Brokeback Mountain: 10 Years On
“The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.” — Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain
The quiet, revolutionary charge of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, 10 years old this year, could be felt not only in the way it was embraced by cinemagoers, but in the way some attempted to neutralize its depiction of same-sex love by turning its most intimate and harrowing scene—Jack Twist’s “I wish I knew how to quit you” moment—into a joke. According to Jake Gyllenhaal, who played the charismatic Twist, that was something Heath Ledger, in particular, was acutely sensitive to. “He was extraordinarily serious about the political issues surrounding the movie when it came out,” he says. “A lot of times people would want to have fun and joke about it, and he was vehement about being serious, to the point where he didn’t really want to hear about anything that was being made fun of.”
Watched again a decade later, that “quit you” encounter on Brokeback Mountain—a culmination of the lovers’ lost years, symbolized in a desperate animal embrace—remains as charged and powerful as ever. Some of us have known someone like Ennis Del Mar, trapped in a world in which he doesn’t fit, and hopelessly incapable of seeing any alternative. Or, as Annie Proulx wrote in the short story on which the movie is based, “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.” It is Del Mar’s tragedy, and by extension Jack Twist’s, too, that he cannot bring himself to choose happiness over fear.
Many have written about the homoerotic subtext of cowboy films, but no story has been as forthright as Brokeback Mountain in reminding us that for all the celebrated machismo of the American West, there have always been men like Ennis and Jack.
In an emailed interview, Proulx says, “Of course there were and are gay men in the world of cattle and horses since the first cow spent the winter on the plains west of Laramie, but the great fiction that evolved in the 19th century and lay over the ranching West is that all cowboy horsemen and ranch hands were heterosexual, strong and fearless, brave and handsome, and though tough and daring, they were shy, sparing of words, always kind to orphaned doggies and children, extravagantly polite to women, etc. All this made up an irresistible masculine ideal that had/has political value. For many, the cowboy image became a potent symbol of American men. It was this confrontation with unreality that the story wanted to show through a look at two characters living in the real world of homophobic closeting.”
Although the movie was well-received and handsomely rewarded—it pulled in more than $177 million worldwide, and another $44 million in DVD sales—there were some outliers. A cinema in Salt Lake City refused to show it, and it was banned in China. But one of the remarkable things aboutBrokeback Mountain was that it came at just the moment when attitudes were shifting, and mainstream audiences were ready to see two men coupling—particularly when those two men were Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Watching Ledger inhabit the role of Ennis—such a coiled ball of muted pain and rage and repressed sexual energy—is doubly poignant now, for it reminds us of the huge talent that was lost.
As with River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role, and though all great roles seem like inevitable casting decisions in hindsight, there is a rare alchemy at work between the four central actors that one dud casting note could have destroyed.
Before Brokeback Mountain, the idea of a straight A-list actor playing a gay role in a hit movie seemed far-fetched. Afterwards it became almost commonplace, but it took Ang Lee to make that happen. Actors auditioned for Brokeback because Lee was a big name, but many were hesitant. “During the interviews I had a feeling they were a little, if I may say, afraid, uncomfortable,” recalls Lee. “Usually when they come to meet with [the director] their agents will follow up: ‘How’s it going?’ They didn’t say that to me this time.”
Back then, of course, Hollywood was not unlike Wyoming, a place where homosexuality existed, but was rarely admitted, and—if found out—inevitably punished. That has changed, and continues to change, but stories like Brokeback Mountain retain their potency because shame, fear, and prejudice have not vanished.
And also because the metaphor of Brokeback Mountain—of thwarted dreams and lives unlived—is one to which anyone with a heart can relate.
To mark Brokeback Mountain’s 10th anniversary, we invited director Ang Lee, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, and actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, and Randy Quaid to look back on the making of this seminal movie.
Diana Ossana (screenwriter): I first read the story when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. I read it in the middle of the night and again the next morning, and it was just as affecting, so I asked Larry [McMurtry] to read it. He was reluctant to, only because he’s not interested in short fiction.
Larry McMurtry (co-screenwriter): I wondered why I hadn’t written it myself, because [homosexuality] has been hanging there in the West for over a hundred years, waiting to be written. I knew it, and everybody who was really familiar with cowboy life knew it.
Ossana: We wrote Annie Proulx a fan letter and asked her what she thought about us optioning the story. She wrote back and said, “I don’t see a movie here, but have at it,” and we wrote a script in three months, and sent it out into the world. About five days later, Gus Van Sant showed up at our door in Texas wanting to make it. But Gus couldn’t get Ennis cast—that’s what slowed it. Larry believed actors’ representatives were dissuading them from doing the part—they called it career suicide for a straight actor to play a gay person. We just thought that was ridiculous.
Randy Quaid (Joe Aguirre): I read the story in The New Yorker on a treadmill in a gym in Houston. I thought it would make a great movie and even inquired about obtaining the rights, but they were already taken. The short story struck me as having more humor than the film, but perhaps that was due to the novelty of reading about two gay cowpunchers falling desperately in love with each other, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack Twist): The script for Brokeback Mountain had been around for a number of years, as is often the case with really interesting films. I’d actually met with another director, who was attached to it maybe four years before Ang came along. I was probably 19 years old.
Ossana: In 2001, [producer] James Schamus picked up the option, and he and I tried to get some directors to sign on. People loved the script—we kept hearing that—but no one would commit. At the end of 2002, I asked James to show it to Ang, and he came back a few weeks later and said, “Ang loved the script, but we’re going to do The Hulk.”
Ang Lee (director): I was pretty wrecked by making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. My friend Jim [Schamus] introduced me to this little story by Annie Proulx, and towards the end when they talk about all they’ve got is Brokeback Mountain, that was an existential question to me. What is this Brokeback Mountain? They say, “We don’t really have a relationship, it’s just Brokeback Mountain,” and I cried there. That really perplexed me. I grew up in Taiwan, so nothing is more remote to me than gay cowboys in Wyoming. At the time, I was in the flow of doing something pulpy and picked to do The Hulk, which wracked me even more. But the story just refused to leave me.
Gyllenhaal: I knew it would be a difficult film to make, and something that would put people off, but I didn’t know how difficult it would be to get made. My closest family members, my godfathers, were a gay couple, so it was something I just inherently had no prejudice about.
Quaid: It was definitely a movie that needed to be made. It afforded an opportunity for society, particularly American culture, to confront its core issues with the gay community. Placing the confrontation in a milieu that is traditionally perceived as hetero male–John Wayne and the Western cowboy–was a brilliant stroke by Proulx.
Lee: After The Hulk I thought about retirement. I thought I’d had enough. My father had just passed away, and I was exhausted. Brokeback Mountain nurtured me back to filmmaking and as a person. I’m not the creator of that movie—I’m just a participant. It was meant to come out, to see the world, to affect people. I think everybody involved felt that way, like we were blessed. I don’t have another movie I feel that way about.
Anne Hathaway (Lureen Twist): I received the script for Brokeback Mountain with a note that said, “Please read for interest in the part of Alma.” And I read the script, and was, of course, blown away by it, but I remember thinking, Alma’s not my part–I’m Lureen. It’s not dissimilar to the feeling of meeting someone that will become very important to you on some soul level. It had that same magnetic pull that I feel for certain very important people. And like all of those wonderful feelings, it made me hot, it made me flush, it made my blood pound.
Lee: I met Annie Proulx for the first time in New York. She scared me. But then I spent two days in Wyoming with her. The first day I was still afraid of her, since she is stern and I am a city boy, but the first night we had dinner, and I saw an item on the menu, Rocky Mountain oyster, and I ordered it. I had no idea what it was, but I’m an adventurous eater. I think that was the icebreaker. When it came she took a bite of it, and said, “Women are not supposed to eat this,” and cracked a smile. After that she was quite lovely.
Ossana: My daughter had suggested Heath [Ledger] early in 2003, so we did a little movie marathon. I had Larry watch Monster’s Ball, and he watched it until Heath’s character killed himself, and he stood up and said, “I can’t watch any more of this, it’s too brutal—but that young man is Ennis.” We suggested Heath to the studio, but they didn’t really take it seriously, and then the actor who’d committed to playing Ennis backed out, and I called Heath’s agent and asked him to get Heath the script. He read it on the way to Australia with Naomi [Watts] for Christmas, and said it was the most beautiful script he’d ever read.
Gyllenhaal: When I first met with Ang there were a number of different combinations of actors he had in mind—and each combination of actors was different. None stayed the same. You would hear, “Oh, this person and that person, or not them at all.” Or “this person and that person,” and then “not them at all.” After I had met with Ang—a brief, somewhat awkward meeting—I heard, “Now he’s thinking about Heath Ledger and you. But if Heath doesn’t want to do it, then it’s going to be somebody else.”
Hathaway: I was filming Princess Diaries 2, and I was working on Universal Lot [where] Ang was going to be meeting with people. So I was able to get a slot during my lunch break. We were shooting the coronation part of the movie, so I was dressed a ball gown, wearing this big hairpiece that was way over the top, but also worked for a rodeo queen, so it was fine. I just put on my jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, and drove across the lot in a golf cart with my big princess hair. I remember being very, very calm, which is unusual for me under any circumstances, especially at 21. I just felt so centered and focused, and in way like a predator: I knew what I wanted.
Ossana: When we were casting Alma, Michelle [Williams] wasn’t even on the radar. I was the only one who put Michelle on my list, and that was because I’d seen her in Dawson’s Creek and remember thinking, What the heck is this young woman doing on this show? You could see the depths she had.
Hathaway: When I’m done with an audition, I can usually tell if I’ve left the door open for another actress to come in behind me, but I left that room knowing that I had closed it, locked it, and welded it shut. I just knew it was mine. People were struggling to see me as anything other than a Disney princess at the time, so to get the endorsement from Ang made me realize that maybe I could take this a bit further. It made me think for the first time that I could be a legit artist. I remember thinking, I got one! Show up. Don’t be the weak link. Keep pace with these people!
Ossana: When Larry and I sat down to write the script, we decided what other scenes we wanted to add. We felt in order to make it full and really understand the impact of their relationship on the people around them, we had to include the children and their wives. A tragedy like that, the ripple effect of someone who was homophobic—which Ennis was—on everyone around them is tremendous.
Hathaway: When I got the part and had my first rehearsal, one of the things Ang told me was: “On the night Lureen and Jack first meet, that’s her Brokeback Mountain, the only one she ever got.” So that kind of fed into the bitterness.
Gyllenhaal: I’d known Heath for a really long time before that movie. We were friends. We went to a sort of boot camp, where we’d all hang out and learn to ride. Heath already knew how to ride really well, but we’d ride and hang out on the ranch outside of Los Angeles. It was really, really amazing.
Hathaway: When I left the audition, the last thing Ang said was, “Oh, by the way, can you ride a horse?” My parents have given me a lot of gifts in my life, and one of them is: If you’re ever asked if you can do anything, say yes. You can learn anything in two weeks if you’re motivated enough. So I’d never been on a horse, and I replied, “Oh yeah, I’m a really good rider.” So I knew I had to learn to ride, and I got really, really, really good. But I was given a horse on set without being told it was a verbal command horse, so I couldn’t figure out how to make it ride. And I went to a rehearsal in front of 300 extras, all of whom work in rodeos, and the horse wouldn’t do a damn thing I wanted it to. And at the end it threw me–in front of everyone.
Gyllenhaal: For the first month of shooting we all lived by this river in little trailers, and I had my dog there. We all just lived on a campground and would walk to set. You know, in a world driven by commerce, particularly in the movie business, there’s no time spent together—relationships are fleeting. But in the old-school way, people really used to spend their time together. They became a family. And that’s what Ang created on the movie. It’s why we are all still close— not just bonded by the success of the film, but bonded by the experience. It was an intimate project in that way. We’d wake up and make breakfast for each other, and hang out. Heath and Michelle fell in love. It was a really special, special time.
Ossana: The first day we filmed that scene where Michelle’s character is on the toboggan and falls off the sled, and Ennis is with her—they’re laughing; well on the third take, Michelle fell off the sled, and at the bottom of the hill she was crying. She’d twisted her knee, and we had to call someone to take her to the hospital. Heath was not about to let her go alone, and as he was getting into the vehicle with her he was smoothing her hair back. I remember him looking at her, and she looking up at him with these wide eyes. She was almost startled by the attention he was giving her, but you could see it every day from thereon. For him it was truly love at first sight. He was so taken with her.
Hathaway: The four of us were taken out to this restaurant in Calgary by the producers, and I remember sitting there and looking at beautiful Heath, and Jake, and Michelle, and it hit me that we were all under 25. It’s funny how recent it was, but at the time we were very far away from this burgeoning humanist moment that we’re having now with gay rights. And it felt like a very big and important step—a statement about love, about the need for love, about the consequences of limiting people. And I was just so blown away that these four 25-year-old kids could bring this to life, especially the three of them.
Ossana: Every crew I’ve filmed with in Canada has been very devoted and determined to do a good job, but on that set several of the crew came up to me early in the filming and confessed to me that they were gay, and how powerfully the script had affected them.
Gyllenhaal: That line [“I don’t know how to quit you”] has moved, it has been mocked, it has been everything in between, but I remember coming out of that scene, off that ridge of the hill, and seeing a number of the crew, some of whom didn’t even know what the movie was about, crying. When I first read that line, I was like, What is that? Now I realize that anybody who has loved knows what that feels like. The interesting part of casting us at such a young age was that we didn’t completely understand what we were involved in, and that’s the beauty of the movie as well.
Ossana: Heath and Jake were very different in their approaches to their characters, and their method. Jake would give many options—he’d do each take slightly differently every time. But Heath would do it the same each time, because he was that character.
Gyllenhaal: What Ang took and manipulated in the most beautiful way is those techniques we have as actors—one of us more improvisational, and the other more strict in his approach. So there are all these intricate things happening, where Ang’s taking who we are as actors and putting them into the characters, and taking pieces of our personality as well. On the set, that proved to be really interesting at times, and also, at times, really frustrating, for both of us.
Ossana: When we did night shoots and everybody was exhausted, between takes Jake would start singing show tunes, and he would do an impression of a big-time mogul producer—he was hilarious. It had a very familial feeling.
Lee: The night we filmed the scene by the river where they talk about Ennis’s childhood, Jake was in a mood to improvise a little bit, and deviate from his lines, and Heath just got really upset—really upset, like his whole progress was disrupted. Jake is more of an improv actor—try this, try that—but Heath’s preparation was really deep. He kept his teeth clenched and his face scrunched up for about two months—he didn’t let go. That’s why some people complained that they couldn’t hear what he was saying. He had to shoot a light-hearted comedy right after we wrapped—Casanova. He told me he just needed to unwind.
Hathaway: Heath almost broke his hand making the movie. It’s the scene where Jack drives off and Ennis starts to walk down the road and all of a sudden sort of falls into an alleyway because he’s got a pain in his stomach and is overwhelmed. Heath just really wanted to go there, and kind of got down. The plan was for him to put his face against the wall—that’s what the shot was supposed to be—and he just wound up punching the brick. Everyone was freaking out because it was a real wall. It wasn’t a movie brick wall. It was a fuckin’ brick wall. And he did it, and they got it, and they said his hand was mangled. He might have actually broken it.
Ossana: I said to Heath, “Ennis doesn’t know why he feels so horrible, why he feels like he’s going to be sick. It’s not a conscious realization yet—he’s suppressing his love for this man so hard, but this is why he feels like he’s going to vomit, why he’s punching the wall.
Lee: One of my favorite scenes is when Ennis goes up to Jack’s parents’ house—it’s about repression, the thing that’s missing, everything they hold back. It’s quite a scene. When I saw the clouds above the house I knew it was going to be a great day of shooting. It just had that feeling. We worked all the way to sunset and beyond. After the first cut, I knew I had something special.
Hathaway: I remember getting to watch the shot of Heath walking across their front yard, which is really just dust and dirt more than anything else, and Heath had decided that at some point Ennis had been in an accident and had a limp. It was so subtle, and it looked like he’d had this limp for about four years, and I just remember looking at Heath in that moment, and thinking, That is one of the greatest actors that has ever been.
Ossana: That day was so intense, oh my lord. And it was very intense for Heath. They did the takes over and over and over, and at a certain point Heath came down and said, “How am I doing, how am I doing?” And I looked at him and said, “You’re making me cry,” and he got so overwhelmed by emotion that he ran out of the building into the dark. I ran after him and asked if he was OK, and he said, “I just need to be alone for a little bit.” And then he came back about 30 minutes later and did the scene again. Actors like that don’t come along very often in one’s lifetime.
Gyllenhaal: While there are many parts of the real story that are sad, one of the saddest things is that I won’t be able to exchange ideas creatively with Heath again, because that was one of the most beautiful things to come out of that.
This story appears in the Sept. 2015 Fall Preview issue of Out. Subscribe and never miss an issue.