- “Brokeback Mountain” is revered as the quintessential queer movie, and is many people’s go-to film when asked about their favourite LGBT movies.
- The film is just as popular today, 15 years after it’s release, thanks to an expertly crafted story, career-defining performances from stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a legacy boosted by it’s 2006 Oscar loss.
- Insider spoke to several filmmakers about why Ang Lee’s movie is still so important, including queer directors Craig Johnson and Daniel Ribeiro.
- Johnson said: “It could’ve felt like a cheap porno. But it was exquisitely done, so undeniably moving and had such an impact.”
- However, the directors warned it could lose it’s status as the ultimate gay movie as queer cinema evolves and the film industry starts to embrace LGBT representation in movies.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“Brokeback Mountain” was released 15 years ago. That’s a pretty long time in cinema – from “War of the Worlds” to “Avengers: Endgame.” The sweeping romance follows Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) as they engage in a complex, passionate, and forbidden love affair over two decades.
Since the release of Ang Lee’s movie, queer representation onscreen and behind the camera has increased substantially (although there is still a very long way to go). We’ve had the first-ever mainstream LGBT rom-com in “Love, Simon,” cultural juggernauts like “Call Me By Your Name” and “Carol,” about three Disney movies featuring Disney’s “first-ever” LGBTQ character (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Onward,” and “Zootopia”), and “Moonlight,” which did what “Brokeback Mountain” couldn’t and became the first-ever queer movie to win best picture at the Academy Awards.
Yet “Brokeback Mountain” is still viewed as the go-to gay movie. In Insider’s recent chats with various queer and ally filmmakers about their favourite LGBTQ movies, Lee’s seminal film was mentioned by every single person. The effect that “Brokeback” has had on the film industry, its filmmakers, and the queer community, is still rippling today – even 15 years later. We spoke to several queer filmmakers about what makes “Brokeback Mountain” the quintessential queer movie.
Universality – ‘The two lovers here just happen to be men’
It’s probably wise to start off with the film’s actual quality – which, by almost all accounts, is pretty high. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%, and most critics were enamoured with the movie the moment it first hit screens.
David Calhoun, writing for Time Out, said: “Lee has taken a story of gay love and placed it where it should be – in the mainstream. He’s delivered a beautifully crafted film to boot.”
Meanwhile, Kenneth Turan of The LA Times said: “It’s 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.”
Striking a similar was Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times: “‘Brokeback Mountain’ has been described as ‘a gay cowboy movie,’ which is a cruel simplification.
“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. Their tragedy is universal. It could be about two women, or lovers from different religious or ethnic groups – any ‘forbidden’ love.”
There’s a tight rope to walk here – embracing queerness and queer characters but at the same time not alienating mainstream, predominantly straight audiences. “Brokeback Mountain” straddles this line expertly, presenting their leading queer characters and their forbidden love with so much sympathy that it turns to empathy.
They are gay, and while most audience members may not understand exactly what it is like to love someone, and be something, that is deemed so taboo it could lead you to catastrophe, or, in “Brokeback Mountain’s” case, death, Lee’s movie depicts forbidden love, something a lot of people know of, so expertly and touchingly that it’s hard not to get sucked into caring thoroughly about these characters – whether you’re gay or straight.
Ang Lee is responsible for that. Oscar-nominated “Precious” director Lee Daniels told Insider that he was originally set to direct “Brokeback” himself, which led him to avoid watching the films for almost 15 years because he “didn’t think that [Ang Lee] would do it justice.
“When [Jack and Ennis] first had sex in the tent, I saw that scene how I would direct it, so I just couldn’t imagine any other filmmaker doing it justice. Especially a straight filmmaker taking it on.”
Daniels, however, said that Lee’s heterosexuality actually helped the film achieve the success it has – and, when he finally saw the movie, admitted it was excellent.
“He did it in a way that was palatable for many heterosexuals around the world. I would have probably been more in your face with it, and he did it from a different perspective, so kudos to him. And I told him that.”
‘Brokeback Mountain’ is ‘above the radar,’ but still embraces its queerness
There is a danger here, of course, of straight-washing LGBTQ movies. Go too far to please the mainstream audiences, and you’ll lose the queerness. The gay conversion camp drama “Boy Erased,” while ably acted by its cast (particularly Lucas Hedges), almost seems scared of the subject matter. It never embraces it’s queerness, despite a well-meaning message.
It felt tailored to straight audiences, whereas “Brokeback Mountain,” while not exactly tailored to queer audiences in the way that a modern TV show like “Pose” is, is so direct in its depiction of queer love and the dangers of being gay that it feels absolutely authentic.
Craig Johnson, the queer director of Netflix’s “Alex Strangelove” spoke to Insider about the impact that Lee’s movie had on him as a viewer as well as a filmmaker.
“I came out as gay during the time ‘Brokeback Mountain’ came out, so it coincided with this time of me feeling like I couldn’t live a lie anymore and wanting to finally embrace fully who I am,” Johnson told Insider.
“Then I see this movie and it was a really emotional experience for me. Not only because in that movie you see what societal repression and internal repression can do to you. But also those feelings of like ‘if you’re gay, you’re gay.’ You can try to change it but you can’t, and it’s going to mess with you if you don’t figure it out.”
Johnson said that it was this matter-of-factness that helped it as it became the first movie with queer themes and characters “just blew the doors off the culture.
“I remember before it came out, I was nervous, and people were joking about ‘oh, it’s the gay cowboy movie. And is it going to be silly? Is it going to make people laugh?’ It could’ve felt like a cheap porno. But it was exquisitely done, so undeniably moving and had such an impact.
“It just felt like: ‘I knew this moment was coming.’ Everything else prior to that felt a little indie or under the radar, but ‘Brokeback’ was fully above the radar.”
The infamous Oscar loss actually helped the legacy of the movie.
Back in 2006, “Brokeback Mountain” was tipped to become the first LGBT movie to win best picture at the Academy Awards. It had already won four Golden Globes (including best picture and best director) and three BAFTAS (including best picture and best supporting actor for Gyllenhaal) by the time the March ceremony rolled around.
It was also the most nominated film of that year’s ceremony, with eight Oscar bids in total, and crucially had support from several of the key branches of the academy that a film typically needs in order to win best picture – picking up nominations for directing, writing, and acting.
But when presenter Jack Nicholson announced the winner, it “Crash” that he read out rather than “Brokeback Mountain.” Nicholson sounded surprised himself when he called out the movie, and large sections of the audience can be seen not applauding.
It was deemed a terrible injustice, and one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes in its 93-year history. “Crash” was a good film, but didn’t earn as good reviews as “Brokeback” did, nor did it make as much money ($US101.2 million to “Brokeback’s” astonishing $US178.1 million), and it certainly wasn’t the pop-culture juggernaut Ang Lee’s movie is.
Even now, after shocks like “Moonlight” beating “La La Land,” “Green Book” winning over pretty much every fellow best picture nominee, and “The King’s Speech” beating “The Social Network,” the “Crash” is constantly cited as the worst in various publications’ lists of worst Oscar snubs.
This status as the Academy Award’s most hard-done-by movie was further ratified when “Crash” director Paul Haggis said that his film didn’t deserve to win best picture as it wasn’t the best movie of the year.
All of this, however, just helped to build up a network of support and a sense of loyalty to “Brokeback Mountain.” The furore following “Brokeback’s” loss helped to give the film a longer life, and kept in many conversations for far longer than it probably would have been if it had just quietly won as expected.
Queer cinema did later get its “revenge,” when “Moonlight” beat “La La Land” in an embarrassing case of mistaken identity, but “Brokeback Mountain” will always remain the movie the Oscars let get away.
‘Brokeback’ is so focused on repression, that it doesn’t allow it’s queer characters to ever truly enjoy their desires
However, not everyone Insider spoke to was so taken with the movie. James Wilby, who starred as one half of an iconic gay couple himself in James Ivory’s 1987 masterpiece “Maurice,” told Insider that he was “irritated” by the movie despite also thinking it was “remarkable.”
In “Maurice,” Hugh Grant’s Clive represses his sexuality and lives life as a straight man, whereas Wilby’s titular character embraces his identity as a gay man in Edwardian England.
“I thought the way that James Ivory handled Clive’s transition from, if you want to call him or gay or if you want to call him something esoteric, into being straight was better [than ‘Brokeback’],” Wilby told Insider.
“As an audience, we know that he has lied to himself. It’s intuitive. It’s writ large without anybody doing anything. Whereas in ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ I didn’t believe it. There was something wrong about that.”
What “Maurice” does so well that “Brokeback” perhaps doesn’t is that it shows its queer characters enjoying their sexuality.
“Brokeback” is so consumed by presenting Jack and Ennis’ tragic repression that it forgets to allow the characters to ever enjoy their own desires as queer people, which is something LGBTQ audiences are crying out for and “Maurice” delivers.
Most of the love scenes in “Brokeback” are full of anger, like they hate the person they are making love to rather than loving them. Of course, it’s themselves that they actually hate because of their repressed homosexuality, so anger is an understandable response in those circumstances. They are so ashamed of themselves that they want to resist and stop, but can’t help their own desires – and that mix of feelings comes out in anger.
There are some tender moments of affection, particularly in a scene in which Ennis gives in and goes to Jack in the tent, but in “Brokeback” every exchange is always laced with a sense of negativity, or guilt, or resentment.
It’s fine that “Brokeback” does this – Jack and Ennis face very dangerous consequences to embracing their sexuality, so the way they make love is understandable, and suits their characters perfectly.
But, still, it’s not an uplifting story, and queer audiences are getting tired of overt tragedy in LGBT movies.
‘I think the queer community deserves fairytales, too. We deserve Disney-like happy endings’
“Philadelphia” follows a gay man with HIV (Tom Hanks) trying to sue his former company for wrongful dismissal. No prizes for guessing the ending.
Charlize Theron plays a bisexual serial killer in “Monster.”
Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”follows a group of people during the AIDS epidemic.
“A Single Man” follows a gay man (Colin Firth) preparing for suicide following the death of his boyfriend.
“Boy’s Don’t Cry” tells the story of transgender man Brandon Teena, who was brutally killed.
The list goes on.
As “Tell Me I Love You” director Fiona MacKenzie told Insider: “Basically, they are all tragic. People die. It’s pretty dark. I suppose it’s appealing to an actor, to go all the way there. But you also need the light-hearted stuff.”
These are all great films, and important ones too, but queer audiences have outgrown these types of tragedy porn movies. We don’t really want to be reminded about how brutal the world can be, and would love more variety in the LGBTQ movies we get, which is finally starting to happen.
“Call Me By Your Name” is the summer holiday to “Brokeback’s” harsh, cold, slog.
It’s bright and joyous, and makes you want to be Elio (Timothee Chalamet) or Oliver (Armie Hammer), whereas you’d never want to be Jack or Ennis. It’s also full of intense passion, and the love scenes let its queer characters enjoy being gay.
“Love, Simon” was a groundbreaking movie purely for exisiting, but gave us the fun and happy gay rom-com we’ve been dying for, for years. Craig Johnson’s “Alex Strangelove” followed suit – a carefree, uplifting comedy that also wisely depicts one gay man’s journey to self-acceptance.
Even “Moonlight” and “Carol,” both set in repressive societies, manage to squeeze positive moments, uplifting messages, and hopeful endings into their artfully made stories.
“Brokeback Mountain,” for all of its quality and impact, does not.
Daniel Ribeiro, who directed “The Way He Looks” (another captivating queer film), told Insider why queer audiences deserve happier movies.
“It’s so important to have those types of serious movies because they represent reality, and we cannot live in this fairy tale world, but I think the queer community deserves fairytales, too. We deserve Disney-like happy endings,” Ribeiro said.
“Although there is a lot of violence in the LGBT community, against the LGBT community, I think most people they find love, they have relationships, they find people they love. I don’t think we have found that in the same balance in the movies.
“I think all these aspects, the diversity of stories that we have, especially for young people, because it’s so hard when you’re realising you are queer, it’s important to have a movie that doesn’t tell you: ‘If you’re queer, you’re going to suffer violence, that’s all there is for you.’
“No, there’s love also, you find friends, you have relationships. Those positive things will happen, too.”
Of his own film, Ribeiro said: “Sometimes when we were doing the movie, some people were like, ‘it’s too Disney-like’ and I remember saying, ‘yeah, there is no queer Disney film, this is the queer Disney film, we’re making that.'”
‘Brokeback Mountain’ will lose its status as the go-to gay movie, but that’s a good thing
What will never change is the quality of “Brokeback.” It may be tragic, and it won’t leave you feeling positive about being queer, but it is still a great movie. It’s exquisitely acted, beautifully shot, has a crackling script, and Lee thoroughly deserved his best director Oscar.
Movies such as “Call Me By Your Name,” “Moonlight,” “Blue is the Warmest Colour,” and “Love, Simon,” along with TV shows like “Pose” and “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” are making up the rainbow flag of queer entertainment; whereas “Brokeback” is likely going to be increasingly viewed as something far more grey. It is inevitable that it will lose its current status at some point.
But that’s a good thing. In years to come, once we’ve had a full taste of queer cinema as the film industry slowly begins to embrace LGBTQ representation, we will struggle to nail down just one film as “the quintessential queer movie.”
The more that happens, the less status “Brokeback Mountain” may have as cinema offers us stories and characters from a variety of LGBT backgrounds. “Brokeback” will instead become “one of many” rather than a singled out movie that queer people cling onto for years because there isn’t much else.
But “Brokeback Mountain” will always be a game-changing movie, and it will always be remembered as a movie that was, at the time, revolutionary and bold and powerful, even if brighter movies do come along.