“Brokeback Mountain,” a wrenching love story about two young Wyoming men, became a cultural phenomenon when it opened in theaters 10 years ago.
As a gay western starring up-and-coming Hollywood stars (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), made by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) from a script co-written by “Lonesome Dove” author Larry McMurtry, “Brokeback” sounds distinctive just on paper. But knowing about it does not compare to seeing it.
Through its gorgeous cinematography, emotional intimacy and overarching theme of a love unfulfilled, “Brokeback” highlighted and also transcended its characters’ sexuality, hitting home with anyone who has experienced heartbreak. The film burst past the usual art-house constraints of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cinema and into multiplexes, grossing $83 million (on a reported $14 million budget). It picked up eight Oscar nominations and three awards (for its screenplay, score and director) before losing the best-picture prize to the multicultural ensemble piece “Crash.”
“Brokeback” “helped humanize the struggle” for LGBT rights, said Jennifer Hatton, programming chair of the Sacramento International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the 24th edition of which continues Friday-Saturday at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre.
The story of ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), who meet on a sheepherding job in 1963 and resumed their relationship, fitfully, over 20 years and despite being married to women, imparted the pain of suppressing one’s sexuality.
“There’s a whole section of our population who, throughout history, has been closeted,” Hatton said. The film “really spoke to those people, and to other people who were not living authentically.”
Michael Dennis, board president of the nonprofit that runs SIGLFF, recognized “Brokeback’s” crossover appeal when he saw it in a Palm Springs theater. “The audience was all gay men and older straight couples, and I thought that was great,” he said. The film also drew younger straight people, including groups of women. It was one of only a few films in the past decade that everyone seemed to be talking about.
Its old-school earnestness inspired catchphrases, with people applying Jack’s plaintive cry to Ennis of “I wish I knew how to quit you” to their own chocolate or video-game habits. Straight men made itchy by the movie’s intimacy adopted the adjective “brokeback” as a shorthand for, as the Urban Dictionary describes it, “questionable masculinity.”
“Brokeback” created such a clear moment that it seemed like the start of something. Yet no other LGBT movie of the past decade has approached its breakthrough status, even as real-life LGBT people have made key civil-rights gains, culminating in June’s U.S. Supreme Court marriage decision, during the same period.
LGBT films of “Brokeback’s” level – in budget range, star power and awards recognition – released after it performed much like the films did in the years just before it.
Scrappy heterosexual Sean Penn won an Oscar for his performance as scrappy homosexual Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco supervisor and gay activist, in 2008’s “Milk.” This film drew $32 million in box office on a reported $20 million budget.
The 2010 lesbian-couple-and-their-sperm donor dramedy “The Kids Are All Right” was a clearer hit, but still topped out at $21 million (it cost a reported $4 million). These numbers fall in line with prestigious early 2000s LGBT films such as “Monster,” for which Charlize Theron, playing real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, won an Oscar. It grossed $34.5 million on an $8 million budget.
A notable exception is the modestly budgeted 2014 hit “The Imitation Game,” which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as British World War II code-breaker Alan Turing, who was arrested after the war for homosexual acts. It collected $91 million at the U.S. box office, though at least half its appeal lay in its wartime-thriller aspect.
This fall brings the strongest collection of LGBT-interest award contenders – films led by recent lead-acting Oscar winners (Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne, Cate Blanchett) – since 2005, when “Brokeback” was released. That crop included Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn as gay author Truman Capote, in “Capote,” and Felicity Huffman’s nominated performance as a transgender woman, in “Transamerica.”
Moore stars in “Freeheld,” which is based on the true story of New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester’s fight, while dying of cancer in 2006, to get her pension assigned to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). In “The Danish Girl,” Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) plays Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), one of the first people to undergo a sex-reassignment surgery.
The most “Brokeback”-esque of the new films is the lushly romantic, emotionally fraught “Carol,” in which Blanchett stars as a well-to-do woman who, recently separated from her husband, falls for a shop girl (Rooney Mara). Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” “Carol” was directed by Todd Haynes, who also brought visual flair to 1950s (gay and racial) oppression in 2002’s “Far From Heaven.”
“Freeheld” opens Oct. 16 in Sacramento. “Danish Girl” opened the Mill Valley Film Festival Thursday and will hit regular theaters in November. “Carol” plays at Mill Valley on Sunday and opens theatrically in November.
All hold clear awards potential. None appears poised to reach “Brokeback” box office levels or inspire catchphrases – though Carol’s comment that her young sweetheart seems “flung out of space” holds potential, thanks to Blanchett’s quiet awe.
‘Singular in impact’
When Pamela Demory, a UC Davis lecturer and co-editor of the 2010 essay compilation “Queer Love in Film and Television,” saw “Brokeback Mountain” in early 2006, “I thought, ‘This is going to change the way love stories are told,’ ” she said. “It now seems kind of singular in impact.”
It also was nearly singular in approach, said Demory, who currently teaches a queer cinema seminar at Davis that includes “Brokeback.” Most of the films she teaches (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Go Fish”) fit the edgier approach of New Queer Cinema, a term coined by film scholar B. Ruby Rich in 1992. “Brokeback,” by contrast, “takes the romance narrative at face value,” Demory said. “It’s really mainstream.”
As movies with LGBT lead characters – mainstream or otherwise – always have numbered far fewer than films with straight protagonists, “you have less opportunity for a movie to do that little magical sprout thing” into a box office winner, “Freehold” star Page said during a recent joint interview with Moore in San Francisco.
Page (“Juno”) made headlines by coming out last year at an LGBT youth event, and now makes her own opportunities. She co-produced “Freeheld,” which is based on a 2007 Oscar-winning short film about Hester’s case, a signal event in the LGBT fight for gay marriage. The new film, which was conceived long before the recent Supreme Court marriage decision, is “a celebration of how far we’ve come,” Page said, adding the film puts “a human face to what discrimination truly does.”
Though Page said she feels a responsibility to LGBT audiences, her motives in developing gay projects are not completely altruistic: “I am gay,” she said. “I want to play gay people.”
She’s more “creatively inspired,” and happier in general, since she came out, she said. So if more people in the movie industry came out, would there be more high-profile LGBT films?
“If everybody just came out in our society in general, we all know what it would do – it would probably come close to eradicating hatred at large” of LGBT people, Page said. “One would assume that yes, if there was more visibility in general, particularly in the industry (more movie-making) would happen.”
But even if every LGBT person in Hollywood made a movie, it would not guarantee another “Brokeback”-like success story.
“Movies are weird,” Moore said. “If people really knew why movies have box office or win awards, we’d be able to do it all the time.” Moore knows more than most about awards-caliber LGBT films, since those in which she has appeared (“The Hours,” “Far From Heaven,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “A Single Man,” among others) add at least a page to her long résumé.
The decade after “Brokeback” also coincides with Hollywood’s all-blockbusters, all-the-time Marvel-movie era, and with the rise of Judd Apatow or Apatow-esqe broad comedies as the only acceptable mid-budget alternatives.
“Character-driven drama is having a very hard time jumping from the small screen to the big screen right now,” said “Carol” producer Christine Vachon, who also produced “Far From Heaven” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” “That is not an LGBT problem. That is an a-b-c-d-e-f problem.”
Yet there’s plenty of forward movement away from the big screen, on the festival circuit and on cable and streaming services – a platform that barely existed when
“Brokeback” came out.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, SIGLFF will offer a “transFUSION” program composed of what Hatton calls “gender nonconformist” films. Though the local LGBT festival has tried to show transgender films throughout the years, this is its first dedicated program, Hatton said. There are more transgender films from which to choose, Hatton said.
There’s also is more transgender-oriented entertainment in general, from “Danish Girl” to reality shows such as E!’s “I Am Cait,” which follows Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.
With same-sex marriage laws now in place, transgender rights have moved to the forefront of LGBT issues, Hatton said. “And that movement has empowered people to make films.”
Some of the most diverse LGBT stories are appearing on alternative platforms. Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” tracks the stories of a multicultural crew of female prisoners, some gay and some straight. One of its breakout stars is transgender actress Laverne Cox. The show has won multiple Emmys, as has Amazon’s more recent “Transparent,” which follows the transition of a transgender character (Jeffrey Tambor) and that character’s grown children.
“Ensemble shows are the way for a lot of these stories to be told, because it is a shared amount of character-driven stories,” said Trish Bendix, editor in chief of AfterEllen.com, which focuses on portrayals of lesbian and bisexual women in the media. “There still are straight major characters – if that is what someone’s looking for – but there are these other three-dimensional (LGBT) characters who are part of that world.
“Storytelling is largely healthier than it has ever been, in the LGBT space and anywhere,” Vachon said. LGBT audiences used to wait for months for a new film to open at the local arthouse, then dutifully line up for whatever it was, Vachon said. “Now, there are so many different types of content, you can find your niche.”
The next “Brokeback” might star transgender people, or premiere on a streaming service. Or it might not happen at all.
“Brokeback” possessed a lightning-in-a-bottle quality, in how it combined risky material with traditional cinematic sweep. Hatton, who made a special trip to San Francisco to see it (before it was released in Sacramento), in late 2005, still counts it as one of her favorite movies.
“It was the ‘Gone With the Wind’ for the LGBT community,” Hatton said. “How many of those are you going to have?”
Sacramento International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
What: Shorts and feature-length films of LGBT interest
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento