When the Ang Lee adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain premiered in 2005, there was a cultural struggle over the film’s identity. The synopsis - “gay cowboy movie” - was met by indignant critics who viewed this epithet as reductive, and instead cast the film as a universal love story which was only incidentally gay.
In the Los Angeles Times, for instance, Kenneth Turan wrote that Brokeback Mountain is “a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men.” Despite good intentions, this reading undermined the film and novel’s main purpose, namely to explore and profile the effects of the closet. Some people got it, of course: Daniel Mendelsohn opened his criticism in the New York Review of Books by affirming that “Brokeback Mountain… is a tale about two homosexual men. Two gay men”, skewering the “reluctance to be explicit about the film’s themes and content” from reviewers, the film’s promotional materials, and the Golden Globes, where the film was decorated with three major awards.
When it premiered, Brokeback Mountain wasn’t necessarily radical cinema but it was provocative - with two, straight lead actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, playing out erotic homosexual fantasies. Mendez, the 41-year-old acclaimed author of Rainbow Milk, remembers the film as premiering at an opportune moment “from a UK perspective – coming two years after the repealing of Section 28 – it was the right film at the right time to demystify queer desire and critique the constraints gay men have faced.”
In 2023, such roles aren’t a risk to an actor’s career, and audiences have had greater insights into the lives and loves of gay men: the popular films Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, adapted from stage and literature respectively, have delved into masculine desire, whilst in television the Channel 4 series It’s A Sin documented the AIDs crisis in Britain and its specific devastation of gay male communities.
So as I queue to see the stage adaptation of the novel, at Nica Burns’s new theater @sohoplace - Brokeback Mountain, a play with music - a question emerges: what is the value in a reappraisal when there is space to develop new, bolder, more confrontational queer narratives?
Today, we find ourselves at yet another crossroads in terms of the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ people: the Florida board in the United States has recently approved an expansion to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ ban, and with rising anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime in Britain, an emboldened gender critical movement, and the recent National Conservatism conference preaching about the need for households to have a mother and a father.
Surely this is a time for us to be making and centering political art which fearlessly names and lionises the sexualities and gender identities of the people it portrays?
Brokeback Mountain, a play with music, sees director Jonathan Butterell and composer Dan Gillespie Sells reunite after the success of their collaboration on gay musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which follows a 16-year-old aspiring drag queen overcoming homophobic bullying to become an out and proud sensation.
That alone could ring alarm bells, but thankfully there is no such glitzy rainbow razzmatazz brought to Brokeback Mountain. Starring Emmy-winner Mike Faist and Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar respectively, the play is true to the tense, masculine, aggressive, and feral tones of its source materials, although without the production of a Hollywood feature film, and running 40 minutes shorter, it is even more stripped back and reliant on audience imagination. It is emphasised as a ‘play with music’ as opposed to a ‘musical’ as neither of the lead actors sing, and its copy on the @sohoplace website describes it as an “intense tale of an irresistible and hidden love spanning twenty years and its tragic consequences.” Unsurprisingly, there are no results when you Ctrl + F for “gay” “sex” or “homo”.
Entering the theatre for a Friday evening performance, it is clear enough that the story’s cult following is predominantly gay men, who make up the majority of the audience, a good proportion of them appearing to be over the age of 40. These men belong to a generation immersed in the discourse around the film’s original release – about its gayness, the heterosexuality of the lead actors etc.
I am not of this generation, and my cultural references are different but I still found myself profoundly moved by the play - its images of Jack and Ennis campside singing and playing the harmonica, their bodies on top of each other, hugging from behind, stroking each other - they were familiar scenes of affection which stirred a kind of romantic longing within me. I was surprised by my emotional response - I had anticipated the play to feel detached from my lived reality but I admit it had me thinking of past lovers, and even of times I’ve felt scared to kiss or hold a partner’s hand in public.
That the play is a sentimental story which can move you is of course politically important. Being exposed to depictions of tenderness, love, and the pleasure of gay sex can feel like a necessary reminder of the happiness denied to those who are forced into the traditional sphere of compulsory heterosexuality. But that question remains: given everything LGBTQ+ people face today, shouldn’t we be making more radical stories?
Mendez, tells me that back in 2005, they “watched Brokeback Mountain on DVD reluctantly, because a white gay friend insisted I saw it.” They were reluctant because it was about “two white men” and a reminder of how “the dominant narrative of gay culture excluded me.” Mendez also felt that had the racial identity of at least one of the characters been different “not only would their privacy have been impossible, because of segregation and the fact that they were being surveilled by their boss, but the film would not have been as successful.” These arguments feel as on-point now, about the play, as they did then, about the film: post-Moonlight there is still an unfortunate dearth of Black gay male stories which tackle the specific complexities of forming relations as a Black gay man; a rehashing of the ultimate white ideal of gay cinema is arguably tired.
Mendez’s novel, Rainbow Milk, deals with the spiritual ruin, and specter of eternal death, which haunts a Black gay Jamaican character raised in a family of Jehovah’s witnesses, emphasising the impossible prospect of living openly in the presence of his family.
Rainbow Milk is currently being adapted for television and so perhaps a renaissance for more diverse gay stories with locations and realities more specific to diverse experiences is on the horizon, but for now we must be content with revisiting a canon which is overwhelmingly white and masculine.
None of this is to say that I didn’t find value in watching Brokeback Mountain, and in sitting with the message of the play, about - to quote Mendelsohn, the “disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance.” It might seem bare bones in a time where conversations have progressed and more gay men live openly but openness is still not the reality for all, and our present political conditions, both here and in the United States, risk a time where more people force themselves back into the closet. I just wish culture would take a more daring stand - and put money behind stories that are, as yet, untold.