“Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee’s beautiful film about love and repression, was a turning point for LGBTQ cinema in 2005 because it was one of the few mainstream Hollywood films to put a love story between two men front and center.
These days, such a film would hardly raise eyebrows, but 17 years ago it was the subject of scorn from conservative circles for pushing the “gay agenda.” Its stars, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, took considerable risks making the film because it could have jeopardized their status as leading men. But their pitch-perfect performances helped make the edgy material relatable to the general public.
Film critic Roger Ebert perfectly explained why the story resonated with people in his 2005 review. “‘Brokeback Mountain’ has been described as ‘a gay cowboy movie,’ which is a cruel simplification,” he wrote.
“It is the story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel,” he added. “Their tragedy is universal. It could be about two women, or lovers from different religious or ethnic groups—any ‘forbidden’ love.”
Fifteen years after Ledger’s death, Lee praised his performance in Empire magazine’s Greatest Actors issue. As a director, Lee was able to explain why his subtle performance as Ennis, a repressed cowboy, worked perfectly in the film in ways that the general public may have missed.
“Heath Ledger was a brilliant young actor. God only knows what he would have achieved later in life. He had so much talent—I’m sure he would have been a great director,” Lee wrote in Empire.
“Brokeback Mountain has the elegiac mood of a Western and an inner-twisted repression—Ennis is a very repressed character, macho but gay, gay but homophobic—and often there is no vocabulary to express his feelings,” Lee continued. “So Heath’s aura powers the whole story. He did a lot of preparation, mostly on his own. And he often surprised me with what he brought to his work.”
Any actor can “go big” and chew up the scenery with a flashy performance, but portraying a character with nuance is a lot harder.
“What stays with me is the nuance, the quieter moments,” Lee wrote. “The trick is to know how to turn a performance down and still shape it. There is a scene I remember very clearly, where an old girlfriend [Linda Cardellini] runs into Ennis at a diner. Ennis is alone, eating a slice of apple pie. Linda is acting her heart out, she’s in tears, confronting Ennis: ‘Why did you do this?’ But she doesn’t get a word from him. Throughout the whole scene, Heath does nothing: he just eats the apple pie. But watching the dailies, the crew were all crying too, saying, ‘Just leave the guy alone!’ I both understood, and cherished, Heath’s quietness, the subtlety of the moment, and how he carried himself in that scene. We are all very lucky we were able to make movies with an actor of that calibre. He had a God-given gift.”
It is sad to contemplate the incredible talent taken from the world when Ledger died at the young age of 28. But by creating a character that helped mainstream America understand that heterosexual love isn’t the only type worth fighting for, he helped to create a better world for so many who didn’t have a voice.
Ledger had the perfect response to a reporter who said people may be disgusted by the film.
u201cHeath Ledger’s response to calling the relationship in “Brokeback Mountain” disgustingu201d
— Iz (@Iz)
“It’s obviously about two men in love and it’s obviously gay-themed and it’s very easily labeled, but unfortunately, people are quick in life to label something that they’re uncomfortable with,” Ledger said at a press conference. “The pure fact of it is that it transcends a label. It’s human. It’s a story of two human beings, two souls who are in love. Get over the fact it’s two men. That’s the point…
“And if you can’t understand that, just don’t go see the movie,” Ledger concluded.