Cowboy Wrangler: A Dozen Years after His Queer Hit the Wedding Banquet, Director Ang Lee Finds Comfort in Taking on Another Pioneering Gay Love Story, the Long-Awaited Brokeback Mountain
Feinstein, Howard, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
"A cowboy is always homoerotic for the gay community, right?" asks director Ang Lee asks rhetorically, with his characteristically naive inflection. "Like the Chinese martial arts heroes in the East. The thing about Westerns is that there's a lot of homo subtext."
The soft-featured Taiwanese-born filmmaker--who garnered the top prize at this year's Venice Film Festival for Brokeback Mountain, as he had 10 years earlier at Berlin for his immensely successful coming-out feature The Wedding Banquet (homo subjects serve him well)--is justifiably at ease chatting about gay issues in the vernacular. "People say I twisted the Western genre in Brokeback. I think I untwisted it."
Adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from Annie Proulx's short story, first published in The New Yorker eight years ago, Brokeback Mountain chronicles the secret love affair between two handsome virile cowboys. [See the review on page 81.] Quietly seething Wyoming native Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and extroverted Texan Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) begin the movie as cowpokes hired for the summer of 1963 to tend a herd of sheep in virtual isolation high up on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain. On one bitterly cold night they share a sleeping mat in the single tent, and Jack makes an impulsive move. Ennis responds, taking Jack savagely from behind.
That night unfolds into a summer of unarticulated physical affection--wondrous landscapes (Canada subbing for Wyoming) providing the emotional resonance that the two protagonists are, at that point, incapable of conveying. But the summer ends, and the men return to their separate lives. The remainder of the film chronicles their relationship over the next 20 years.
Responding to the endless gossip about the film's treatment of same-sex affection, Lee maintains that no one snipped sex scenes from the screenplay or in the editing room. In fact, he added some passionate smooching--set not long after the men's initial coupling--that was in neither the short story nor the script.
"The kissing scene is more tender and, to me, more sexy, more of a commitment," he says. "What happens between them in the first sex scene is out of the blue, confusing. They are two lonely souls. They live together, and love brews. It just happens. They don't know what hit them. I needed to see them commit to love before I could continue with the rest of the 20 years."
Over that period Ennis and Jack both marry and have children but do arrange from time to time to meet up for what they tell their wives are "fishing trips." At one point Ennis's harried wife, Alma (Ledger's real-life love, Michelle Williams), sees them making out. "Everyone was happy with the result [of that kissing scene]," says Lee. "Then we moved in for a close-up of Michelle, whose character is stung and confused. The guys thought their job was done, so they just kind of held each other [off-camera]. Michelle said, 'Guys, I need it. Give me something.' So they started necking. She got pissed off and started yelling at them." Is it ironic that Ledger impregnated Williams shortly after filming wrapped?
Lee hastens to add that "the two actors did not enjoy kissing but as professionals were able to do it at that moment." Got it.
The director notes the different acting styles of his two leads, whom he had sent to cowboy "boot camp."
"Jake positions himself this way, then that way. He tries everything--like De Niro or something," Lee says, then cackles. "Heath is not like that. He has a specific target within him. I don't have to bring him back from here or there. He's also very easy to photograph, easier than Jake. You don't have to avoid anything."
Lee, 51, is comfortable navigating Brokeback's predominantly masculine world in part because of his Taiwanese childhood. …