Will Jake and Heath shatter Hollywood's taboo against gay sex?

Director Ang Lee is set to cast Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain," a story of two cowboys in love. But are studios -- and audiences -- ready for a passionate big-screen kiss between men?

Published January 14, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Welcome to Gay New 2004. It follows Gay Old 2003, when sodomy became legal in all 50 states, gay marriage or "civil unions" became a possibility in three, and the media pulled a muscle patting itself on the back for accepting a fistful of swish television characters. Now, for the first time in as long as most of us can remember, a sweeping gay romance is about to get the imprimatur of mainstream -- or at least prestigious -- Hollywood stamped all over it. ("Making Love," from 1982, with Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean? Anyone?)

The casting call is out for "Brokeback Mountain," the Ang Lee-directed adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story, replete with sunsets, horses, howling windstorms and a heartbreaking love story between two young cowboys. Although the casting isn't yet official, Hollywood sources say that heartthrobs Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are in negotiations to star.

Should the contracts not get signed, though, there will be no shortage of well-groomed actors with representation who could be candidates to don the Stetsons and chaps. In the months since Lee announced that he would direct the movie, fans have taken to Internet chat rooms with a vengeance, begging the unhearing movie gods to cast everyone from Viggo Mortensen and Brad Pitt, or Jude Law and Benicio Del Toro, or Joaquin Phoenix and Johnny Depp (all of whom are a bit ripe to play characters whose stories begin at age 19).

"He's always been Hollywood's trembling-lipped sensitive boy," pointed out one hopeful fan about Depp. Another opined that Jude Law's "good looks and intense charm would make even a straight cowboy swoon." Both Depp and Law have played gay before (in "Before Night Falls" and "Wilde," respectively).

Some computer-savvy cinephiles have gone so far as to create a beefcakey "Brokeback Mountain" poster featuring Josh Hartnett and Colin Farrell, who will reportedly play bi-curious in his upcoming role as Alexander the Great in "Alexander."

The story by Proulx ("The Shipping News"), which originally appeared in the New Yorker, has been adapted by Larry McMurtry ("Terms of Endearment," "The Last Picture Show") and his partner, Diana Ossana. Director Lee ("The Ice Storm," Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") has chosen to make it his follow-up to last summer's "The Hulk," which was viewed as a commercial and critical disappointment. Lee's longtime co-writer, James Schamus, who runs Focus Features, a division of Universal Pictures, will produce the picture with Ossana. Shooting is set to begin this summer.

Schamus, also a Columbia University film professor and co-founder of the now-defunct independent film bastion Good Machine, said via e-mail that he could not comment on casting decisions before anything has been made official, since it would "inevitably result in injured feelings and misunderstandings." But, he wrote, "it's still in process, and it's been remarkably hassle free -- no one has raised even an eyebrow and people across the board are responding in a really passionate way to the story and the characters."

That not an eyebrow would be raised at the casting of two tadpole heartthrobs to play young men who get it on in a pup tent, share a passionate kiss on a windblown night and get gruffly teary-eyed as they talk about their unutterable feelings for each other is almost too Pollyanna-ish to be believed. But Scott Rudin ("The Hours," "The Stepford Wives") -- who planned to make "Brokeback Mountain" in the late 1990s with Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting") directing, but now has no connection to the movie -- agreed.

"It's an amazing project; I'm incredibly jealous. And I don't get jealous," Rudin says. As for the process of signing up willing actors, he laughed at the notion that it would be difficult. "You've got a great filmmaker and parts for two movie stars. I can't imagine why any actor would not want to play one of those roles. Anyone who gets in that movie is lucky to be there; it's an absolutely beautiful script. Who would want to turn that down?"

But not everyone is confident that bona fide movie stars would risk their straight cred by mounting steeds and locking lips. One Hollywood executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says, "Realistically, let's talk about the giggle factor. I mean, it is a story about gay cowboys! That is the most daring thing you can do." If the I's do get dotted on Gyllenhaal and Ledger's contracts, it's worth noting that both will run less of a risk of being "taken for gay" than many of their colleagues; Gyllenhaal dates supercute wunderkind Kirsten Dunst, while Ledger squires Naomi Watts, 11 years his senior, to lots of events covered by Us Weekly.

Sean Griffin, an assistant professor of cinema and television at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was even skeptical that the film could actually get produced as advertised. He says, "When studio money [from Focus Features' parent company Universal] is involved, you never know how far things are actually going to go. You never know who's going to actually show up for this thing. I'll withhold judgment until I actually see a major on-screen kiss."

Griffin is alluding to Hollywood's habit of bleaching movies about homosexuals of their sensuality and romance. Films like "54" and "Fried Green Tomatoes" were, in the words of one producer, "totally de-lezzed" or "de-gayed." "A Beautiful Mind," Ron Howard's multiple-Oscar winner about mathematician John Nash, glossed over his reported homosexual relationships. Even "Philadelphia," a Columbia TriStar movie hailed as Hollywood's first gay love story, showed little sign that Tom Hanks, in an Oscar-garnering performance as a man in the late stages of AIDS, had ever met, much less made love to, his partner, played by Antonio Banderas.

What we've been left with have been a raft of fabulously witty and stylish characters played by openly gay actor Rupert Everett ("My Best Friend's Wedding," "The Next Best Thing"), tortured, foreign gay artists (Stephen Frye as Oscar Wilde in "Wilde," Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey in "Carrington," Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud in "Total Eclipse" and Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls"), and that old chestnut, the gay hustler/psychopath/drug-addict/serial killer ("The Silence of the Lambs," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "High Art," "My Own Private Idaho").

But short some Hollywood alchemy that reworks the very DNA of the "Brokeback" script, the film can't possibly duck down any of these escape routes. First published in the New Yorker in 1997, where it won both an O. Henry short story prize and a National Magazine Award, and then in Proulx's 1999 story collection "Close Range," it's the tale of sheepherder Ennis Del Mar and rodeo rider Jack Twist. The two men meet and fall in love as 19-year-olds in 1963, tending a herd on the titular Wyoming mountain. The tale follows the men's clandestine relationship for 20 years: their marriages to women, the birth of their children, regular mountaintop assignations, the impossibility of their permanent union, and the gradual acceptance of the grave repercussions of their love.

The story is, very simply, about its two main characters and their passion for each other. There is no murder mystery, no one suffering from AIDS, no drug addiction and no heterosexual romance to move the plot along and distract from the homosexual relationship.

The rights to the story have bounced around Hollywood since its publication. Schamus had them briefly when he was still at Good Machine. Rudin later planned to make the movie with director Van Sant (at the height of his mainstream popularity after the success of "Good Will Hunting"). It wasn't long before it was rumored that that film's stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, would take on the roles of Ennis and Jack. But the project couldn't quite get off the ground under Van Sant and was later offered to Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") and Todd Haynes ("Poison," "Far From Heaven"). It languished in no man's land for several years before Lee and Schamus picked it up again in November 2003.

It will now be up to Lee and his actors to determine how raunchy or demure the physical relationship between the two taciturn Westerners will get on-screen. A draft of the script is noncommittal on this point, allowing room for the prim and the explicit in its description of Jack and Ennis' first sexual encounter: "AS THE FOLLOWING ACTION OCCURS, WE PULL AWAY TO THE NIGHT LANDSCAPE, AND WE HEAR ONLY THE SOUNDS ... THE BELT BEING UNBUCKLED, RUSTLE OF JEANS, ENNIS SPITTING, SHARP INTAKES OF BREATH ... ENNIS raises up, gets to his knees, unbuckles his belt, shoves his pants down with one hand, uses the other to haul JACK up on all fours ... JACK doesn't resist ... ENNIS spits in the palm of his hand, puts it on himself. They go at it in silence, except for a few sharp intakes of breath."

According to this early draft of the script, it is only after "ENNIS shudders" that "THE CAMERA MOVES BACK INSIDE THE TENT, as both fall asleep."

Later, in one of the screenplay's most powerful moments, the two men -- each married and a father -- meet again after a separation of many years, supposedly to share some platonic, ass-slapping drinks as straight men. But when they meet on the very visible stairway to Ennis' apartment, they "seize each other by the shoulders, hug mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying sonofabitch, sonofabitch. Then, as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths come together."

It's the kind of sad-happy-hot scene that -- when well-cast -- can shoot sexual currents off the screen, sparking the hearts and libidos of receptive audiences. But those audiences are used to getting singed by Bacall and Bogart, by Deborah Winger and Richard Gere, by Kate and Leo. Are they ready for the unbridled lust of Gyllenhaal and Ledger?

"In the '60s and '70s and early '80s, various studios tried to see if things like this might work," says Griffin. "They even tried a full-on romance, 'Making Love,' in 1982, where there was an on-screen kiss. It was about the relationship between these two men. And people ran screaming out of the theaters. There was major fleeing up the aisles. And that's exactly what's kept people worried. That's why you didn't see Antonio Banderas and Tom Hanks kissing on-screen in 'Philadelphia.'"

But that's just the sort of fear that many hope is fading. Stephen Macias, GLAAD's brand-spanking-new entertainment media director, says, "GLAAD certainly hopes that as gay characters and gay stories continue to evolve, films will focus on the sexiness, the romance ... that our sex lives won't be edited out anymore. From what I've been hearing about this film, progress is being made."

Rudin points out that these days there are more outlets for films than there were even five years ago. "When I had ['Brokeback Mountain'], it was a very, very tough thing to get made. Basically, studios didn't want to make it. There are many more avenues for smaller movies now. And I think it's really smart for Focus to make it. Whatever it turns out to be it will be a lightning rod for the press."

And the press loves nothing more than gay lightning rods. Perhaps you've heard, as Griffin put it, that "gay is the new black." Sure, Will doesn't have sex with men and seems strangely attracted to Grace. And yes, "Queer Eye's" Fab Five intersect with Amos and Andy in several critical cultural capacities. That gay reality show, "Boy Meets Boy," was, as one writer put it, "a good natured gay-baiting miniseries." But some television has made real strides. "Six Feet Under" features a relationship between two men, one of whom is a retired cop. They kiss, embrace, fight, and go to bed and to couples' therapy together.

Griffin argues that the recent embrace of all things gay isn't to be laughed at. The more gay characters populate the pop-culture landscape, the less pressure will be faced by their progeny. "No one film suddenly has to be the holy grail," says Griffin.

According to another scholar, it's perfectly appropriate that "Brokeback Mountain" may be the movie that shatters Hollywood's gay-sex taboo. Chris Packard, an adjunct professor at New York University's Gallatin School and the author of the forthcoming book "Queer Cowboys," says that this story "makes plain what's implicit in the cowboy stereotype, in terms of an alley-cat, roaming sexuality that is always alive. Cowboys are such central figures in pop culture and such idealizations of mainstream macho masculinity that we should start to include the homoerotic aspect of that masculinity. They are like the fathers of the civilized culture that's going to follow them into the wilderness."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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