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.