Pop quiz hotshot, at the 78th Annual Academy Awards in 2005 the nominees for Best Picture were: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night, and Good Luck., and Munich. Of those five which won the award? The smart money would say it was the one that has stayed in our collective consciousness for fifteen years, but no, Brokeback Mountain, the sure favourite to win, was beaten by Paul Haggis' Crash. Of it's not insubstantial eight nominations, Brokeback Mountain did end up winning three – Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), and Best Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla).
In the years that have followed since the release of the film the word “Brokeback” has become a shorthand for films, or indeed, situations, that have either homoerotic undertones or are flat out homosexual in nature. But the basics of the film being a gay romance between two cowboys belies the legacy of the film. Yes, it's true that the film is indeed about two cowboys who, in 1960s Wyoming, fall in love while working on the titular mountain, but the film offers a much more subtle story than two men on horses having sex.
Before Brokeback Mountain there were several LGBTQIA films, and some of them proved successful enough to garner awards nominations and wins. Generally these were films that downplayed their LGBT+ undertones; even a film like Cabaret which was fated with awards nominations and wins is subtle about it's non-straight subplots while Best Picture winning Midnight Cowboy, which deals with bisexuality, similarly is much more subtle about its themes, and focusses instead of the idea that being homosexual for pay is degrading.
Being gay, or any other sexuality bar straight, was a taboo subject for a long time in Hollywood and the idea that your film about being queer could be mainstream and successful or be fated with awards was a rarity. Only in the 90s did things change for the better with comedy films The Birdcage and In & Out offered in-your-face gay characters and were well received, especially for trying to break down prejudices, while works like Boys Don't Cry and Philadelphia both earned nominations and wins at the Academy Awards. However, the comedies were poking fun at the extreme nature of being gay, playing to stereotypes, and the dramas revelled in the trauma of LGBT+ life. In many ways, Philadelphia acts as a sort of “straight saviour” narrative, where the prejudiced straight man – Denzel Washington's lawyer – must put aside his prejudice to help the downtrodden gay man – Tom Hanks' AIDS-stricken victim.
Brokeback Mountain is not exempt from this either. For all the visual beauty of Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography and the emotional depth of McMurtry and Ossana's script, the film is deeply traumatic, and both gay men are ultimately punished for their sexuality. The strong-minded Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) is left completely alone by the film's end, pining for his lost love, while compassionate Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is dead. The film implies the official story of how Jack dies given by Jack's wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) is a fabrication and his real fate was much more violent, reflecting an earlier story told by Jack. Yet the suffering is alleviated by an overall story of love and performances that entrance the viewer in the beauty.
Even with the trauma of the ending, Brokeback Mountain is more than just the “gay cowboy movie”; it's a moment in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. The shift in attitudes from films about LGBT+ themes being cult films to the now established trend of awards being courted by those making cinema for the non-straight crowd. Before Brokeback Mountain there was a desire to downplay the LGBT-ness of a film in its marketing, Philadelphia, while about AIDS and prejudice, was marketed as a courtroom drama, de-emphasising its homosexual content. Now we have more films that happily play up the LGBT-centric nature of their narrative, and are awarded with nominations and healthy box office as a result. Check any year at the Academy and there is sure to be at least one LGBT+ film among those nominated.
But what the film did even more than just cement those involved as film icons was to make it acceptable to produce mainstream LGBTQIA films that could do well and win awards. The poster of Ledger and Gyllenhaal's faces crossing one another over the view of the mountain calls to mind the famous poster for Titanic, and similarly to James Cameron's epic, this is a doomed love story where the time it's set in, 1963, forces our passion struck lovers to depart on less than hopeful terms. Yet, the film is not salacious; while the two men clearly engage in sex with one another, they're not the images that linger. It's Ledger and Gyllenhaal silently embracing over a dying fire, it's Ledger stood at fireworks explode and illuminate the sky behind him; it's these moments of powerful silence that make the film so impactful.
The film doesn't seek to demonise the women in their lives either, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams' wives are not made to be villains causing the men to not be together, they, too, are victims of a cruel happenstance that is beyond all their control. It's a film that doesn't offer a “who's to blame” narrative, nor offers answers even if it did. It posits simply that fate has played its hand and that is an unfair hand this time around.
Looking back now at the cheap gags and dismissive attitudes many in the mainstream made about the film seems all the more childish. The late Heath Ledger famously didn't take kindly to people turning the film into a campy laugh-fest, and rebuffed questions that boiled down to “what was it like kissing a man?”. The pride both men took in their work was shown in the dignity both on and off camera, and that of everyone involved. The acting nominations were not a case of rewarding a risky endeavour for two heartthrobs to play gay men, but an affirmation that both of them brought humanity and power to their characters.
With all that said and considered, perhaps the greatest legacy of the film can be captured in one image. As Barry Jenkins and his cast and crew took to the stage (after a famous mistake) and proudly held the statue aloft. Moonlight is a film far flung from the idyllic mountains and country white boys of Ang Lee's film, and yet, the fact that a drama about a homosexual could win the top prize against La La Land? It's clear that Brokeback Mountain lost so that Moonlight could win, and so that LGBT cinema could find it's place in the mainstream.
Not bad for a film that lost to Crash.