A Love Story with a Twist: Brokeback Mountain

By Pauline Park

No one who has seen Brokeback Mountain could have been surprised when, in January, the fi lm won 2006 Golden Globe Awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for Best Picture (Drama) and

Best Director for Ang Lee, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame. On March 5, the Taiwanese director went on to win the Academy Award for Best Director, the fi rst Asian to receive that honor.

Brokeback also won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. But in one of the biggest Oscar night shocks in history, the Academy of Motion Pictures denied the fi lm the Best Picture award. Nonetheless, Brokeback is an extraordinary film – both subtler and deeper than the caricature of a “gay cowboy movie” that is circulating in the media.  Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, the film explores the relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The ranch hands meet in 1963 while tending sheep in Wyoming.

Driven into Jack’s tent by a cold night, Ennis soon fi nds himself in a passionate embrace, the fi lm’s only substantial homoerotic sex scene. But their sexual passion never leads to a real life together. Instead, Ennis marries his girlfriend, Alma (Michelle Williams), and Jack in turn marries Lureen the rodeo queen (Anne Hathaway). The men escape their loveless and sterile marriages on their annual

“fishing trips” back to Brokeback Mountain. Even after his divorce, Ennis refuses Jack’s pleas to start a life together, and the film ends in tragedy.

If Brokeback speaks powerfully to gay and non-gay audiences alike, it is because the film not only successfully conjures up the great natural beauty and stultifying social milieu of1960s Wyoming, but also poses larger questions about love and life. Brokeback makes plain the tragedy of true love constrained, and ultimately defeated, by homophobia. But the film goes beyond even a story of unrequited love to

pose that most basic of questions that we all face as human beings: How does one live an authentic life?

The deepest tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is Ennis’ refusal to accept Jack’s invitation to live it. In the conclusion to his 1854 work Walden, Henry David Thoreau could well have been describing the 1960s Wyoming of Brokeback when he wrote, “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”

Jack cannot persuade Ennis to climb out of the rut of heteronormative conformity because Ennis is traumatized by an episode from his childhood. When he was young, his father took him and his brother to see a gay man tortured and beaten to death for having the temerity to live openly with another man.  His fear of violence is a realistic one, but in choosing to live his life from a script written by someone else, Ennis is false to himself, to his wife and his children, and most of all to the man who loves him, the only person for whom Ennis feels genuine passion.  In their fi nal encounter, Jack confronts Ennis with the desperate, sad truth that they have wasted their lives in outward conformity and secret transgression.  Ennis has settled for mere existence, and the price of outward conformity to a rigid code of

heteronormativity is a slow inner death for both of them.

We cannot know why the Academy passed over Brokeback to give the Best Picture Oscar to Crash. While not everyone would consider Brokeback cinematographically innovative, the same could be said of Crash and, for that matter, many previous Best Picture winners. My guess is that Academy members were afraid that this year’s ceremony would be lampooned as “the gay Oscars.” It is hardly coincidental that the Academy also denied Felicity Huffman the award for Best Actress for her extraordinary performance in Transamerica, even if it did give Philip Seymour Hoffman the nod for Best Actor, for Capote. Ironically, Brokeback is in many ways exactly the kind of movie that the Academy likes to recognize: an old-fashioned love story. But in this case, it’s a love story with a twist – a Jack Twist, to be precise – and that is why Academy members may have decided to play it safe and go with Crash instead. If that was the thinking behind the collective decision to deny Brokeback Best Picture, then

it is unfortunate.  For as Ang Lee said in his eloquent acceptance speech for Best Director, Brokeback taught its cast and crew not only about gay love, but also about the greatness of love itself.  The fact that a heterosexual Taiwanese Chinese director would embrace same-sex love and offer his Oscar as a tribute to the people of Taiwan in the same all-too-brief speech should be encouraging to LGBTQ Asian/Pacific Islanders everywhere.

Spring 2006

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