night as they huddle for warmth in a flimsy tent, the relationship becomes intimate ... to the surprise of both men.
In that time and place, their love had to stay hidden; and as the story plays out over the course of the next two decades, Jack and Ennis struggle with their secret and the passion neither can deny.
Based on a novella by Annie Proulx first published in The New Yorker magazine, Brokeback Mountain co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist.
"All I really had to do was be present. The story is filled with so much subtext already," he says. "If you read the script, just like if you read the book, there's a real description that's untold between these two people. I know sounds very 'actorly' and annoying, but I really just had to show up. The words and the people involved and just the idea underneath it drove us. I think if we tried to do anything more than what we do in the movie, I think it would have been overdoing it."
Australian-born Heath Ledger is Ennis, a man of strong convictions, but excruciatingly few words.
"Because of that I really had to do a lot of investigation into what exactly he was fighting against ... what his battle was, within ... why he had such an inability to express and to love," explains Ledger. "Once I discovered that, I then wanted to physicalize it. I wanted his inabilities to express and love to come through his body and his speech. Any form of expression had to be painful for him and I wanted him to be a clenched fist. Essentially, I discovered more and asked more questions about Ennis than he would have in his entire life. That was his problem: he didn't even understand that he had these battles."
Director Ang Lee earned an Oscar nomination for his Chinese martial arts fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; he has explored American life and attitudes in the suburban drama The Ice Storm and the Civil War story Ride With The Devil. Lee says the honesty and simplicity of the Brokeback Mountain story, along with its majestic setting, bring to mind classic Hollywood westerns; but he does not think the film is so easily characterized.
"When I read the short story, I didn't imagine many people would see it," Lee says. "Actually, I put it aside. It always appeared to me a strange mix ... a very different type of movie. I didn't want to see the movie as a western, although there is a lot of overlap between (the western genre) and realistic westerns; but I think, after all, you're creating a world for the movie, so you still have to compose all of the reality elements to create a world that is not western in genre, but a romantic love story."
That world the movie creates is very familiar to noted western author Larry McMurtry, who, with his writing partner Diana Ossana, adapted the original novella for the screen.
"I was deeply, deeply moved, as I rarely am by movies," she says. " I rarely even see them to be moved; but a part of it is my lifelong involvement with the northern plains of America. I started crying when I saw that truck coming over the bareness and Heath gets out and walks along the street, which could be a street in my hometown. So for me, it was filled with recognitions."
Brokeback Mountain also features Michelle Williams as Alma, whose marriage to Ennis is shattered by the secret of his true love. Ann Hathaway plays Jack's wife Lureen, who chooses to ignore what she knows is the truth about their loveless marriage. The wide open country is captured by Mexican-born cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the musical score by Oscar-winning Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla.