- Why I Hate that I Loved Brokeback Mountain
Few can deny Brokeback Mountain's accomplishments as a cinematic triumph. It featured phenomenal performances by an ensemble cast, none of whom were Hollywood royalty. It performed well at the box office. It addressed, by all accounts, "controversial" and provocative subject matter. And it made Ang Lee the first Asian to win a best director Oscar. The film was also touted, marketed, and much anticipated long before its initially limited release in theaters. Indeed, it had a successful life on the film festival circuit, commanding top awards in both Berlin and Venice. And in the gay community of Chicago where I live, there was great buzz near summer's close about the new "gay western" that was soon to be released.
A Wall Street Journal reporter opined that Brokeback achieved its financial success "by surgically targeting where the movie would play in its initial release; selling it as a romance for women rather than a controversial gay-bashing tale; and opting out of the culture wars rather than engaging them." An MSNBC reviewer, Erik Lundegaard, also observed that much of Brokeback's financial success rested with its ability to capture the hearts of middle-American women:
It's women who drive . . . [love] stories, after all. They had to twist their boyfriends' arms just to see Titanic—and that one offered a topless Kate Winslet. Brokeback offers us topless women, too, but in sadder circumstances, and with that still-squeamish-for-straight-men front story. No amount of arm-twisting, it seems, can get many of these guys to head up Brokeback Mountain. But women are so broad-minded, or so in need of a love story, that they'll go even when their gender isn't part of the equation.
A great deal could be made of both these commentators' implicit understanding of the category of "women" as both straight and white and the category of "men" as white and straight. The various responses of many straight black women and lesbians are far too complicated to be adequately covered by such reductive statements. Lundegaard's move to address audience specificity, however, is one I think worth making. It is toward that end that we might ask, what is it about the idea of a gay western that so gripped our imaginations in the gay community?
Heath Ledger (as Ennis Del Mar) and Jake Gyllenhaal (as Jack Twist) both cut a ruggedly handsome, white, masculine, straight-acting (they are both on the [End Page 95] "down low," after all) ideal in the parlance of the gay marketplace of desire.1 These characteristics account for a large part of the film's appeal among gay audiences. What gay man doesn't find two cowboys (a masculine category that is fodder for fantasy if ever there were one) getting it on in the heartland of America appealing? Indeed, since its release, Brokeback has been articulated more often than not as a "love story" about two characters who happen to be gay cowboys. And we know how much the United States loves its love stories.
To be even more specific, U.S. moviegoing audiences have been largely fed the Hollywood moviemaking formula that has at its center the success of the white, heterosexual love story. So long as that story survives—through various twists and turns even—we are happy, narrative resolution is delivered, and "our" way of life is redeemed. For example, in the 1990 film Joe versus the Volcano (starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks), when the volcano erupts at the film's end and the entire island civilization of the fictitious Waponi tribe is wiped from the face of the earth forever, we are scarcely disturbed. In fact, the audience is relieved because Joe and Patricia (Hanks and Ryan) literally sail off together into the moonlight on a luggage raft to live happily ever after in blissful, white, heterosexual love.
Perhaps the only thing Hollywood has taught U.S. moviegoers to like more than a love story is a story of star-crossed lovers. One ready way to provide critique of a social norm (classism/elitism, family rivalry, heterosexism...