Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


-- film -- real cowboys don't kiss

Mountain men by Kevin Williamson Calgary Sun 2004-05-27

..... Earlier this week, the director of The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk began filming the gay-themed duster Brokeback Mountain, which has generated its fair share of controversy since it was announced earlier this year. Set in Texas and Wyoming during the 1960s and spanning more than two decades, it centres on the love story between a ranch hand and a rodeo performer. Heath Ledger (Monster's Ball, A Knight's Tale) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, The Day After Tomorrow) are set to star as the two lovers. Also in the cast are Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek), Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries), Randy Quaid and Linda Cardellini (ER). [...] Despite rumours of explicit sex scenes between the two male leads, [Producer James Schamus] says the film is actually "a very, very old-fashioned love story...

"Ang is fascinated with those moments in life where you're touched by greatness and emotion but social rules and regulations keep you from following it." He explains Brokeback's sexual content will be "modest" and appropriate for audiences who love "great movies and romance ... There won't even be any (explicit scenes) to show up on the DVD. For us, the references are the great, great screen romances."

MSNBC - "Mountain" of controversy for new gay-themed film

Will Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger get hot and heavy in "Brokeback Mountain"? Or will the gay-themed plot be toned down so as not to offend audiences?

The two box-office heartthrobs raised eyebrows in Hollywood when it was revealed that they would star in a film based on Annie Proulx's critically acclaimed novel about two cowboys who fall in love while herding sheep and, as one Amazon reviewer put it, "deny they're 'queer' even during their rough love making."

The book contains some pretty explicit love scenes, and in previous interviews, Gyllenhaal has said he's comfortable playing a gay character. "[My friends] are all like, 'Dude, you're gonna kiss a guy?' But it's not about that for me," Gyllenhaal told the Calgary Sun earlier this month. "It's about how impossible love can be sometimes and I can relate to that. I grew up in a family where many of our close friends were gay couples. As well as that, every man goes through a period of thinking they're attracted to another guy."

But now it looks like director Ang Lee has decided to tone down the gay love scenes. "We were all talking about the kissing in the movie just recently," Gyllenhaal told the Malaysian Star. "Clearly it's pretty challenging material, but Ang said two men herding sheep was far more sexual than two men having sex on screen."


Ang must know some pretty unusual sheep, then.

It's going to be interesting to see how this all plays out. Peculiar thing is that in the original novella, there is in fact one and only one explicit (and quite short) sex scene in the actual text -- although there are references to other times, and if you're going to film this, in opening it up, you'll need to make those references less understated. That said, the one explicit scene is done in such a way in the story that it could easily be handled without dickzapoppin' everywhere, and all but one of the times referred to occurs in a cluster after that one. The way the story is written, at that point, the idea is that they're using sex for intimacy because they don't quite know what else to do, that Real Cowboys Don't Kiss -- they can shag their brains out here, there, and everywhere, but kissing would be affectionate, it wouldn't be just sex, and it would mean that they would have to admit to themselves what they're doing. The story is all about the fact that in that time and place, being who they were, they couldn't allow themselves to do that.

All that said, the one scene does need to be, in some way, present. After all, that's how everything starts; they like each other as coworkers and maybe friends, then they have sex, and then they fall in love, even though they don't want to recognize it. Since the sex is the trigger for everything that follows, there needs to be something.

There is one, and only one, somewhat sexual scene later in the novella (although, again, there are references to the two of them taking fishing trips together and talking about what they've done, what they want from life and each other), and in that, the point isn't the sex at all; the point is acknowledging what's going on as best they can. In that one, the sex all takes place off screen, as it were; we see what is very likely the first kiss they have allowed themselves.

You wonder if maybe the people complaining that Ang is de-gaying it maybe haven't read the original story, either (and Ang isn't helping his own cause with cracks like that "sheep" one) . The romance is intense; the sex is intense, but it's not all-present. There's not necessarily a lot to pull out, if he's shooting the story more or less as written. That said, heaven only knows what they've put into the script itself. According to an article at Salon, the draft of the first sex scene is as follows:

Will Jake and Heath shatter Hollywood's taboo against gay sex?
By Rebecca Traister
Jan. 14, 2004 (Salon, subscription or day pass commercial viewing required)

... It will now be up to Lee and his actors to determine how raunchy or demure the physical relationship between the two taciturn Westerners will get on-screen. A draft of the script is noncommittal on this point, allowing room for the prim and the explicit in its description of Jack and Ennis' first sexual encounter: "AS THE FOLLOWING ACTION OCCURS, WE PULL AWAY TO THE NIGHT LANDSCAPE, AND WE HEAR ONLY THE SOUNDS ... THE BELT BEING UNBUCKLED, RUSTLE OF JEANS, ENNIS SPITTING, SHARP INTAKES OF BREATH ... ENNIS raises up, gets to his knees, unbuckles his belt, shoves his pants down with one hand, uses the other to haul JACK up on all fours ... JACK doesn't resist ... ENNIS spits in the palm of his hand, puts it on himself. They go at it in silence, except for a few sharp intakes of breath."

According to this early draft of the script, it is only after "ENNIS shudders" that "THE CAMERA MOVES BACK INSIDE THE TENT, as both fall asleep."

Later, in one of the screenplay's most powerful moments, the two men -- each married and a father -- meet again after a separation of many years, supposedly to share some platonic, ass-slapping drinks as straight men. But when they meet on the very visible stairway to Ennis' apartment, they "seize each other by the shoulders, hug mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying sonofabitch, sonofabitch. Then, as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths come together."

There are a few things that may be driving this peculiar reception that the movie -- not yet released and only barely started shooting -- is receiving.

From the gay side, there's the fact that Hollywood has a notorious reputation for sanitizing gay sex and emasculating gay males on screen. The American public has long been uncomfortable with the concept of men kissing or having sex with each other in the movies. Killing each other: A-OK! Kissing each other: EWWW! Because, you see, we're so desperately mature as a society.... Anyway. Given that cable television has pushed the line much further out than it used to be, expectations are high, and Ang saying that he might de-emphasize the sexual content, what little there is, gives cause for concern.

Catty comments aside, "the American public" constitutes another problem for the film. The producers look at Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, normally top draws, in any film, and they see Big Bucks. The reality, however, is that this film is not a Big Bucks movie. If it's well made, it might be a good Oscar Season movie -- one that will make more money once nominations and maybe awards are announced, but not a lot beforehand. And if they release it earlier in the year, it won't even do that; it'll just be a good small movie. (One hopes that it's good. Certainly small, in any event.)

Finally, of course, there's the iconic image of the cowboy. For all that the story takes place in the 1960s and forward, it's still a cowboy love story. It's not that there aren't cowboy love stories, even involving two men -- take, for example, the Lone Ranger, or any story where the hero has a constant sidekick. I'm certainly not saying that the Lone Ranger and Tonto were going at it in the sagebrush ... but neither am I saying that they weren't. What I am saying is that in your typical cowboy/friends/sidekick story, you can take it as read that the men feel a deep affection for each other, a nearly romantic sort of attachment, and that attachment is never ever ever ever EVER expressed in any real way whatsoever, because Real Men Don't Admit Emotion. Other than that, the only cowboy love stories out there seem to have a man giving up the range for The Love of A Good Woman, or else they're between a man and his horse. (... Geez, not THAT way! EW! Get your minds out of the gutter!) An explicit affair between two cowboys plays with that iconic image in ways that the American public may not be at all comfortable with acknowledging.

Of course, the iconic image has relatively little to do with what actual cowboys may well have been like. Think about it in purely human terms: out there in all that range with lots of guys and no women whatsoever, who else were they going to attach to? Sure, when they got to a town, they'd have a high old time with wine, women and song, but then they'd have to go back out on the range, and they'd have nothing left but each other. It was difficult to find women who'd be willing to put up with a husband that was gone a lot more than he was home, and those that were out there were probably taken up very quickly, leaving far more men than women available. The American west also very quickly developed a reputation for being a place where people were mostly left alone and nobody inquired too much into what you were doing or who you were doing it with; complementing that, being a cowboy attracted the sort of men who wanted to be outdoors, who wanted to be either alone or around other men, and who didn't know what else to do with those feelings. But I digress.

In any event, Ang Lee did well enough with his first gay-oriented feature, The Wedding Banquet. Granted, that was a romantic comedy and not a drama, but still ... if the man can just stop talking about those damn sheep, maybe it would be worth our while to wait and see what he comes up with.

Posted by iain at 02:28 PM in category film