LEDGER, HEATH AND LEE, ANG - BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
MR NERVES AND MR DETERMINED
In making Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger, rather than hiding his nerves, chose
to show them on screen “because the character is nervous so it actually helped
me,” he tells Helen Barlow, while director Ang Lee was determined to make the
film or he’d regret for the rest of his life.
Ever since Heath Ledger came to attention in 10 Things I Hate About You (a
clever teen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) he has been
struggling with the label of teen idol. Mel Gibson may have personally chosen
him as his sidekick in The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale might have had the girls
swooning, but neither film allowed the young actor to be taken seriously in his
own right. His recent channeling of Val Kilmer in Lords of Dogtown may have been
completely misguided, but now finally he has found a movie that truly shows what
he is capable of: Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the story of two cowboys in a
story of impossible love, and he is being rewarded accordingly with acclaim,
including a slew of awards nominations.
The Perth-born 26-year-old concedes the role shows a new level of maturity in
his work and in his personal life, as he recently became a dad with girlfriend
Michelle Williams, who plays his long suffering wife in the film. On screen
there is an unmistakable chemistry between the pair, and critics have praised
Williams for making much of her supporting role. We can acutely feel her
heartache as she realizes her husband will always love another: Jack (Jake
Gyllenhaal). Luckily the former Dawson’s Creek star and her Aussie beau weren’t
an established couple at the time or she might have been jealous.
“Michelle’s a pretty mature girl, you know. We’re not babies about work,” says
Ledger. “The movie doesn’t represent how we relate to each other, though I’m
sure the fact that we connected as people helped us connect as actors. It was
just another day at work, though a very different day at work,” he concedes with
So how was it kissing a bloke? “It’s like kissing your grandma, you get stubble
rash,” he replies.
It always seemed like a huge gamble that two young handsome stars like Ledger
and Gyllenhaal should agree to play gay cowboys in this screen adaptation of E.
Annie Proulx’s short story, yet they loved what they read and wanted to work
with Ang Lee.
Gyllenhaal, with his pretty blue eyes, long eyelashes and light blue denim shirt
is the more openly emotional one in the relationship, which they manage to hide,
meeting only for brief periods over 20 years, while Ledger is gripped by fear
and is unable to commit.
"we were really open to telling this story"
Ledger, dressed in long checked shorts and well-worn workman’s boots, admits
he had his work cut out for him.
“It was really tough, I wasn’t open to it in a yoohoo let’s go for it kind of
way. I don’t think Jake was either, but we were really open to telling this
story. I thought it was a fresh approach to telling a story of love. It was the
most intriguing character I’d read, this homophobic man in love with another man
who is struggling against the attitudes deeply planted within him.”
The gay love scenes, he says, were highly choreographed. “Once it was done you
kind of forget it, you can’t remember specifics about it, but to do it you
really have to convince yourself wholly of that situation, otherwise people will
see you as a robot. I’m kind of nervous and rather than hiding my nerves I
actually chose to show my nerves because the character is nervous so it actually
Nevertheless Ledger, who tends to twitch his eyes and mouth and flail his arms
and can’t sit still, is nothing like the stoic ill-at-ease Ennis. What the actor
does have in common with the character is outdoor experience in rough terrain,
as throughout his life he has visited family members in rural Western Australia.
He had ridden horses from an early age and when it came to jumping nude off a
small cliff into a water hole in the film, he did it himself, while city boy
Gyllenhaal used a body double.
He even has a gay cowboy uncle, who became a role model for the part. It tickled
Ang Lee’s fancy that “this tough guy, who is the head of the Thumb Wrestling
Federation of America, just hates himself being gay”.
“He’s the brother of my stepfather and he’s about 60”, explains Ledger. “When he
was younger and was still living at home he pretended he wasn’t gay. Eventually
his father asked him and he told him he was gay and his father was in shock for
a week then came back to him and said, ‘Ok I want you to go to hospital and get
fixed. It’s either that or leave the house and don’t come back.’ So he stood up
and he left that day and he never came back. He told me he felt so liberated
when he walked out the door. It was a smaller version of Ennis’s story, about a
man struggling against his genetic makeup and his ancestry and tradition.”
"brings an outsider’s view to the stories he films"
Ang Lee is fascinated by such real life details. A Taiwanese director for
whom English is his second language, he brings an outsider’s view to the stories
he films. Certainly no one could dispute his ability at wry observation when he
took on affluent suburban America in The Ice Storm and the landed gentry of Jane
Austen’s Victorian England in Sense and Sensibility, which won a slew of awards.
Yet it was the immense box office success of his Chinese-language Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon that would give him the cache to make whatever he wanted.
Seemingly going from the sublime to the ridiculous, Lee made his first
full-blown Hollywood venture, The Hulk, starring Eric Bana. The problem was, the
film tanked, as it was too sentimental for the comic-book loving teens and too
puerile for adults.
“I was shattered,” the 51-year-old New York-based director admits. But then he
discovered that Brokeback Mountain, a short story he had been wanting to film
since it appeared in the New Yorker in 1997, was still available.
“I read the short story when it first came out and I was so moved that I got
choked up,” he recalls. “Even after I made The Hulk it still haunted me. I
thought someone else had made it into a movie and I just knew, from the bottom
of my heart, that if I let it go again, I would regret it for the rest of my
With a surprisingly small budget (US $11 million) Lee turned Proulx’s story into
the most touching film of his career. Brokeback Mountain won the main prize, the
Golden Lion, when it premiered at the Venice Festival last September and now
seems destined for Oscar glory for Lee, for his two stars, Heath Ledger and Jake
Gyllenhaal, and for the screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. (McMurtry,
a deft writer on loneliness, had penned the novel, The Last Picture Show, and
the screenplay on which Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 movie was based.)
“When I make American movies I like to make them very genuine, and about topics
that are unfamiliar to me,” Lee says. “If I haven’t seen it in American movies
before, I tend to jump on it. I like to figure it out instead of knowing what to
do. I don’t think about my style. I basically shoot actors and scenery--placing
the actors against scenery to reflect their minds is a pretty consistent style
that I have.”
While Lee has maintained his proclivity for taking an outsider’s view, it’s not
as if he hadn’t made a gay-themed movie or a western before. The Wedding
Banquet, a wry cross-cultural comedy about a Taiwanese New York-based gay man
marrying to appease his parents, had provided his American breakthrough; while
he had also made the western, Ride With the Devil, at the time his biggest
budget movie, which had been a box office flop. Though for Lee, Brokeback
Mountain is something different again. It’s his first full-blown love story.
"I don’t think I‘ve ever made a romantic love story so
it’s very special"
“To have that kind of affection and love during that period was much harder
and makes the story more romantic. People talk about the gay issue but I don’t
think they walk away as if that’s the most important thing. I don’t think I‘ve
ever made a romantic love story so it’s very special. I’m just happy it’s being
received so well because when I made the movie I didn’t imagine a lot of people
would see it.”
Getting the casting right was vital. “The fact that Heath and Jake are young and
have that innocence and freshness, and believe in what they’re doing, worked for
the film,” he says. “But the movie rests a lot on Heath’s shoulders because it
is mostly from Ennis’s point of view. He has no way to tell how he feels, we can
only guess, so the movie in a sense tells his story.”
The film’s most graphic scene, which actually is hardly shown, is when as a kid
Ennis witnesses a cowboy being dragged around by his penis—as a punishment for
“It’s from Annie Proulx’s story,” says an astonished Lee, “and I think that adds
a lot to the boy’s self-denial when he becomes aware of his sexuality. There
were some debates about how much the audience could stomach and I considered
shooting it in many different ways, some more explicit, some just talking about
it and including only the kid’s face. I asked my family and friends how much I
should show and it feels just about right now.”
He hardly shows the story’s integral gay bashing scene either. “It’s funny, the
Laramie Incident [when Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student in Laramie,
Wyoming, was beaten and left for dead] happened one year after Annie wrote the
story. She was very scared when she wrote it and then unbearably scared after
that happened. I think the scene should be in the book as it’s the reality of
their lives, but I was less certain about it for the movie so just gave a flash
of it happening. I think in movies people have a lot less tolerance.”
Published January 26, 2006
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