‘Brokeback’ breaks boundaries

NEW YORK – Hollywood rarely gives second chances. If an actor or director is lucky enough to see one in sight, he must grab hold of it immediately. Second chances and nothing to lose. That

NEW YORK – Hollywood rarely gives second chances. If an actor or director is lucky enough to see one in sight, he must grab hold of it immediately. Second chances and nothing to lose. That is how Brokeback Mountain’s principle cast and creative team were formed.

When Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” was published in the New Yorker in 1997, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry immediately optioned it for a film. Throughout eight years of pre-production, whispers spread about who would claim directorship and who would mount the two daring, lead male roles.

Ang Lee, who said he could not get the story out of his head since he read it in 1997, snatched the project. Lee may have received the Academy Award nomination in 2000 for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but the embarrassing high-budget flop The Hulk smeared his impressive reputation. Lee needed a film success in the worst way. Taking the risk on Brokeback, a script that had been hailed by everyone that read it, could be the decision to revive his career.

In 1999, a young Australian caught America’s eye in 10 Things I Hate About You. The following year, Heath Ledger achieved stardom acting opposite Mel Gibson in The Patriot. But critical and box office flops such as The Four Feathers and The Order set his career on a downward slant. Suddenly, Ledger’s name wasn’t carrying much hype or interest. The risky role as a homosexual cowboy wasn’t a risk at all to Ledger – after all, he had nothing to lose.

Out of Lee and Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal was in the best position. With a steady string of low-budget, but critically acclaimed movies and performances, Gyllenhaal had just proven his box office potential in summer 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. Another acclaimed role could catapult his career permanently in the eyes of critics and audiences.

Thus, the Brokeback Mountain trio was complete and ready to set down its rocky path that would lead it to impressively early acclaim.

Foremost, Brokeback hype surrounds the romance between Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s characters Jack and Ennis. The film tackles the gay relationship head-on. The characters have sex and not off-screen either.

They also kiss, cuddle and embrace. Regarding possible apprehension between Gyllenhaal and Ledger, Lee said that they would simply have to get over it.

Despite admitted nervousness, both actors professionally tackled the task with no acquiescence to failure. “We talked about the sex scenes,” Lee said. “We didn’t rehearse them; I thought it would be uncomfortable.”

Lee, in addition to falling in love with the story, wanted to direct this film because of its Western location. That region hasn’t yet appeared in any film of his; he said it was an area he wanted to explore. Most of Lee’s films take place in different regions, such as in Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger.

“That’s what I want. That’s [artistic] freedom … to choose whatever I want to do.” Wyoming and Texas serves as Brokeback’s setting, and Lee, the actors and creative team extensively researched and traveled the region.

Lee’s goal was to make it timeless. Even though the film’s first act takes place in 1963, he used trucks from the 1940s and played background music in certain scenes that would transcend different periods.

Lee and Ledger delved deep to create the character of Ennis. Ledger plays the emotionally-void cowboy, who can barely get his words out, much less his feelings. Ledger said it took a couple of weeks to find Ennis’s voice.

“I wanted to physicalize his battle with expressing himself,” Ledger said. “Any form of expression had to be painful. I wanted Ennis to be a clenched fist; therefore, my mouth had to be a clenched fist. I wanted the words to be punching their way out from within.”

The film is deeply emotional and Ledger recognized that he felt its effects while shooting. “Every day, I was tricking myself to feel anger. Then I’d get home and I’d be like (grumbles), ‘Why am I angry?'”

Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis is already generating Oscar buzz; this role could change his career. He hopes that it will allow him more project choices in the future. As for the roles he wants to play, Ledger wishes to continue “turning corners.”

Michelle Williams, who recently had her first child with Ledger (they met on the set), plays Alma, the sullen wife of Ennis. She said that accessing those emotions were not difficult for her due to the surroundings. “The place, town and landscape were awfully lonely and conducive to creating that kind of mood,” Williams said. “It had more of an effect that one would imagine.”

Williams has had to travel a long way to attain the type of roles that she always hoped for. She started out on WB’s series Dawson’s Creek and remained for six seasons. She humorously refused to commit to her true feelings when she looks back on her years on Dawson’s Creek, but says about Brokeback Mountain that it was the “biggest, greatest, neatest role.”

As another actor whose presence in Brokeback greatly differs from her usual roles is Anne Hathaway. The 23-year-old signed onto Brokeback while she was filming The Princess Diaries 2.

“I think I’ve filled my Disney quota for a while,” Hathaway said. She only plays her real age for two scenes and then portrays her character of Lureen in her mid and late 30s. Hathaway says she loved her character’s type and enjoyed the departure from the “leading lady and ingenue.” “I really wanted to play Lureen,” Hathaway said. “I auditioned for it and Ang agreed with me, saying that I was the one supposed to play it. Which is always nice when that works out, cause sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m meant to play that role,’ and they’re like, ‘No, Keira Knightley is!’ That happens a lot.”

The young stars of Brokeback Mountain have already got the critics and Hollywood buzzing. The real test, however, is when the film opens this Friday, Dec. 9, in New York City and Los Angeles, how the story will be received by mass audiences. Nonetheless, it is certain that the stakes are not news to the film’s creators. After all, Brokeback Mountain was founded on risks.

Click function openSlideShow2076(){window.open(slideshowpath + 2076,’selectUser’,config=’scrollbars=No,resizable=Yes’);}here for the Brokeback Mountain Slideshow.

Jesse North can be reached at jesse.north@temple.edu.

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