Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Screenplay by Diana Ossana & Larry McMurtry, based on the short story by Annie Proulx
Directed by Ang Lee
Produced by Good Machine/ Focus Features
Running time: 134 minutes
What the *&#! Is This About?
In the town of “Signal,” Wyoming in 1963, two ranch hands arrive and are put to work by a rancher (Randy Quaid) whose sheep need to pasture on “Brokeback Mountain.” The camp tender, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) doesn’t say much to his new partner at first, only that he used to come from ranch people. The herder, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the son of a rodeo rider. As time passes, the two men grow more comfortable with each other. Jack confides that his father was actually a well-known bull rider, but he kept his expertise to himself and never came to see Jack ride. Ennis reveals that his parents died and after a year of high school, he struck out on his own. When Jack complains about having to sleep up on the mountain with the sheep, Ennis offers to switch jobs with him.
Drunk and bunking down at the campsite, Ennis takes shelter with Jack in the tent to get out of the freezing cold. During the middle of the night, Jack initiates what escalates into an intense bout of sex between the men. “This is a one shot thing we got goin’ on here,” Ennis tells Jack the next day, adding “You know I ain’t queer.” Jack responds, “Me neither.” As the summer draws on, the experience turns out to be anything but a one shot deal, but when the job is over, Ennis forces himself to part ways with Jack. He marries his fiancée Alma (Michelle Williams) and starts a family. Jack drifts back into rodeo, where he catches the eye of Lureen (Anne Hathaway), a hotshot circuit rider whose father owns an equipment company.
Ennis receives a postcard from Jack, who drops by on his way through Riverton. Alma catches her husband greeting his old friend intimately, but keeps this to herself for the time being. Taking off on what become annual fishing trips to Brokeback Mountain, Jack fails to convince Ennis to go in with him on a ranch somewhere where they can live together. Ennis shares a childhood memory of “two old guys ranched up together” and what ended up happening to one of them. Even after Alma divorces him, Ennis keeps his feelings for Jack private. When Jack asks for how long they have to go on like this, Ennis replies, “As long as we can ride it. There ain’t no reins on this one.”
Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Following the publication of her third novel Accordion Crimes in 1991, Annie Proulx found herself drawn to writing about life in small town America, specifically Wyoming, where the author had moved in 1994 after living in Vermont for thirty years. Proulx recalled, “I am interested in landscape, folkways and rural problems. There is an endless conflict of values, lifestyles, the way people make their livings and social networks. I find the lives of country people far more interesting than the lives of city folk who are less connected to landscape and the natural world.” In 1997, Proulx started writing a short story she doubted would ever be printed; it concerned two young ranch hands in 1960s Wyoming whose sexual and emotional relationship spans twenty years. Published in the October issue of The New Yorker, Brokeback Mountain would ultimately be named an O. Henry Prize Story and win a National Magazine Award.
A couple of years prior, Larry McMurtry – the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Lonesome Dove – was recuperating from heart surgery in the home of a friend named Diana Ossana. McMurtry wrote his 1993 novel Streets of Laredo on Ossana’s kitchen counter, which she keyed into her computer and edited. McMurtry had received offers from Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan and others to write various screenplays and had rejected them all, but when Warner Bros. contacted the author about scripting a movie about gangster Pretty Boy Floyd, Ossana jumped into action. She recalled, “I went out and did a bunch of research on it. I had ten legal-sized pages of interesting facts about Pretty Boy, and sat down with him and said, ‘These are all the reasons that you ought to write this script.’ He was kind of amused by that, and by the time I was done reading him that list, he said, ‘Ok, I’d like to write the screenplay, but will you write it with me?’”
By October 1997, McMurtry & Ossana had written a script for Pretty Boy Floyd as well as two teleplays based on McMurtry’s work: Streets of Laredo and Dead Man’s Walk. The duo was back in Texas, where a friend gave Ossana a copy of that month’s issue of the New Yorker, which featured Brokeback Mountain. Ossana recalled, “Two-thirds of the way through reading the story, I began to sob, and I sobbed all the way to the end. I was floored.” Ossana took the magazine to McMurtry, who recalled, “I don’t read fiction much anymore, so I was reluctant. But in her tenacious way, she asked that I humor her and read it. After I was finished reading it, the first thing I thought was that I wished I had written it. It was a story that had been sitting there for years, waiting to be told, and Annie finally wrote it. It is one of the finest short stories I’ve read. The place, the landscape, the men and the way they speak are drawn precisely and convincingly.”
Diana Ossana recalled, “He read it and said it was the best short story ever published in the New Yorker. ‘Well, do you think it would make a screenplay,’ I asked. And he replied, ‘I think it might.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t we write Annie a letter?’ And he said, ‘Okay.’” Within a week, Proulx had optioned her short story to the writing tandem. Paying her out of their own pockets, McMurtry & Ossana started writing and three months later, finished a screenplay. Producer Scott Rudin would option the script and ultimately brought Gus Van Sant on board to direct. Despite interest from Joaquin Phoenix to play Jack Twist, McMurtry believed that actors were getting cold feet. “They’d say it was the best thing they’d ever read, and then they’d waver and anguish. Their agents were afraid and steered them away from it.” Unable to lock a cast, Gus Van Sant had to pass on directing Brokeback Mountain.
In 2001, producer James Schamus took out an option on Brokeback Mountain. Schamus presented it to his longtime collaborator, director Ang Lee, who read the short story, felt the screenplay was a great adaptation, but opted to direct The Hulk instead. Schamus had no luck getting a studio to take a chance on the material. He took a job developing films for Universal’s specialty unit Focus Features, where it dawned on him that now, he had the cache to greenlight Brokeback Mountain himself. By this time, Ang had finished The Hulk. The director recalled, “Two years later, I asked James, ‘What happened with Brokeback Mountain? Did it get made yet?’ He said, ‘We haven’t been able to make that movie.’ Lucky for me. I said, ‘You know, it’s stuck with me over the years. I can’t get it out of my mind.’” Ang continued, “James got the rights, and I started thinking about making the movie right away. Before I knew I could physically do it, I jumped on. I just knew, in the bottom of my heart, if I let it go, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
With Ang Lee behind the camera, a cast for Brokeback Mountain quickly fell into place. Jake Gyllenhaal had met Gus Van Sant about taking on the role of Jack when he was only 16. The actor recalled, “I was immediately drawn to Brokeback Mountain because love stories haven’t been told this way in a long time. Movies I’ve seen in recent years have avoided the struggles and the trials that it takes to actually be in love and keep that going. When I heard that Ang Lee was going to make it, I thought, ‘I have to do this movie.’” Heath Ledger committed to the project without meeting or even speaking to the director. “I trusted that story in Ang’s hands. I loved the script because it was mature and strong, and such a pure and beautiful love story. I hadn’t done a proper love story, and I find there’s not a lot of mystery left in stories between guys and girls. It’s all been done or seen before.”
Diana Ossana elaborated on the writing process. “Adapting Annie’s story was extremely easy and yet extremely difficult. It was easy in the sense that we had the blueprint right there with her writing – of the story itself, of the characters, of the specific way they speak, of the specific place they were from, and the landscape that formed them. The difficult part was to stay true to all that while turning this into a feature-length film. First we scripted the entire short story, and then we imagined and proceeded to flesh out the female characters so they would have depth and a presence on-screen. We also continued to build upon the stories of Ennis and Jack, many times creating an entire scene based upon a single sentence in the story.” On the strength of the screenplay, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Linda Cardellini and Anna Faris all joined the cast in supporting roles.
Shooting commenced May 2004 in Alberta, Canada on a budget of $12 million, Ang’s least expensive since making Eat Drink Man Woman in Taiwan. Impressed with his work for Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ang hired cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Production designer Judy Becker was also hired. She recalled, “Ang and I, and Rodrigo, talked about how the towns would be a strong contrast to the mountains – colorless and cluttered. We didn’t have the resources to build a huge amount of the sets. The biggest challenge was finding the right locations.” She added, “I looked at imagery of small towns. One thing that struck me, which Ang and I discussed early on, was that although the movie takes place mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, the towns still looked like they could be in earlier decades. We went to Wyoming and Texas to do some research and, even now, so much detail and architecture is left over from pre-World War II. Change happened very, very slowly in small towns in the West.”
Following screenings at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, talk in Hollywood was whether paying audiences would have any desire to see a movie about the love between two men. Diana Ossana recalled, “As human beings we tend to put labels on everything as a way to sort of categorize and feel safe about something. ‘That script is about gay cowboys, well, I’m not going to give that thing the time of day. I’m not going to waste my time on it.’ It’s a way to reduce it to something very simple, when it’s something that isn’t simple at all. At one point I remember somebody saying to me, ‘You know, Diana, this movie would get made a heck of a lot faster if it were about a man and a woman.’ That wouldn’t make any sense. You wouldn’t make that movie.”
Opening December 2005 in the U.S., critics greeted Brokeback Mountain with near universal acclaim. Anthony Lane, the New Yorker: “This slow and stoic movie, hailed as a gay Western, feels neither gay nor especially Western: it is a study of love under siege.” David Ansen, Newsweek: “There’s neither coyness nor self-importance in Brokeback Mountain – just close, compassionate observation, deeply committed performances, a bone-deep feeling for hardscrabble Western lives. Few films have captured so acutely the desolation of frustrated, repressed passion.” Marjorie Baumgarten, the Austin Chronicle: “It’s possible to point to some weak spots in Brokeback – its seeming multiple endings, the lack of clarity about certain images, some digressions – but there is no movie this year that has moved my heart more than Brokeback Mountain.”
Not every community in the world was ready to embrace Brokeback Mountain. The Chinese government refused to add it to a list of foreign films deemed suitable to be shown in mainland theaters. Despite the fact that the city’s two major newspapers carried ads, the late owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz franchise – Larry Miller – withdrew Brokeback Mountain from exhibition in the Salt Lake City suburb where he owned an entertainment complex. Many conservative Christian groups in the U.S. – anticipating noisy protests would only help promote the film, as they had in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ – stayed quiet, predicting that rural audiences would likely reject the subject matter anyway. Strongly favorable word of mouth and eight Academy Award nominations instead had the opposite effect. Brokeback Mountain was propelled to box office receipts of $83 million in the U.S. and $95 million overseas.
The month of its release, Annie Proulx was asked whether straight men would watch Brokeback Mountain. The author replied, “They are watching this movie. Of course, why wouldn’t they watch it? Straight men fall in love. Not necessarily with each other or with a gay man. My son-in-law, who prides himself on being a Bud-drinking, NRA-member redneck, liked the movie so much, he went to it twice. Straight men are seeing it, and they’re not having any problem with it. The only people who would have problems with it are people who are very insecure about themselves and their own sexuality and who would be putting up a defense, and that’s usually young men who haven’t figured things out yet. Jack and Ennis would probably have trouble with this movie.” She added, “It is a love story. It has been called both universal and specific, and I think that’s true. It’s an old, old story. We’ve heard this story a million times; we just haven’t heard it quite with this cast.”
Should I Care?
Ang Lee, Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana and composer Gustavo Santaolalla all won Oscars, while – in yet another awards show “moment” – the racial melodrama Crash was voted Best Picture, but one of the more lasting impressions made by Brokeback Mountain is that instead of angling for awards or trying to send a message, the film reveals genuine empathy for its characters and their experiences, portraying both realistically without Hollywood glamour or spin. It’s not a film that casts judgments its characters, in spite how the politics of the time may or may not have judged the movie, developing a timeless quality by depicting its setting with honesty, and its emotional range with complexity. In the process, it cuts deep through just about every demographic to leave its mark as a great love story.
With Annie Proulx’s short story running 11 pages, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t cover a whole lot of ground, but the power of what’s on film is hard to ignore. The opening scenes convey the beauty and solitude of the country as memorably as any of Larry McMurtry’s movie adaptations, particularly Hud. Material is rarely matched so perfectly to the sensibility and skills of a particular director as this story is for Ang Lee. The combination of writing and directing obviously attracted one of the finest casts assembled in recent memory. Each time I watch the movie, I come away thinking another actor gave the best performance: Michelle Williams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anne Hathaway. There’s nothing more to say about Heath Ledger except that his work as Ennis Del Mar passes into legend.
Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Ang Lee’s Brokeback Explores ‘Last Frontier’” By Anne Thompson. The Hollywood Reporter, 11 November 2005
“Annie Proulx discusses the origins of Brokeback Mountain” By Sandy Cohen. Associated Press, 18 December 2005
“New Cultural Approach for Conservative Christians; Reviews, Not Protests” By John Leland. The New York Times, 26 December 2005
“Annie Proulx Interview” By Deepanjana Pal. Time Out Dubai, 23 March 2009
Brokeback Mountain – Production Notes. Focus Features
Brokeback Mountain – 2-Disc Collector’s Edition. Universal Studios Home Video (2006)