- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

It’s said that Larry McMurtry recognized the family resemblance when his writing partner Diana Ossana called his attention to Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” originally published in the New Yorker in 1997. The attraction has now placed the McMurtry-Ossana team on the brink of Academy Award triumphs. They wrote the screenplay for the film version, which has also been cleverly maneuvered into the favorite’s role as best movie of 2005.

“Brokeback Mountain” is a tear-jerker about lovelorn Wyoming cowpokes who sustain a homosexual passion for 20 years after a fateful carnal encounter as sheepherders in 1963. Since this pretext never sounded surefire, the maneuvering has incorporated a campaign to identify the movie as a chronicle of devotion and loss that transcends conventional sexual predilections, distilling a homosexual affair so eloquently that it would be a grave injustice for heterosexuals to remain suspicious or unmoved.

During a 45-year writing career, Mr. McMurtry has combined a flair for tear-jerkers with a curiosity about the repressed sexual drives and practices of stoic, tight-lipped Westerners. “Brokeback Mountain” tries to make a case (or sell a fond and fashionable bill of goods) that rings some curious changes on his early and enduring preoccupations as a novelist.

No other major novelist has had a better track record with the Academy Awards than Larry McMurtry. Although he turns 70 this year and has yet to win a screenwriting Oscar himself, he has authored three books that became major Oscar winners. His influence on popular filmmaking and myth-tinkering dates back almost half a century.

His first novel, “Horseman, Pass By,” published in 1961, was the source for “Hud,” one of the best movies of 1963. Nominated for seven Oscars, it proved a winner for actress Patricia Neal, supporting actor Melvyn Douglas and cinematographer James Wong Howe.

Mr. McMurtry himself was a nominee in 1971, having collaborated with director Peter Bogdanovich on the screenplay of “The Last Picture Show.” That bleakly memorable film derived from the third McMurtry novel, published in 1966. They lost the writing award as well as best picture to “The French Connection,” but Mr. McMurtry remained a lucky charm for actors: Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won the supporting categories.

While he did not play an active part in the movie version, Mr. McMurtry was also the source for “Terms of Endearment” (1983). Derived from his 1975 novel, it collected 11 Oscar nominations and won five awards: best picture, best direction and screenplay for James L. Brooks, best actress for Shirley MacLaine and supporting actor for Jack Nicholson.

That makes a total of 26 nominations and 10 Oscars prior to “Brokeback,” which approaches the March 5 ceremony as the top nominee and heavy favorite. And we’re just counting Oscars. The miniseries version of Mr. McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Lonesome Dove” was the prestige television event and Emmy heavyweight of 1989. Since then the author has become a miniseries franchise with his books about the frontier West. “Comanche Moon” goes into production soon for CBS.

From the outset of his association with the movie industry, Larry McMurtry has taken a sensible, genial view of what adapters need to do when revamping books for filmmakers. (Both “Hud” and “Terms of Endearment” significantly altered their source material.) His reflections on these matters can be found in a trio of essays and memoirs: “In a Narrow Grave,” published in 1968; “Film Flam,” published in 1987; and “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,” published in 1999.

In an article called “The Fun of It All,” Mr. McMurtry recalled, “When Hollywood entered my life I was sitting in a tiny room in Fort Worth eating meatloaf. The phone rang, and I was informed that some people I had never heard of had just bought the movie rights to my first novel.”

His participation in “Hud” was limited to a brief visit to the location near Amarillo, Texas. He was, of course, actively involved in “The Last Picture Show,” which used his hometown of Archer City as a principal location. (Archer City is now the site of his bookselling business, a Georgetown fixture for almost 30 years.)

More than content with “Hud,” “Picture Show” and “Endearment,” Mr. McMurtry was anything but happy with the 1973 fiasco “Lovin’ Molly,” misbegotten from his second novel, “Leaving Cheyenne.” An account of a ranch country menage a trois that endures from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, when one of the partners dies, “Leaving Cheyenne” seems a precursor of “Brokeback Mountain” in its preoccupation with an unorthodox romantic liaison. (It even has its own homosexual shocker. The heroine, Molly Taylor, receives a “Dear Mom” kiss-off letter from her estranged son, Jimmy, writing from the Pacific in World War II: “I don’t take after girls anymore, I take after men.”)

As a young novelist, Larry McMurtry was sufficiently disillusioned with traditions of heroic fiction in his native Texas to make a specialty of idiomatic, anti-heroic, sexually candid updates on Texas myths and mores. They were set among the small-town residents and ranching clans he had known as the son and grandson of ranchers, before discovering books, higher education and a formidable literary vocation at Rice, North Texas State and Stanford.

Ordinary, heterosexual relationships in West Texas preoccupied Mr. McMurtry. “Cowboys are a good deal more comfortable with one another than they ever are with their women,” he wrote in an essay called “Eros in Archer County,” collected in “Narrow Grave.” “I think it would be facile to assume from this that most cowboys are repressed homosexuals. Most cowboys are repressed heterosexuals. … Cowboys express themselves most naturally, and indeed beautifully, through their work. … As the years pass they form very deep bonds with the men (and the horses) they work with, but I think the reason these friendships are so relaxed and lasting is because they are nonsexual and offer a relief from the sexual tensions of the household.”

This emphasis differs from the view being urged in concert with aesthetic esteem for the pictorial and acting merits of “Brokeback Mountain.” The advocacy line is that the passion shared by Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist is as valid and stirring as any heterosexual attachment Hollywood has ever glorified, or glossed over.

The original author seems dubious about this notion: The lovers in Annie Proulx’s story are more sordid specimens than their film incarnations, in part because she’s blunt and acerbic in ways that the screenwriters and director Ang Lee are not. She’s less inclined to soften their betrayals to the women they deceive or abandon along the way — also a sore point in the movie but a sore point that gets sidetracked in scenery, a leisurely running time and buddy-buddy heartache.

Having brought Texas up to date in his early novels, Larry McMurtry began an epic reverie with its heroic past in the 1980s and brought an ornery-elegiac distinction to “Lonesome Dove” and its successors. Now he has midwifed another variation: the homosexual tear-jerker with Western trappings.

As “Brokeback” approaches an Academy Award payoff, it’s impossible to deny an emotional continuity over the decades. But do the implications really flatter homosexual advocacy? The author once summarized his theme as “the overwhelming loneliness of the westering experience” and added, “The old joke that cowboys get along better with horses than … women is not a joke, it’s a tragedy.”

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