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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 a chuckle.

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 helped me.”

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 life.”

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 being gay.

“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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Heath Ledger


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