Photo by Kimberly FrenchThe last straw broke two weeks ago when my friend (and fellow journalist) Bob Hofler tried to make plans to go to an afternoon showing with someone who informed him, Oh, no Im going to be there for the very first one at 10 a.m. It was, Bob told me, as if his friend were going to vote in an election. And indeed, thats what its come down to. In the wake of three decades of gay-rights activism in which thousands fought and many died, we are solemnly informed by Frank Rich that a Hollywood movie is a landmark in the troubled history of Americas relationship to homosexuality. Oh, yes, Brokeback Mountain is so much more important than Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision ending sodomy laws nationwide!Unless youve been tending a sheep pasture since September, youve doubtless heard about Ang Lees adaptation of E. Annie Proulxs New Yorker short story that, according to Newsweeks puff-adept Sean Smith, caused a sensation... Its raw masculinity, spare dialogue and lonely imagery subverted the myth of the American cowboy and obliterated gay stereotypes. You mean like Montgomery Clift in Red River or James Dean and Rock Hudson in Giant? How about Tosh Carillo in Andy Warhols Horse? Across the wide cinematic prairie, theres nothing but gay stereotypes when it comes to cowboys, and Brokeback Mountain is no exception what with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal eyeing each other as they stand outside their bosss office striking poses redolent of a Sunday Beer Bust at the Faultline in Silver Lake.But readers of The New York Times arent supposed to know about such things. Thats why the newspaper of (exceedingly faulty) record sent fashionista Guy Trebay to talk to real life closeted cowpokes, one of whom proudly declared, Im a mans man. Im not feminine at all. Sure. Just like those personal ads: Straight-acting, straight-appearing, no fats or fems. The record will show that no mans men were present at Stonewall, where out and proud drag queens far tougher than Brokebacks poseurs took on the cops, and jump-started a movement that now seeks to write their politically incorrect effeminacy out of gay history. But why look back? To hear it from Frank Rich, Brokeback brings something different to the pop culture marketplace at just the pivotal moment to catch a wave.The crest of that wave, however, is something not that new at all slash fiction. This genre of homemade homoerotica, confected by and for women, began in the 1970s (and became the subject of many a post-feminist academic paper in the 1980s) by offering gay sexual fantasies involving Star Trek characters. Today slash incorporates everything from The X-Files (David Duchovny being seduced by male aliens) to imaginary same-sex-capades by members of the band Franz Ferdinand. Yes, the sisters are doing it for themselves, and never more so than in Japan with Yaoi a female-created (and -consumed) publishing genre encompassing homoerotic novels, short stories and manga animation that emerged in the wake of that countrys recognition of gays as a sociopolitical entity 20 years ago. Its why Merchant Ivorys Maurice was a hit there, and why primary financing for Gus Van Sants My Own Private Idaho was Japanese.That Brokeback Mountain is Japan-bound goes without saying. But its surely going to sweep the Oscars too, and break the $100 million mark at the box office. For its daring is that of a Stanley Kramer production, while its slash is perfectly in keeping with the sort of slosh found in womens fiction of yore. Heath Ledgers faithful Ennis Del Mar waits for Jake Gyllenhaals straying Jack Twist and his fishing trip invites just as Irene Dunne pined away for a drop-in from her married lover, John Boles, in 1932s Back Street. But were not supposed to speak of such things, living as we do in what Gore Vidal calls The United States of Amnesia. Were instead encouraged to ignore the precedents shattered by three decades of truly groundbreaking queer films with Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) leading a pack that also includes My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Parting Glances (1986), Todd Haynes Poison (1991) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), Gus Van Sants Mala Noche (1985) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), Savage Nights (1992), The Long Day Closes (1992), Wild Reeds (1994), Urbania (2000), Les Passagers (1999), Patrice Chereaus LHomme Blesse (1983) and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), Kinsey (2004), and, just this year, Tropical Malady and Mysterious Skin. No, whats really supposed to be important is the saddle-packing same-sex equivalent of Guess Whos Coming to Dinner.Newsweeks Smith is simply agog at how Gyllenhaal and Ledger dont dodge it. The kissing and the sex scenes are fierce and full-blooded. But if the actors were taking a risk, they sure dont seem to think so. Goodness, youd swear the thing starred Tom Cruise and Kevin Spacey. And what about gay actors playing gay roles? Is it beyond their ken? Would they be open to accusations of simply being themselves rather than really acting? In a marvelously irreverent article published in The Guardian called Gay for Today, writer Philip Hensher put it best: There are no gay actors or at least, there werent until Nathan Lane, to everyones utter incredulity, came out. Of course, there were gay actors in Americas past James Dean, Cary Grant, Dirk Bogarde, Rock Hudson, Danny Kaye. Plenty of them, in fact. But, for whatever reason, theres hardly a single gay actor of recognizable stature working in Hollywood. An incredible fact. Needless to say, Hensher is being cheeky. All the actors he mentioned lived and worked in an era when the closet was an unavoidable reality and living a free and open gay life well nigh an idle dream. But that dream is now a reality, and in coming to grips with it, the speculation and whispers of the past are being reconfigured as matters of simple fact. Those guys were gay. Deal with it. More importantly, todays out gay actors Chad Allen, Craig Chester, Mitchell Anderson, Dan Butler, David Drake and Peter Paige have to deal with the incredible fact that theyve been left to fend for themselves in indie and pay-TV climes. But when it comes to parts like Ennis Del Mar, Jack Twist and Truman Capote, theyre not even going to get an audition. Only heterosexuals need apply.Yes, things have changed, but not all that much, as Craig Lucas shows in his deliciously mean-spirited The Dying Gaul. In a key scene, Campbell Scotts scheming bisexual producer tells Peter Sarsgaards sensitive gay writer, No one goes to the movies to have a bad time, or to learn anything, before going on to declare matter-of-factly: Americans hate gay people.What about Philadelphia? Sarsgaard counters.Philadelphia was about a man who hated gay people, Scott replies.But Scotts most telling remark comes as he prepares to seduce Sarsgaard (far more graphically than Ledger does Gyllenhaal): You can do anything you want just so long as you dont call it by its name.And the name you cant use around a gay movie called Brokeback Mountain is gay. Critic after critic has enthused that the film is at heart about two people in love who just happen to be men.Yeah, right. Tell it to Antonin Scalia!The magnificent thing, though, notes novelist Rick Moody (hardly a disinterested party, given that it was Lee who brought his suburban-angst tale The Ice Storm to the screen), also writing in The Guardian, that happens . . . during the unraveling marriages of these two men, as the film hastens toward its heart-rending completion, is that you stop thinking of these men as men, or gay men, or whatever, and you start thinking about them only as human beings, people who long for something, for some kind of union they are never likely to have.In the immortal words of my favorite drag queen, Bugs Bunny, Oh, Prunella!
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.