Brokeback Mountain perfectly captures our ambivalence about marriage — gay and straight
Within a couple months of its release, Brokeback Mountain went from being simply a well-made, serious film to a widely recognized, highly satirized cultural artifact. Ang Lee’s “gay cowboy” movie has been deluged with more than 90 nominations and awards — including eight Oscar nominations — but it has also become joke fodder, not only for the likes of Leno, Letterman, and Stewart but for the advertising geniuses at National Car Rental. Its iconic two-men-in-cowboy-hats poster has been used to parody everything from George Bush’s relationship with Jack Abramoff (KickBack Mountain) to Star Wars’s Mandalorian warriors. There is an online video parody — Broke Back to the Future
— with Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox as lovers, and last week’s New Yorker cover featured sharpshooting Dick Cheney and Squint-eyed bush in that now iconic Brokeback pose. Why has America been so discomfited yet so gripped by Brokeback fever?
It’s not as though we haven’t seen this before. For years, Hollywood has been churning out “buddy movies,” from Red River (1948) to the more-recent Lethal Weapon series, whose homoeroticism is barely concealed. As Stephen Holden pointed out in his New York Times review, Brokeback Mountain belongs in a tradition identified by Leslie Fiedler nearly 60 years ago in an influential Partisan Review essay titled “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”, which argued that homoeroticism — from Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Batman and Robin — is the primal American romance.
Nor are we unfamiliar with mold-breaking portrayals of gay love. While Hollywood has had its fair share of movies about flamboyant boys-in-the-band homos living gay lives — from 1969’s Staircase, featuring Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as bickering boyfriends, to 1996’s Birdcage, featuring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as, well, bickering boyfriends — it has also produced a wealth of serious, critically appraised, and award-winning films that explored gay male relationships in a variety of settings (see “We Are Everywhere”). Brokeback Mountain is just the latest addition to a well-established Hollywood tradition.
So why has this particular film so gripped the moviegoing psyche? Brokeback Mountain can be read many ways, of course — as a Romeo and Juliet on the open range, say, or a cautionary tale of violent homophobia. But it also captures the deep emotional ambivalence many heterosexual Americans feel not only about same-sex marriage and homosexuality, but about marriage itself. Polls show that a majority of straight Americans are against same-sex couples having access to civil marriage. But polls also show an unprecedented degree of general tolerance and acceptance. Straight people don’t hate homosexuals — they just don’t want to have to think much about them “doing it,” and certainly not “doing it” with full legal approval. Brokeback Mountain allows them to have it both ways, while also expressing uncertainty about their own romantic relationships.
Big rock candy Mountain
Brokeback Mountain is a near-perfect template for this cultural phenomenon. The film offers audiences total acknowledgment of gay love and passion. It even honors them as valid and deeply romantic. But it also, perhaps because of its hyper-romantic sheen, renders the sexual relationship mostly invisible. With the exception of a quick medium-long-shot sex scene and a passionate kiss, Jack and Ennis’s physical relationship is all off-screen. The fact that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are so uncommonly sexy only heightens audiences’ expectations and ambivalence. It’s not just that the film depicts more straight sex than gay sex — although that is certainly the case — but it also assiduously avoids showing us the mundane, everyday aspects of the lovers’ primary relationship. We are treated to numerous scenes of Ennis and Jack interacting with their wives, children, and even in-laws, but we never see the two men having coffee around the morning campfire, discussing the weather, or just casually hanging out in their underwear on one of their long-awaited camping trips. Except for their long-running argument about getting their own ranch, we have almost no sense of what brings them together and sustains them as a loving couple.
Brokeback Mountain, therefore, is the perfect movie for this particular political moment. It is emotionally sympathetic yet sexually obscure. Its valorization of gay love is predicated on making that love socially and physically invisible. Love may be a force of nature, but Lee’s film simply removes it from the reality of actual human relationships. It creates audience unease about homosexuality and then quickly addresses this anxiety by neutering the sexual component.
Hollywood films are fantasies, and all fantasies spring from contemplation about what we have and what we imagine having. Brokeback Mountain is no different. Sure, the film addresses straight audiences’ ambivalence about gay relationships, but also — maybe even more so — their ambivalence about heterosexual relationships. Hollywood has been force-feeding happy-marriage fantasies to heterosexuals for more than a century, and most married people are, on some level, discontent because they are not living out the ideal romantic fantasy they’d been sold by Hollywood.
The solution to this personal and cultural discontent is a trip to Brokeback Mountain, where the men are beautiful, the passions run high, the sex isn’t obvious, and no one is happy in the end. It’s the perfect unhappy Hollywood homosexual fantasy for people who’ve been disillusioned by the traditional happy Hollywood heterosexual fantasy. With cultural baggage like this, it could win every one of those Oscars it’s nominated for.
Michael Bronski’s most recent book is Pulp Friction (St. Martin’s Press, 2004).
On the Web:
"When Nathaniel Met Herman" by Michael Bronski:
Larry David on Brokeback Mountain:
Brokeback reviewed from a Biblical perspective:
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Michael Bronski: email@example.com