Brokeback Mountain: The Celluloid Closet Case

In adapting literature, even short stories, the audience knows that there are sacrifices to be made. Since literature is a medium that primarily consists of words and film is one where the visual is crucial, there are obvious changes to be made to make the text more accessible to film-goers. Over the years, it would seem that by now studio executives would be getting something right. Sadly, this is not always the case. Stakes need to be heightened for film and the exposition and occasionally internal thought need to be cut down, but largely the end result remains the same. However, on occasion there are films that bear nothing more than a passing resemblance to their source material, even instances where the only similarity is that the two share the same title. However, it is particularly offensive when a beautiful short story is turned into a film for reasons other than its exceptional story. The particular atrocity I’m referring to is that of Brokeback Mountain, originally written by Annie E. Proulx for The New Yorker in 1997 and directed for the screen by Ang Lee in 2005. The original short story is a compassionate account of two men’s love affair which plays out through the course of their lives. Ang Lee’s account of the story stays faithful to the events of the short story, but being that it is a film, loses most of the emotional complexity of the characters. Although Proulx felt that her source material was done justice, it is my personal belief that Brokeback Mountain should be understood merely as a product of its time and not as some great beacon of hope for the gay community.
Let me begin by saying that I commend Brokeback Mountain, Proulx’s short story and Ang Lee’s film, for addressing a topic that was considered so taboo in both polite society and rural America as well. In 1997, when the story graced the pages of The New Yorker, it took readers by storm. It engaged the author herself and her readers in a manner that few publications really do. Proulx’s inspiration, the examination of homophobia in “cowboy country”, brought the topic of homophobia out of the West and into the minds of people everywhere. It even won several awards, most notably the 1998 National Magazine for Fiction Award which was awarded to The New Yorker for its publication. However, we must also understand that this was in the end of the 20th century. It would still be over 5 years before the story was ever made into a film. This is not to say that the screenplay didn’t exist for all these years before Lee was approached about making it into a film, because the fact of the matter is that it did. A little known fact is that there were actual several directors that had signed on, but too few actors or studios were willing to back the making of this film. This fear of “gay” and what it can do to a career or to profits is still alive and well today. It even existed during the commercialization of this film. One instance of this can even be seen in the trailer of the film. The text reads, “It was a friendship… that became a secret.” throughout the rest of the trailer homosexual love is alluded to, but never once is the term “love” used in the trailer. After all, that’s what we’re meant to understand this to be, isn’t it? Doesn’t Proulx make it a very clear point that, although complicated and although the times will not allow Jack and Ennis to be together, the two men are in love? Sadly, the importance of time in the process of making Brokeback Mountain and even the marketing of the film should not be underestimated. Yes, people were provoked by Proulx’s prose when it appeared on the page, but what was there to draw audiences into the theater? There is a very clear difference between reading about the love between two men and seeing it on screen. Studio executives knew that there was nothing that would convince people to see the film. They knew that they had to downplay the significance of the film until the time was right. It was at this point that Brokeback Mountain ceased to be a mere short story or an idea for a film, and it became a tool for the studios to ride out until the time was right.
Studios felt that the time was right almost a decade after the original publication of the piece. Brokeback Mountain was issued a wide release in the United States on december 16, 2005. Now, being that we live in a Capitalist society it is understood that films are expected to be released based on the potential for profitability. However, this film’s release also has severely political implications in its release. 2004 had been a Presidential election year. The combative nature of the campaigns between George W. Bush and John Kerry had been one of the most aggressive in recent years. One of the major issues that had seen America divided was about the issue of gay marriage. The debate still rages today but in 2004 it was a major cause of controversy. The religious right sided with george W. Bush that a Constitutional amendment ought to be passed defining “marriage” as strictly between a man and a woman. An almost equally impressive voice from the left, and particularly the gay community, fought back declaring such an amendment as unconstitutional. However, from a studio perspective, it was clearly a profitable market. On one hand, the religious right and social conservatives were openly condemning the film. Whether the conservatives liked it or not was irrelevant to the studios, because it was causing controversy and controversy, in economic terms, is essentially free publicity. The protests from conservatives forced average Americans to ask themselves “What are they getting so worked up about?”. In essence, in boycotting the film, figures like the Reverend Fred Phelps, piqued people’s curiosity, resulting in more people seeing the film. Then, from a more progressive standpoint, you also have the gay community who showed up in droves to support a film that contained a homosexual love story. It’s no wonder that Brokeback Mountain has the highest per-screen gross of any non-animated movie in US history. People were driving from all over to see the film that had caused such a stir in the wake of such a divisive Presidential election.
Furthermore, Americans outside of the gay community praised this film for its “realistic telling” of a love story between two men. It would be another several years before even another gay-themed film would be nominated for Best Picture. The difference between Brokeback Mountain and Milk, although both Best Picture losers, is that Brokeback Mountain dealt with the homosexuality in terms that Americans were able to deal with at the time. There’s no doubt about the fact that Brokeback Mountain is a gay-themed film, but the representation of homosexuality is so subdued that audiences could handle it. Although the loves scenes between Jack and Ennis are explicit, they are no more explicit than the scenes with their respective wives. One could even make the case that in the film portrayal the sex scene between Jack and Lureen is more explicit than any of the scenes between him and Ennis. More importantly, sex between two men, on screen at least, was something that people were hesitant but willing to see on one condition. The love story is not a triumphant one. It has no happy ending. Most of the short story and the film deal with wanting to be “different”. “Different”, clearly meaning gay in this instance, was something to be feared and something that was so clearly undesirable. While this is an accurate portrayal of the times, it also is somewhat telling of audiences as well. In recent history essentially every gay-themed film (Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, Milk, etc.) ends with one of the characters being killed because they are gay. It’s difficult to take anything away from this “great love story” between Jack and Ennis when Jack is dead in the end. Once again, the “gay” becomes something tragic and pitiable, rather than a celebration of homosexuality, because American audiences have proved themselves, repeatedly, unable to deal with the real celebration of homosexuality.
Brokeback Mountain is a complex movie. While it is true that it was one of the first high-grossing films with two mainstream actors willing to play gay, it also must be understood as a political and almost exploitative look at homosexuality. Its origins, in writing, are filled with good intentions, but its pathway to being made forces me to question the motives of the studios and the filmmakers themselves. Meanwhile, when it finally was made it capitalized on the political attitudes of the time to make money, something that I still wish didn’t shock me as much as it did. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this film is often praised for breaking boundaries, which it certainly did. However, it also played it safe in many regards, particularly the marketing and the illustration of Jack and Ennis’s relationship. While the film certainly does have its finer attributes, I feel it’s important to understand it as a pawn in a larger game that still has yet to be played out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s