`Brokeback Mountain' shatters gay stereotypes

December 15, 2005|By MILES CHRISTIAN DANIELS

In case you've been hunkered down on Mount Kenya, Brokeback Mountain opened last weekend. No hurricanes destroyed Orlando. No meteorites were reported in Los Angeles.

In fact, the film quietly attracted huge crowds in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and will premiere in other markets this weekend. And so it seems Ang Lee's film about two cowboys in love is - at minimum - surviving.

Why is a question we'll have to figure out later.

Could be that all three opening cities have hefty gay populations. Another option is that major right-wing groups, such as Focus on the Family, are all but keeping silent in hopes the film just goes away. Or it might have to do with Hollywood muscle hunks Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and their huge female fan bases.

Whatever the reason, Exhibitor Relations Co. reports that over the weekend, the film brought in the highest per-screen average for any theatrical release in 2005. And if that's not enough, Brokeback Mountain has already landed awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle.

Even some real-life cowboys applaud the flick.

"I think it's something that's now just being more understood," seven-time world champion cowboy Ty Murray, a straight man, recently told ABC's Good Morning America. "Hopefully, this movie helps people further understand it."

But as a gay man from a small town like the one featured in Brokeback Mountain, I believe the beauty of this film lies in its navigating away from stereotypes to convey the power and randomness of love.

A welcome change, I'm sure, for many - especially gay Americans.

Two years ago, I published a column called "Queer TV: Advancing Tolerance or Fostering Stereotypes?" In it, I questioned whether shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk were anything more than ratings ploys. And I wondered what viewers might come away with once they found themselves uninterested. Would these programs help in showing the normalcy of being gay, or would many viewers come away thinking we were indeed "different"?

Hollywood has featured gay characters since the 1930s, usually cast as the effeminate best friend of a leading man. Their orientation was understood, but not discussed. This continued through the 1950s, when gay characters were portrayed as emotionally troubled, often suicidal.

By the 1970s, cinema and television started to discuss real-life gay issues. And during the 1980s and 1990s, gay characters and gay-themed programming moved to the forefront. Still, the way in which they were depicted - in most cases - cultivated dated stereotypes.

Now, through movies such as Brokeback Mountain, Hollywood is shedding light on the fact that not all gay men are fashion gurus, hair dressers, interior designers and superior in the arts, but that some might be - God forbid - cowboys herding sheep in Wyoming. And, more important, capable of love-based relationships.

Not all of us gay folk are comfortable with the flamboyance of gay pride parades. And many would rather sip a Killian's in an Irish pub than dance to techno in a noisy gay bar. "Gay" has nothing to do with lifestyle.

And rather than coming out of the closet to make a declaration of identity, most of us "come out" so that we can share the gift of love openly with another individual.

So when the numbers are tallied and the awards dispersed, my hope is that Brokeback Mountain is seen not only as a monumental moment in cinema history but also as a daring and original attempt to prove that love is not bound by interpretation or stereotype.

Miles Christian Daniels is a columnist and documentary filmmaker living in New York. His e-mail is danielsm@hmrifken.com.

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