An Affair to Remember

Brokeback Mountain

a film directed by Ang Lee, based on the story by E. Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain—the highly praised new movie as well as the short story by Annie Proulx on which the picture is faithfully based—is a tale about two homosexual men. Two gay men. To some people it will seem strange to say this; to some other people, it will seem strange to have to say it. Strange to say it, because the story is, as everyone now knows, about two young Wyoming ranch hands who fall in love as teenagers in 1963 and continue their tortured affair, furtively, over the next twenty years. And as everyone also knows, when most people hear the words “two homosexual men” or “gay,” the image that comes to mind is not likely to be one of rugged young cowboys who shoot elk and ride broncos for fun.

Two homosexual men: it is strange to have to say it just now because the distinct emphasis of so much that has been said about the movie—in commercial advertising as well as in the adulatory reviews—has been that the story told in Brokeback Mountain is not, in fact, a gay story, but a sweeping romantic epic with “universal” appeal. The lengths to which reviewers from all over the country, representing publications of various ideological shadings, have gone in order to diminish the specifically gay element is striking, as a random sampling of the reviews collected on the film’s official Web site makes clear. The Wall Street Journal‘s critic asserted that “love stories come and go, but this one stays with you—not because both lovers are men, but because their story is so full of life and longing, and true romance.” The Los Angeles Times declared the film to be

a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men.

Indeed, a month after the movie’s release most of the reviews were resisting, indignantly, the popular tendency to refer to it as “the gay cowboy movie.” “It is much more than that glib description implies,” the critic of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sniffed. “This is a human story.” This particular rhetorical emphasis figures prominently in the advertising for the film, which in quoting such passages reflects the producer’s understandable desire that Brokeback Mountain not be seen as something for a “niche” market but as a story with broad appeal, whatever the particulars of its time, place, and personalities. (The words “gay” and “homosexual” are never used of the film’s two main characters in the forty-nine-page press kit distributed by the filmmakers to critics.) “One movie is connecting with the heart of America,” one of the current print ad campaigns declares; the ad shows the star Heath Ledger, without his costar, grinning in a cowboy hat. A television ad that ran immediately after the Golden Globe awards a few weeks ago showed clips of the male …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

Brokeback Mountain’: An Exchange April 6, 2006