Having left this world much too soon Heath Ledger will forever be remembered for his Oscar-winning role as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Had he died earlier his defining role would have probably been the much more restrained Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), a film that boldly went where few love stories went by having the two lovers be male. The fact that they were cowboys gave the film the unfortunate moniker “the gay cowboy movie,” but it is much more than that. Take away the fact the two main characters are men and you have one tragic love story regardless of gender.
The film begins in the 1960s, a time when homosexuality was a something that had to be kept secret for one’s own safety. Today gay marriage is legal in certain countries, but unfortunately there was still a lot of backlash towards a movie about two gay characters when it was released. I remember a fellow student in college saying he was upset he paid money to go to the theatres and see THAT tent scene. It clearly did not bother everyone since when I went to see it in Quebec City there were so many people in the room I had to take a seat in the front row and had a close look at the scene in question. I am comfortable enough to say that did not bother me, but for anyone who would have been bothered by the sight two men getting intimate, Ang Lee also included a pretty hot sex scene involving Anne Hathaway so there is plenty for everyone here.
The really interesting thing about the relationship between Ennis and fellow Wyoming cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, also great) is that when they meet they seem to be as straight as arrows. They are just there to herd sheep on the mountain, collect their pay, and then move on to the next job. No need whatsoever for them to do more than shake hands, but eventually things get boring and Jack suggests they spend more time together. Then night falls, it gets cold, they get in their tent and Jack gets physical. The more solemn Ennis seems reluctant at first, but he’s a strong guy, he could stop this at anytime and decides not to.
Unfortunately they are both aware the way the world works at that time and know they cannot tell anyone what they have done as though it was some sort of crime. Sure enough, when Jack returns the next summer asking for another job, his boss (Randy Quaid) tells him there are no openings and makes it clear he has some idea of what he and Ennis were up to last time. More out of a need for survival than out of love the two hide their secret by entering “real” relationships, with Ennis marrying his fiancée Alma (Michelle Williams) and having two daughters with her, while Jack moves to Texas where he marries rodeo rider Lureen (Hathaway).
Try as they might to live the lie, Ennis and Jack can’t stay away from each other. They go away on “fishing trips,” telling their respective spouses they are just old buddies, but when Alma accidentally sees how they greet each other she realizes there is more to it than that. There is of course a simple solution to this situation: Jack and Ennis could just divorce their wives and live together happily ever after, but a brutal flashback illustrates what happens to men who are so much as suspected of being gay. Because the world they live in is unfair, they must stick to their lies, hurting themselves and the women who love them.
Decades after the era in which Brokeback Mountain is set things have changed for the better for the LGBT community, but 10 years after the movie’s release there is still a lot of room for improvement. Only last week Ellen DeGeneres was accused by a pastor of promoting a homosexual agenda to America’s youth, while labelling homosexuality as immoral and indecent. Luckily DeGeneres is allowed to do what Jack and Ennis could not, which is marry the person she loves even if that person is of the same gender, and can respond to that homophobic pastor on her own TV show while the audience happily applauds. However there are still countries around the world where homosexuality is not only frowned upon, but also downright illegal and in some cases punishable by death.
There is still a long way to go, but hopefully one day people will be able to look at the “gay cowboy movie” and see it as a sad reminder of a time when ignorance and hatred stopped many people from being happy together.