By Larry Gross
As the crescendo of Hollywood’s award season builds toward the climax of Oscar night, only the resolutely oblivious could fail to have noted that this is the year of the queer. Or, to put it both more politely and more to the point, the year of “gay for pay” actors. The announcement of the Oscar nominations, with eight going to “Brokeback Mountain,” gave entertainment reporters their expected lead: “The star-crossed cowboys of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ emerged as Oscar trailblazers, the story of doomed love between two men poised to become the first gay-themed film to lasso the top prize.”
For all the hype and hoopla one might think that this was something new. Alas, truth be told—not one of Hollywood’s specialties—there is little that is new in this year’s “breakthroughs.” Still, every time we go around the familiar track there are differences, and they are worth noting even while we experience dj vu all over again.
So, let’s start with this year’s “explosion of Oscar-baiting performances in which straight actors play gay, transvestite or transgender characters” as Caryn James put it in The New York Times (Nov. 20, 2005). Philip Seymour Hoffman has already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for his portrayal of Truman Capote, the most obviously gay writer of the 20th century, if we forget that Oscar Wilde died in 1900. Less acclaimed, Peter Sarsgaard plays a gay Hollywood screenwriter and Campbell Scott a closeted studio executive in “Dying Gaul.” There is an understated but plot-crucial gay role played by Hubert Kound in “The Constant Gardener.” The ever-popular trans-front is well covered by Cillian Murphy’s Irish transvestite in “Breakfast on Pluto” and, among the award-magnetic roles, Felicity Huffman’s Golden Globe-winning portrayal of a man undergoing sex reassignment in “Transamerica.” But without doubt, the most heavily publicized and discussed performances of this year’s crop are those of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain,” the so-called gay cowboy movie that won best picture honors at the Venice Film Festival.
“Brokeback Mountain” is based on a New Yorker short story by Annie Proulx that was published in 1997 and almost immediately became known around Hollywood as a hot property that somehow never quite got off the drawing board. The option was held by James Schamus, then by Scott Rudin, who wanted to make the film with openly gay director Gus Van Sant, after “Good Will Hunting” gave him big-screen clout; not surprisingly, Hollywood rumor cast Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as the likely leads. The project never got going, and eventually was picked up by Schamus, with director Ang Lee.
The saga of a strong gay-themed plot that somehow can’t get made is a Hollywood staple, and those who’ve followed these tales will recall the fate of Patricia Nell Warren’s 1970s bestseller “The Front Runner” and Randy Shilts’ biography of Harvey Milk, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” both optioned many times but still not produced. Each time there is a successful gay-themed studio film there is hope for it and other queer properties, and “Brokeback,” too, has unleashed a flurry of optimism on this front. But, of course, everyone’s waiting to see what happens at the box office, as well as at the awards ceremonies.
Which brings us back to this year’s array of gay characters and plots. New? Different? Frank Rich in The New York Times proclaimed a “runaway phenomenon” that signals a turning point in the “cultural war” of our times, and Newsweek critic Sean Smith sees in it the “potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, it’s already upended decades of Hollywood conventional wisdom.”
Still, there’s much here that’s neither new nor different and that neither challenges the public’s ideas nor upends Hollywood conventions. When it comes to the recipe for handling gay themes and the sexuality of movie stars, “Brokeback Mountain” is decidedly familiar territory. Let’s count the ways.
First, there’s the daring casting of valuable properties, excuse me, actors, in potentially controversial roles. Every time one of these screenplays comes along there’s the usual game of figuring out which actors might be cast in a gay role. The presumption, often unspoken but often explicit, is that such roles are career poison. Newsweek’s Smith quotes an unnamed “top producer” opining about Jake Gyllenhaal’s choice of the role: “It’s the most stupid move he could make. It’ll alienate his teen-girl fan base and could kill his career. What a waste.” Similar views were expressed about his co-star, Heath Ledger. But, the facts are quite different. In reality, “gay for pay” roles have frequently been undertaken by certifiably (or at least ostensibly) straight actors. The fact that few filmgoers remember the 1969 movie “Staircase” is due more to its mediocre script than to the fact that two of Hollywood’s most notorious heterosexuals, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, starred as a long-time gay couple. Similarly, Shirley MacLaine (“The Children’s Hour”), Rod Steiger (“The Sergeant”) and Marlon Brando (“Reflections in a Golden Eye”) all survived the career threat of a gay role, even while their characters all paid the obligatory price by committing suicide.
More damaging to the myth of career-suicide-by-gay-role is the impressive list of Oscars won by straight actors for their amazing feats in depicting queers. William Hurt won for 1985’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; Tom Hanks for 1993’s “Philadelphia” (Antonio Banderas played Hanks’ lover without damaging his heterosexual credentials); Hilary Swank won her first Oscar for playing a transgendered character in “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999, and Charlize Theron won hers for playing a lesbian serial killer in “Monster” in 2003 (no doubt earning extra credit for gaining lots of weight as well).
It’s worth noting that all of these award-winning performances have depicted characters who are dead at the end of the story: murdered (Hurt and Swank), executed (Theron) or dead of AIDS (Hanks). No happy endings here, much like the “gay cowboys” of “Brokeback Mountain.” We’re still well within the confines of Hollywood’s favorite roles for minority characters: villains or victims. Villains when a movie treats them badly (think “The Birth of a Nation”), and victims when they’re being treated more favorably.
The praise these straight actors have garnered for their awesome achievements in portraying gay folks somehow obscures the reality that every day on Hollywood’s large and small screens legions of lesbian and gay actors are convincingly portraying heterosexual characters. Somehow, though, these achievements go without notice or recognition. And herein lies an important part of the story: Hollywood’s devotion to the public heterosexuality of its stars.
Despite all the cultural changes of the past few decades—applauded by liberals and mourned by conservatives—the entertainment industries remain obsessed with a concern for the supposed prejudices of the mass audiences they seek to attract. Sometimes these audience biases are real, but much of the time industry decision makers are caught up in a self-fulfilling illusion in which they attribute to the masses attitudes that they themselves claim not to share.
As our society is increasingly inclined to choose entertainment figures as its cultural heroes, it is hardly surprising that the stars of stage and screen have been as devoted to the sanctity of the closet as any Washington politician. Despite, or perhaps because of, the stereotypical assumption that Broadway and Hollywood are havens for homosexuals, there has never been a major Hollywood star who has voluntarily come out. This is not exactly a matter of personal choice. The entire industry operates on the principle that the American public is suffused by prejudices that must be catered to. In earlier decades the same logic required Jewish actors to submerge and hide their ethnicity. As Hollywood historian Otto Friedrich described the practice of the film studios: “In Hollywood, stars assumed neutral names like Fairbanks, or Howard, or Shaw; actresses underwent plastic surgery; some made a point of going to Christian churches or donating money to Christian charities. This was not so much a denial of Jewishness—though it was that—as an effort to make Jewishness appear insignificant.”
Friedrich tells the story of New York actor Jules Garfinkle, who changed his name to Jules Garfield for the Broadway stage, but when he arrived in Hollywood Jack Warner told him that Garfield didn’t sound like an American name. Upon being told that Garfield had been the name of an American president, Warner relented, but the Jules had to go. As one of Warner’s executives put it, “... we wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea.” “But I am Jewish,” said the future John Garfield. “Of course you are,” said the Warners executive. “So are we ... most of us. But a lot of people who buy tickets think they don’t like Jews…. And Jules is a Jew’s name.”
With only minor changes the same discussion could have occurred last week in connection with homosexuality. But while there may be less pressure nowadays for Jewish actors to change their names or their noses, lesbian and gay performers are still expected to stay quietly in the closet. In a 1980s interview Kim Fellner, then information director for the Screen Actors Guild, said, “Hollywood creates its own myths about what is and is not acceptable and it does not believe the public will accept an actor kissing a woman on screen if he goes home at night with a guy.” In the same story, publicity agent Alan Eichler added, “It’s not morals, it’s just a dollar-and-cents decision. That’s what runs this town.”
In the last decade the industry has become relaxed about openly gay folks in backstage roles, and there are now numerous directors, writers and producers who are not required to hide or dissemble. It might even be said to be an advantage to be openly gay backstage at this point, adding liberal gold stars to the enterprise. Broadway and Hollywood have become used to the sight of award winners thanking same-sex partners and even, as in the case of “Hairspray” songwriters and Tony award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, kissing them.
Still, there is an unshakable conviction on the part of most people in positions of power in the entertainment industry that the American public will not accept openly lesbian and gay performers, especially in romantic lead roles. Lesbian and gay actors and others who begin to achieve success and celebrity are quickly taught the rules of the game, if they haven’t already demonstrated their discretion. As prominent gay writer Armistead Maupin put it, “One of the unwritten laws of gay life, is where you reach a certain level of fame, you shut up about your homosexuality. You’re not told this by straight people, you’re told it by other famous homosexuals who are ushering you into the pantheon of the right.” Openly gay British actor Ian McKellen remarked to a gay American journalist in 1992: “There’s not one [leading actor] in your country. Not one. It’s odd, isn’t it? It’s the one area of American life where there are no openly gay people.”
A new play that just opened Off Broadway, “The Little Dog Laughed,” puts this familiar backstage dilemma out front. As described by New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley (Jan. 10, 2006):
What has garnered the most advance attention for “Little Dog” has been the promise that it would be about a closeted gay actor who knows his homosexuality is incompatible with being a matinee idol. Sure enough, the character of Mitchell (Mr. Huff) is suggestively familiar enough that certain contemporary male stars (names withheld in view of possible litigation) should probably stay away from this show if they want to avoid sleepless nights. (Diane muses wonderingly on her client’s nave idea of taking his mother as a date to an awards ceremony “so that no one will know he’s gay.”) Certainly the play’s basic plot hinges on the professional problems of such secrecy, after Mitchell begins an affair with a young prostitute named Alex (Mr. Galecki) while visiting New York. Diane has secured the film rights to a play in which the lead male character is gay. And as she observes: “If a perceived straight actor portrays a gay role in a feature film, it’s noble, it’s a stretch. It’s the pretty lady putting on a fake nose and winning an Oscar.”
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of gay actors around Hollywood who could readily handle the dramatic challenge of “Brokeback Mountain.” As “Little Dog” suggests, being openly gay is not a career option for young actors with romantic lead or action-hero (i.e., A-list) ambitions. Aspiring actors can advance only with the active assistance of agents and managers. These key gatekeepers are vigilant in guarding the value of their investments in their clients’ careers, and they know full well—and remind their clients if necessary—that there is a reserve army of the uncast waiting in the wings to replace any young talent that refuses to play by the rules. Only an actor who has achieved sufficient success—read box office clout—to be independent of these constraints could break the mold by coming out while still young and attractive enough to be credible in romantic roles. When this happens, and one must assume it will eventually, it will be a Jackie Robinson moment that might pave the way for other queer talent (it’s also a safe guess that it’s more likely that a woman will pioneer here than a male actor).
Critic David Ehrenstein has noted that those actors who have come out—among them Chad Allen, Mitchell Anderson, Robert Gant, Randy Harrison, Peter Paige (the last three being the only openly gay cast members of Showtime’s “Queer as Folk”)—are “left to fend for themselves in indie and pay-TV climes…. When it comes to parts like Ennis Del Mar, Jack Twist and Truman Capote, they’re not even going to get an audition. Only heterosexuals need apply.” Whether the slim roster of openly gay talent has actors who would be credible contenders for these parts, even were they allowed to audition, is a question that points back to the enforced closet in which the industry locks gay actors.
When straight actors take on gay roles, we can expect to encounter showbiz gossip intended to convey the heterosexual bona fides of any actor cast in a gay role. When the successful Off-Broadway play “Boys in the Band” opened in New York in 1968 Cliff Gorman, the actor playing Emory, “the definitive screaming queen,” made sure the public knew he was only acting. As a New York Times reporter explained in an interview entitled, “You don’t have to be one to play one,” it’s “not exactly the kind of part you’d imagine for a nice (married) Jewish boy.” But then, “Cliff really needed the money,” and was so broke he had even taken to “hocking his wife’s silver candelabra.” Elsewhere in the article we were shown Cliff popping open a cold beer, listening to country music (the only music “that really moves him”) and generally swaggering around the living room. In the accompanying photograph he clutched his “incredibly beautiful” wife.
In 1983 The New York Times ran a lengthy feature article, “How Stars of La Cage Grew Into Their Roles,” the week “La Cage aux Folles,” a musical comedy about a gay couple, opened on Broadway. One of the stars of the show was Gene Barry, “best known to millions of television viewers as the debonair star of Bat Masterson, Burke’s Law, and The Name of the Game.” As the Times put it, he “did have a public image…. The possibility of being stigmatized” concerned him for a while, he said, and the impact on his family was another question. Before accepting the role, he gathered his wife and three children for a family conference to make sure it was all right with them.
The pattern remains unbroken today on the slopes of “Brokeback Mountain.” Publicity about the “gay cowboy” movie has enforced all the rules of this game: The actors’ heterosexual credentials are much rehearsed, and their method-acting skills admired. In an early account of the film, while it was still in pre-production, Salon.com quoted a Hollywood executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity: “Realistically, let’s talk about the giggle factor. I mean, it is a story about gay cowboys! That is the most daring thing you can do.”
Still, as Salon’s Rebecca Traister put it, “If the I’s do get dotted on Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s contracts, it’s worth noting that both will run less of a risk of being ‘taken for gay’ than many of their colleagues; Gyllenhaal dates supercute wunderkind Kirsten Dunst, while Ledger squires Naomi Watts, 11 years his senior, to lots of events covered by Us Weekly.” As it happens, the account in Salon and Us Weekly needs to be updated, because as anyone paying even the slightest attention will know, Ledger and supporting star Michelle Williams, who plays his wife Alma, became romantically involved during the shooting and have recently had a baby.
Their straight cred firmly in place, Ledger and Gyllenhaal can face the inevitable barrage of questions about what it’s like to kiss another man. After all, this is an important demonstration of the acting skills that might win an Oscar. As Guardian critic Philip Hensher put it: “the actors in these films are always at pains to stress the incredible trauma involved in having to pretend to kiss a person of the same sex in front of cameras. To be fair, this is always a subject that unhealthily obsesses interviewers, but actors’ responses are often highly amusing. Jake Gyllenhaal has said: ‘Heath and I were both saying, “Let’s get the love scenes over as fast as we can—all right, cool. Let’s get to the important stuff.” ’ ”
Sometimes the actors evade the dangerous implications of their roles—that their acting might be too real—by trying to widen, or cloud, the lens. In a cover-story interview in the gay-oriented style magazine Details, Gyllenhaal stresses the universality of “Brokeback’s” story: “My character could have been played by a woman and it would have made just as much sense.” Apparently not having read any of the promotional material on the film, the actor says that he doesn’t believe Ennis and Jack are gay: “I approached the story believing that these are actually straight guys who fall in love,” he says. “That’s how I related to the material. These are two straight guys who develop this love, this bond. Love binds you, and you see these guys pulling and pulling and tugging and trying to figure out what they want, and what they will allow themselves to have.”
Ledger played the same card in an interview in Time magazine. “I don’t think Ennis could be labeled as gay. Without Jack Twist, I don’t know that he ever would have come out,” Ledger tells the magazine. “I think the whole point was that it was two souls that fell in love with each other.”
“Brokeback Mountain” producer James Schamus told one reporter that he was not worried about audiences who were troubled by the love story and sex scenes between men. “If you have a problem with the subject matter, that’s your problem, not mine,” Schamus said. “It would be great if you got over your problem, but I’m not sitting here trying to figure out how to help you with it.” But he also knows how important it is that the story be defined as universal. “Once people saw the film, they understood that it was a film about a kind of epic greatness that can exist in anyone, anywhere, no matter who they are, no matter what their sexual orientation or class or historical circumstances.”
Once it’s been clearly established that the actors playing gay roles are not themselves gay, the next step in Hollywood’s recipe for gay themes is to push the universalism button. In other words, not only are the actors not really gay, but neither is the story. It’s not enough, apparently, that the audience can safely know that it’s not harboring romantic fantasies about an actor who’s really batting for the other team, we must also be assured that we’re not being emotionally engaged and moved inappropriately.
For a long time it has been obligatory for any gay-themed movie to be presented as universal, in order to appeal to the often mythical crossover audience. When William Wyler made the second film version of Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” in 1961—the first version, “These Three,” also directed by Wyler, in 1936, transmuted homosexuality into adultery—Wyler was quoted: “ ‘The Children’s Hour’ is not about lesbianism. It’s about the power of lies to destroy people’s lives.” This line was later echoed by Rod Steiger in 1968 (” ‘The Sergeant’ is not about homosexuality, it’s about loneliness”) and Rex Harrison in 1971 (” ‘Staircase’ is not about homosexuality, it’s about loneliness”) about their gay roles, and by director John Schlesinger about his 1972 film (” ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ is not about the sexuality of these people, it’s about human loneliness”). Even more ridiculously, in the lead-up to the 1982 “breakthrough” studio “gay film” “Making Love,” written by openly gay screenwriter Barry Sandler, producer Allan Adler was quoted, “We’re not anxious to have ‘Making Love’ defined as a gay movie.” Talking about the story of a doctor who comes out of the closet and leaves his wife for another man, Adler said, “We hope that it will be seen as a love story. It’s not a slice of gay life.”
This is an old and familiar strategy, much loved by critics as well as publicists. The pattern was set by reviewers critiquing gay playwrights and novelists. Heterosexual critics find fault with gay artists for not rising above their parochial concerns, that is, for addressing themselves to the concerns of their fellow gay people. In a 1980 letter to The New York Times Book Review, justifying his negative review of Edmund White’s “States of Desire: Travels in Gay America,” critic Paul Cowan asserted that “it’s crucial to communicate across tribal lines. Good literature has always done that—it has transformed a particular subject into something universal. Mr. White didn’t do that: in my opinion it’s one of the reasons he failed to write a good book.” Novelist David Leavitt was felled by the same ax, wielded by New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, when Leavitt published his first novel, “The Lost Language of Cranes,” in 1986. Lehmann-Haupt seemed quite sympathetic to the novel, and congratulated Leavitt for creating explicitly homosexual characters, thus enabling the critic to “discern a resolution to the old debate over whether or not homosexual art is inherently limited.” In other words, parochial, not universal. And, no surprise, Leavitt didn’t quite pass the test, perhaps because he was “subtly biased in favor of [a homosexual character’s] outlook.” Better luck next time.
In contrast, when a gay writer is praised, artistic success will be defined as having achieved universalism. Lehmann-Haupt, ever vigilant on the ramparts of literature, was more charitable toward Edmund White’s 1988 novel, “The Beautiful Room Is Empty,” but no less focused on the main question. His review opened: “The subject is homosexuality in Edmund White’s new novel…. There are in the book explicit scenes of lovemaking. So the question is immediately posed: Is this a novel of parochial appeal, or can anyone, regardless of sexual preference, appreciate it?” Fortunately for White, he passed the test, if only barely, as “there is much in [the novel] that makes one uncomfortable, if only because it is so specific in its sexual appeal.” The novel concludes with the narrator witnessing the Stonewall riots, and Lehmann-Haupt concluded his review: “Gay liberation has arrived; it is their Bastille Day and we find ourselves cheering, even in the face of what we know is to come—and what Mr. White must surely write about in another sequel. Such is the subtlety and strength of [the novel] that we actually find ourselves cheering.” Note that “we” who are cheering are clearly not gay, even though gay people read The New York Times. And note that “what we know is to come”—AIDS, of course—somehow in Lehmann-Haupt’s mind casts the value of gay liberation in doubt.
In 1993 playwright Tony Kushner astonished the theatrical world with the success of his epic, “Angels in America,” winning Pulitzer and Tony awards and selling out theaters for a two-part, seven-hour “gay fantasia on national themes” (as “Angels” was subtitled). Critics were predictably quick to see Kushner’s work in a broader, dare we say, universal light. Writing in the Chicago Daily News under the appropriate headline “Angels reaches beyond gay issues,” Richard Christiansen offered a representative sample:
Some of the reason for Kushner’s success can be attributed to the strength of his voice as a member of the increasingly vocal gay community of this country. Angels springs directly from a gay political, social and sexual culture, and it expresses that culture with pride, force and eloquence…. But Angels in America, which roams across heaven and earth in its fantasy, is considerably more than a well-written gay play. For the first time in years, an American playwright has succeeded in painting on a broad canvas, exploring “national themes” on a grand scale…. Much of its story is necessarily bleak, dealing with death by AIDS, but the play is also an amazingly vibrant and joyous work, celebrating not only the gay spirit but the eternal resilience of a confused and besieged humanity.
Perhaps good literature has always transformed a particular subject into something universal. But there is always a double standard in the application of the universalism criterion. And, needless to say, gay artists are not the first to have been put to the test. In an essay on “Colonialist criticism,” the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe decried those Western critics who evaluate African literature on the basis of whether it overcomes parochialism and achieves universality: “It would never occur to them to doubt the universality of their own literature. In the nature of things, the work of a Western writer is automatically informed by universality. It is only others who must strive to achieve it.”
In a particularly condescending example of the universalism ploy, critic Mary McCarthy wrote “A Memory of James Baldwin” in 1989 in which she congratulated herself for appreciating Baldwin as her “first black literary intellectual.” What she means by this is explained as follows: “Baldwin had read everything. Nor was his reading colored by his color—this was an unusual trait.” Whether Baldwin thought McCarthy’s readings were colored by her color we’re not told. A similarly blatant example of racist universalism was reported in 1989 by Michael Denneny, who “watched an almost classic liberal, Bill Moyers, on his television show ask [Pulitzer prize-winning African American playwright] August Wilson, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of writing about the black experience?’ ” As Denneny says, this is a question of breathtaking stupidity that makes one wonder if Moyers would ask John Updike he ever tires of writing about the white experience. But, of course, we know the answer: Moyers probably equates “the white experience” with life itself; that is, it’s universal.
It comes as no surprise, then, that it’s not only Gyllenhaal and Ledger who push the universalism button when surveying “Brokeback Mountain.” A chorus of critics proclaims the film’s accomplishment in rising above the muck of gay particularity and ascending to the heights of universal humanity. What a relief.
American novelist Rick Moody’s article about “Brokeback Mountain” in London’s Guardian is headed “Brokeback Mountain is far more than a gay western. It’s a great American love story,” and it proclaims:
The magnificent thing, though, that happens during the unravelling marriages of these two men, as the film hastens toward its heart-rending completion, is that you stop thinking of these men as men, or gay men, or whatever, and you start thinking about them only as human beings, people who long for something, for some kind of union they are never likely to have.
In The New York Times, Caryn James, who has already noted that our awareness that the actors are straight “makes it easier and maybe more acceptable for middle-class heterosexual viewers—a group that does, after all, include most of us in the audience—to embrace characters whose sexual preferences we don’t share,” assures us the story “resonates with the emotions attached to any love facing insurmountable obstacles.”
It’s not only mainstream, heterosexual writers who are determined to cast this particular story in a broader frame. Salon.com’s Scott Lamb quotes Damon Romine, entertainment media director for the lesbian and gay media advocacy group GLAAD: “At its most basic level, this is a story about relationships,” he says. “The love that these characters experience in many ways transcends categories of gay and straight; this is a universal love story.” Gay writer Jim Fouratt informed the readers of his Web postings, “Please do see the movie and suggest to your friends who might not that they in fact do and go with an open mind. Brokeback Mountain is not a ‘gay’ movie. Brokeback Mountain is a ‘human’ movie for all.”
In a similar vein, gay historian Eric Marcus tells Ryan Lee of Houston’s gay paper, “It’s absolutely a universal love story—a love story about two gay men. My vote is that Jack and Ennis are gay, and there was never any doubt in my mind.” Interestingly, Marcus was responding here in part to the objection raised by bisexual activists that the characters, who marry and have children, are more accurately defined as bisexual, even though their magnetic poles are oriented toward each other.
So, have we reached the promised land of harmony and acceptance of sexual as well as ethnic and racial diversity? As usual, pundits are quick to read reviews, awards and box office receipts like cultural tea leaves, but the realities are more complex. Frank Rich’s celebratory hosanna on the New York Times Op-Ed page placed “Brokeback Mountain” in middle America: “In the packed theater where I caught Brokeback Mountain, the trailers included a National Guard recruitment spiel, and the audience was demographically all over the map.” But that slice of the map was probably located in Manhattan. And it’s true that the film is doing strong box office at theaters in many parts of the country, and has been shut out of only a few locales. A Utah movie-complex owner, and prominent Mormon, pulled the film out of Salt Lake City’s largest venue, but it was doing well at other area theaters and was named best picture by the Utah Film Critics society.
The Christian right has been predictably hostile but somewhat unpredictably muted in its response to the film, perhaps because the “gay cowboys” do not live happily ever after. The American Family Association’s response to the Golden Globes emphasized that the glass was half full, quoting a Concerned Women for America fellow on Hollywood’s “leftist” agenda:
“Once again,” Crouse observes, “the media elites are proving that their pet projects are more important than profit.” She goes on to note that “none of the three [Golden Globe award-winning] movies—Capote, Transamerica, or Brokeback Mountain, is a box office hit.” In fact, the CWA spokeswoman says, “Brokeback Mountain has barely topped $25 million in ticket sales. While it has recouped all the production costs, it is doubtful that receipts have covered the massive PR costs.”
In the same piece, “former homosexual” Alan Chambers is quoted as saying the Golden Globe Awards was deliberately pushing the envelope with the nomination of controversial new films that center around the issues of homosexuality and transsexuality. But it’s not clear whether he saw “Brokeback Mountain,” for he insists that “Hollywood’s one-sided portrayal of homosexual life is damaging and hurtful.” Perhaps he was assuming the film had a happy ending.
Closer to the center of media and popular culture, “Brokeback Mountain” has energized comedians and columnists with a burst of banal, tired jokes. “Saturday Night Live,” a show that has long exploited crass “gay jokes” in the spirit of “equal opportunity offenders”—the president of the United States and gay people are equal in the eyes of these fearless satirists—rushed to offer a tired skit featuring Alec Baldwin and Will Forte as gay prospectors. The joke seemed to be just that: They’re gay. This was followed by SNL’s Tina Fey joking that “Brokeback Mountain” was a groundbreaking western because “the good guys get it in the end.” And there’s lots more where that came from, and about as funny. Jay Leno tells us that Elton John and David Furnish are honeymooning on Brokeback Mountain; David Letterman is “sort of worried about Uncle Earl. He wants us all to go out and see the gay cowboy movie,” and then lists Top 10 Signs You’re a Gay Cowboy. Topping it off, as it were, openly gay actor Nathan Lane (never in the running for romantic or action-film roles) played along with Letterman by singing “gay cowboy”’ theme parodies of show tunes—“You’re the Top” and “Oklahomo.”
In a refreshing moment, The New York Times’ self-consciously ironic gossip column, Boldface, reporting on the party scene following the Golden Globes, blew the whistle:
And we found ourselves in conversation with ALFRE WOODARD and BILL MAHER. They talked about old times, about being on the same television show in the 80’s with GEENA DAVIS, while Mr. Maher liberally peppered the conversation with lame gay-cowboy jokes. Eventually, Ms. Woodard had enough, and, if we may be so bold, she spoke for all Americans when she said: “You are overusing it! Everyone is! That whole Brokeback Mountain. It’s not going to be funny anymore.”
So, as we await the judgment of the exalted Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences—don’t you wonder what sciences these are, exactly?—to discover which, if any, of the queer-themed stories or performances will enter the pantheon of Oscar winners, we’re left once again to ponder the wider significance of all this hoopla. As reporters and critics have been asking now for weeks, does this represent a shift in the cultural landscape, a truce in the cultural wars? Or is it all about marketing, PR and the media fascination with the latest Big Thing that will surely be succeeded by the Next Big Thing? It may be all of the above, and probably is. But it’s important to keep several things in mind: “Brokeback Mountain” is not a fairytale love story (pun intended) in which the lovers ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. It’s a tragic romance in which no one wins. The accolades for the actors, however well deserved, cannot alter the fact that there is an unmistakable tinge of minstrelry here, when gay actors are locked into the closet by their own ambitions and the paranoia of the industry, and audiences must be firmly assured of the heterosexual credentials of those playing gay for pay. Hollywood and much of the media may be awash in liberal self-congratulation, but they—and we—are also soaking in the familiar hypocrisy of homophobia.
And, lest we forget, when we leave the movie theater, we’re still living in a country where Democrats and Republicans joined to pass the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed by Bill Clinton in 1996; whose current president endorsed an amendment to write anti-gay discrimination into the Constitution; and in which 13 states passed resolutions or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in the last election. The glass is only half full.