“Whoa!” How Homophobic Hollywood Snubbed Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain

Jack Nicholson raised his famous eyebrows and mouthed “Whoa!” after announcing Crash had won the 2006 best picture Oscar—Crash, not, as most viewers had expected, Brokeback Mountain. Fans saw nothing but Hollywood homophobia in the upset. Five days later, an unprecedented full-page color ad ran in Daily Variety, financed by a grassroots campaign of supporters who had raised $16,000 to place it “as a positive way to deal with their emotions surrounding Brokeback Mountain’s loss.”

Brokeback’s co-screenwriter, Diana Ossana, lamented that “older white males” had trouble with the movie. Actor Tony Curtis cautioned, “Howard Hughes and John Wayne wouldn’t like” the film, while Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine, also invoking the Duke, bizarrely proclaimed, “If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave.” Whoa!

Brokeback MountainBrokeback Mountain, which opened 10 years ago this month, is based on the short story of the same name by Annie Proulx. In her essay “Getting Movied,” Proulx explains that the idea came to her in a Wyoming bar. She had noticed “an older ranch hand, maybe in his late 60s,” whose “eyes were fastened not on the dozens of handsome and flashing women in the room but on the young cowboys playing pool.” She claims “urban critics” categorized Brokeback as a “tale of two gay cowboys,” but for her the story had always been about “destructive rural homophobia.”

After reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the October 13, 1997, issue of The New Yorker, Ossana felt as if her “guts had been pulled out hand over hand a yard at a time.” She approached her writing partner, Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry, to collaborate on a screenplay adaptation; the two optioned Brokeback with their own money. McMurtry also enthused that the “long-frustrated love of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist…echoes as powerfully as a high plains thunderclap.” By 2004 director Ang Lee had assembled his stellar cast of Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and Randy Quaid in Calgary, Alberta, to begin production.

Brokeback MountainBrokeback was a box-office smash when it debuted in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and continued to make money as it opened across “red state” America. Variety reported that it drew “strong audiences in Tulsa, Oklahoma; El Paso, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; and Lubbock, Texas.” In corroboration, Andrew Sullivan, writing in London’s Sunday Times, stated the obvious: “Red states produce as many gay kids as blue ones, and yet the heartland gay experience has rarely been portrayed and explored.”

The movie was dubbed the Gone With the Wind of the LGBT community and the Citizen Kane of queer cinema; critics called it a cultural phenomenon and a “matter of pride.” In his essay “Jack, I Swear,” from The Brokeback Book, Chris Freeman writes, “Gay men flocked to Ang Lee’s mesmerizing film, over and over again. It showed up in New Yorker cartoons, late-night comedy monologues and presidential press conferences.” Thus did it become the front-runner for the best picture Oscar. Shortly before the awards ceremony, however, the first cracks appeared in Brokeback’s armor of inevitability. After winning major prizes from the writers, directors and producers guilds and the New York Film Critics Circle, along with the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, it lost the Screen Actors Guild award for best performance by a cast to a lesser film that seemed to star every other actor in Los Angeles: Crash.

Brokeback Mountain
Director Ang Lee on set with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The backlash to the backlash was immediate. Film historian David Thomson wondered if the “subject matter of Brokeback could have been too much for some voters,” adding, “In the end, in their secret soul, it was hard for them to vote for a gay film as best picture.” Nikki Finke, writing in LA Weekly, lamented, “For a community that takes pride in progressive values, it seemed shameful to me that Hollywood’s homophobia could be on a par with Pat Robertson’s.” Even Stephen King wrote, in Entertainment Weekly, that he never expected a best picture win for this film: “Brokeback is about enduring love and fierce sexual attraction between two men. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, at bottom as conservative as the current U.S. House of Representatives, gave Ang Lee one Oscar (which surprised me), the writing team of McMurtry and Diana Ossana another…and with those bones thrown, felt free to move on.” But Emma Didbin’s opinion in Digital Spy best mirrored my own: “Brokeback is so overwhelmingly superior in every aspect that it’s hard not to read bigotry into this particular stupid Academy decision.”

Crash!
“Whoa!”
Click.

After Crash’s surprise win at the Oscars, my partner (now husband) clicked off the television set in disgust. Brokeback’s loss felt personal. And yes, homophobic. The Ultimate Brokeback Forum fan group, which had initiated the movement to place the Variety ad, argued that the loss “raised the question of how and why the Academy could have been so out of sync with virtually every other organization that awarded best picture honors.”

Brokeback MountainIn 2014 Brokeback Mountain finally beat Crash when The Hollywood Reporter asked Academy members to vote again on some past controversial races. Even Crash director Paul Haggis admitted he didn’t think his film deserved to win. But Brokeback ultimately spoke the language Hollywood understands: financial success. Made on a budget of only $14 million, Brokeback earned $178 million worldwide and $40 million on video sales. To paraphrase a climactic scene from the film, 10 years later, fans like me still cannot quit Brokeback Mountain.

Photos: ©Focus Films/Everett Collection