Monday, December 12, 2005

Why 'Brokeback' Matters

There's no good reason I remember February '82 as well as I do. It wasn't the month of a special vacation or a birthday or anything like that. I was in the ninth grade when I happened to see Kate Jackson on "The Tonight Show." She was adorable and chatted with Johnny for a bit before he asked her to explain the plot of her new movie, "Making Love," Hollywood's first attempt at a big-budget mainstream gay film. Knowing that she was entering uncharted territory, Kate gracefully tried to ease the audience into things. She said that the film was about "something new that you might not have a lot experience with" but that it was "a love story about a married man who has an affair -- with another man." It didn't take more than a second for the audience to turn on her -- and turn hard. They began to loudly boo her -- one of Charlie's Angels! -- on national television. I was stunned and immediately felt sick just watching everything unfold. Johnny had to step in and reprimand the audience and make them be nice. Imagine, if you will, the profound effect this had on a confused 14-year-old gay boy in Mesa, Arizona. As long as I live I will never forget the hostile reaction Kate got just because she dared to mention the subject of gay men. To this day I still feel sick to my stomach (and usually blush) when I meet someone new. Although it's absurd, it's like the fear of rejection has been embedded in my DNA.

It's been nearly 25 years since "Making Love" and I would argue that "Brokeback Mountain" is its long-awaited follow-up. And whether the film crosses over at the box office isn't what's at stake here at all. "Brokeback" is America's chance to treat the subject of homosexuality with respect and to show how much this country has progressed in the past two decades (it has, right?). It's America's opportunity to not ridicule the film's participants -- and to make amends with all of the Kate Jacksons and the outcasts who watched on in horror. And while it's true that we've had a number of silly big-budget "Birdcage" and "To Wong Foo" caliber films, none of these were comparable. Those campy characters don't threaten the mainstream. They're what's expected of the gay community. And even our so-called breakthrough, the Oscar-winning "Philadelphia," was, to me, much more a civil rights saga than a romantic love story. (And it was surely more readily accepted by the masses because of its mostly nonsexual storyline.)

Whether it's widely seen or not, the mere existence of "Brokeback Mountain" forces society to recognize the reality and the validity of two men in love. Two typical guys who kiss, who have real sex, and who yearn for each other when they're apart. There are no drag queens here for laughs. And the fact that the lovers are played by two A-list Hollywood leading men, along with a big-time director, sends a clear message of tolerance and acceptance to the masses.

And while some gay people will identify with the repression aspect of the plot, for me it was about something more universal, almost like watching "The Bridges of Madison County," only with my people as the central characters. I didn't even have to relate to Clint Eastwood or Meryl Streep to be swept away by their timeless story of forbidden love. At the end of the day, "Brokeback," too, is nothing more than a romantic tale of forbidden love that anyone with a heart could understand. But because Hollywood has chosen to ignore this version of the age-old story, "Brokeback" is a very important film.

I don't think the general public can begin to imagine -- nor should they be expected to -- what it feels like to live a life that is virtually unrecognized in mainstream pop culture. The whole world is predicated on the idea that you are straight -- and in America, that you're straight and white. Seeing "Brokeback Mountain" yesterday reminded me of how Oprah Winfrey said she felt the first time she saw a "negro" on television. That feeling of pure exhilaration at seeing someone who is actually like you up there on the screen!

Sure, many gay people -- like other minority groups -- learn to have thicker skins and to embrace the fact that they're different. And while we have our campy supporting TV characters, the occasional tacky cable television series, and even a string of oft-embarrassing, low-budget "gay" films, none of this is a substitute for the purest form of recognition: a good old-fashioned Hollywood romance. This is where our healing begins. (And perhaps where Middle America's understanding begins.)

"Brokeback Mountain" is our moment to go to the regular cineplex (not the crappy art house with the 30-inch movie screens) and watch one of those wonderful epic Hollywood romances. Only this time it's about a couple of guys like us.

UPDATE: The "Tonight Show" clip has been located!


Anonymous said...

Jesus CHRIST! Why are you copy-editing? Why I am not reading THIS in the Sunday magazine?

This is brilliant. This--you hit something universal with this, the desire to see people just like you on screen once in awhile. I KNOW I cannot possibly understand the extent of your alienation in that regard, but I have nonetheless an imagination and more than a little empathy.

It is so funny how you mentioned Kate Jackson initially, because my "like me" moment with television was when I was first watching Charlie's Angels. Yeah, you had the blonde glamourpuss and the brunette glamourpuss . . . and then you had Sabrina. Who was pretty, but not conventionally so. Who was almost defiantly brunette. Who was SMART. It meant the world to me, that they included her, even though it was a dumb show. It meant the world to me to see her there. I couldn't imagine being Farrah or Cheryl or Jaclyn, but I could just barely imagine being Kate.

If I try to imagine it from your perspective, the best I can do is to figure it's what I felt, times infinity.

Love this post. Love it. Get it published, you asshole! And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Anonymous said...

I think you're spot-on about this. This movie has the potential to change so much.

For one thing, consider that a few years ago a mainstream heartthrob leading-man actor would NEVER think about playing a sympathetic gay character. Now we've got TWO of them, in love with each other! What a concept!

Philadelphia was indeed a breakthrough, and I don't agree with your statement that it was utterly nonsexual. It's been a long time since I've seen it, but I seem to remember a scene when Antonio Banderas climbed into a hospital bed with an ill Tom Hanks and they had some kind of sex. It wasn't much, but it was something.

Still, this is bigger. This is more. And I am SO glad it's in the capable hands of Ang Lee and not some hack (Chris Columbus, not to name names).

Re. growing up with damaging cultural experiences on television: I don't remember Kate Jackson on Johnny. But I DO remember the flamboyant queen on Barnie Miller, who was always being busted for having sex in parks. I was, like, 11 years old -- and I remember thinking, "Is this ME?"

Anonymous said...

I, too, loved the scenes where, despite their pretty quiet natures, they really laid their feelings fo reach other on the line. Two scenes expecially. When, after a long pause, Twist says, "You know, sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it," and when Ennis is looking up at the night sky and Jack asks him what he's doing, Ennis says, ":Just sending up some thank-yous." Which is a lot for Ennis. In fact, the two scenes by the riverside stick in my mind. One where Jack makes the suggestion to Ennis about ranching together, the other--several years and a lifetime later--where Jack (and later Ennis) lests the years of frustratioin out: "We coulda had that." In fact, it's that second scene--so confessional, so characteristic of everyrthing that comes with loving someone--joy, frustration, a deep love--where they each let everything out--that really got me. And ending with Ennis breaking down, Jack realizing his pain and, despite their words a minute ago, hugging him for all he's worth: "Damn you, Ennis del Mar."

Anonymous said...

Excellent Brokeback article. I also saw the movie this weekend and felt exactly the same, just couldn't put it into words. I'm forwarding it to all of my friends.

Anonymous said...

Nice posting. I think my blushing can be traced to similar incidents.

Anonymous said...

Hey -- Nice blog and great writing on Brokeback. I saw it Saturday and couldn't agree with you more!

Anonymous said...

Ah, Peter ...
Thanks for ruining the movie for me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Kenneth for those words. You hit the nail on the head. I saw the movie at a screening over a week ago and have been reeling ever since. I cannot recall a film which has touched me so deeply - ever. Not only do we ache for Jakc and Ennis but we ache for ourselves and the pain and hurt we've borne all our lives. But this movie gives me hope. I truly think it will open up a dialoge in this country and lives will be changed. I know mine has been.

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