- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

Have critics ever been more prepared to swoon over a movie than in the case of the little indie known as “Brokeback Mountain”?

As conservative Jonathan V. Last asked in November: “If it stinks, would anyone dare say so? And do you… get the sense that perhaps many members of the entertainment press don’t even need to see ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to figure out what they think?”

A month later, the raves are pouring in. Entertainment Weekly declared it “the year’s most daring love story.” Newsweek called it a “must-see for movie lovers.” The New York Times said star Heath Ledger’s performance ranks up there with “the best of Marlon Brando and Sean Penn.” And New York magazine reasoned that critics of the film’s subject matter are either stupid or insecure, or both.

Oscar buzz is hot: The movie already has snagged a best picture award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle and leads the Golden Globes with seven nominations, including nods for best dramatic picture and best director (Ang Lee).

The bare contours of the movie, which is based on a short story by Annie Proulx, are familiar to anyone who’s seen an American Western: a craggy mountain setting, snorting livestock, a rushing river and tragic relationships.

So why all the critical hosannas?

The X-factor, as you may have heard from pre-release hype, is the homosexuality of its cowboy leads, played by Mr. Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. The two discover erotic feelings for each other while herding sheep in the mountains of Wyoming in 1963. Over the course of 20 years, they drift into sham marriages and share periodic trysts under the guise of “fishing trips.”

“There’s never been a homosexual cowboy movie,” observed the Hollywood Reporter, “and while the indies have been supplying gay romances to the art house circuit for years, and gay series like ‘Queer as Folk’ and ‘Will & Grace’ have been pulling big numbers on TV, there hasn’t been a mainstream gay love story since 1982’s ‘Making Love,’ which bombed and was blamed by many for damaging Harry Hamlin’s career.”

Now, despite the Hollywood Reporter’s survey and blogger Andrew Sullivan’s protestations that “Brokeback Mountain” represents an important cultural moment — a Stonewall Riots-like symbol of homosexuality storming the gates of macho Hollywood — this isn’t the first time homosexual men have figured in a mainstream movie. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane were a comical item in 1996’s “The Birdcage,” Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the play “La Cage Aux Folles.” And, lest we forget, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his 1993 performance in “Philadelphia” as an AIDS-stricken homosexual attorney.

Mr. Ledger and Mr. Gyllenhaal, then, aren’t exactly breaking new ground.

What’s new, I think, about “Brokeback Mountain” is twofold. It’s more frank in its depiction of homosexuality than any previous mainstream movie. And, more abstractly, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana use the raw material of Westerns to play the genre against itself.

Rodrigo Prieto’s photography of the Canadian countryside (a substitute for the American West) is as much a context for what Karl Marx called the “idiocy of rural life” as it is a tool of evocation. This is not the land of rugged pioneers; this is a killing field of ignorance, where homosexuals live constantly with the risk of murder or mutilation.

Similarly, Mr. Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar, with his “Sling Blade” accent and clipped cadences, is your stereotypical laconic cowboy — except that the laconism is not an attribute of sturdy manliness. Rather, it’s a lethal inarticulateness, a symptom of Ennis’ inability to grapple with whom he is, and whom he loves.

The fixation on sexuality isn’t just from urban critics who hope the film becomes a pedagogical tool for the intolerant, or at the very least a subject best left on the margins of cocktail talk.

That seems to be the hope of the filmmakers, too. Mr. Lee, the director, says the movie has the resonance of a “universal love story.”

Whether or not that’s true does, indeed, depend on one’s view of homosexuality. It’s either a sin, a forgivable aberration or, simply, a morally neutral category.

Unfortunately, this fixation stands, ironically, to diminish the movie’s less controversial virtues, namely, its brisk storytelling efficiency and pictorial beauty. There’s also a wonderfully complicated supporting performance, for instance, from Michelle Williams, who plays Ennis’ wife, a character who is in the unique position of judging Ennis not for his sexuality but for his honesty.

On that score, I’m reminded of something Gore Vidal once claimed: There’s no such thing as homosexuals, only homosexual acts.

I say, in defense of aesthetics, there are no homosexual movies, only homosexual characters.

Tell that to the wised-up critics who are riding “Brokeback Mountain” into the culture wars.

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