THE BLOG
11/30/2005 07:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill

“It's a chance in a thousand we met. You know it. Why don't you stay?”
-- “Stay with you? How? And where? With your Ma? Oh yeah. What would she say if she saw me? All rough and ugly the way I am. And how would you run your job, I'd like to know?”
“I have to chuck it.”
--“Your job in the city? What gives you money and position? You talk like a man who's never had to earn his living.”
“You can do anything. Once you know what it is. We can live without money, without people. We can live without position. We're not fools. We're both strong. There'll be some place we can go.”

Quick! What movie does that come from?

Ten seconds.

Time’s up!

If you guessed Brokeback Mountain then you’ve just lost 500 points on Gay Jeopardy. For rather than that egregiously puffed-up piece of “White Elephant Art” directed by the once-interesting Ang Lee, that quote hails from a 1987 release, Maurice, by the presumably ultra-buttoned-down (but in truth quite adventurous) James Ivory

According to the great painter and film critic Manny Farber, who invented the term back in 1961 in an article he wrote for Film Culture, “The three sins of white elephant art (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity” are all scrupulously observed in Brokeback Mountain. As a result a minor piece of anecdotal fiction by Anne E. Proulx about a pair of part-time sheepherders “on the down low” has been pumped up to the proportions of an epic resembling a steroid-fueled alliance of A Place in the Sun and Leave Her To Heaven -- with none of the wit of either film.

In a Newsweek puff piece tremulously entitled, “ Forbidden Territory”, writer Sean Smith declares. “Proulx's story caused a sensation when it appeared in The New Yorker eight years ago. Its raw masculinity, spare dialogue and lonely imagery subverted the myth of the American cowboy and obliterated gay stereotypes.” Oh really? How about Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys or his even more radical gay western Horse? And that’s not to mention John Schlesinger’s big city gay western Midnight Cowboy.

But we’re not supposed to speak of such works, living as we do as Gore Vidal has so frequently noted in “The United States of Amnesia.” That’s what permits a writer like Smith to ignore precedent-shattering gay films like Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train
Instead Brokeback inspires such blather as-- “It also felt like a sledgehammer to the chest. ‘This is a deep, permanent human condition, this need to be loved and to love,’ says Proulx from her home in Wyoming. ‘While I was working on this story, I was occasionally close to tears. I felt guilty that their lives were so difficult, yet there was nothing I could do about it. It couldn't end any other way.’

As James Ivory, via E.M. Foster, proved it quite obviously could have ended another way. As for how it began, Ledger and Gyllenhall standing outside of Randy Quaid’s office and eyeballing one another resemble nothing so much as a leather bar in Silverlake at 1 AM. But as far as Newsweek is concerned such thoughts should never sully our tiny minds as “No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people's ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, it's already upended decades of Hollywood conventional wisdom.”

Oh Prunella! -- as Bugs Bunny was wont to say. Bareback Molehill does no such thing. It’s a four-hankie weeper whose true predecessor is Fannie Hurst’s Back Street. The first and best movie version of that deluxe tearjerker was directed by John M. Stahl in 1932, with Irene Dunne bravely devoting herself to (clutch the pearls) a man she can never marry ! Your grandma wept buckets, back in the day. Whether she’ll be similarly moved by the likes of Jake and Heath is an open question. But there’s no question that the film’s makers and promoters are counting on the alleged novelty of same-sex love as enacted by two actors, we are insistently reassured, have no offscreen interest in engaging in what the sex sites call “HOT MAN-TO-MAN ACTION”. “Gyllenhaal and Ledger don't dodge it,“ notes Smith. “The kissing and the sex scenes are fierce and full-blooded. But if the actors were taking a risk, they sure don't seem to think so.”

And why should they? For they’re no taking a “risk” at all. As the openly heterosexual Steve Buscemi is only too happy to note, his debut feature Parting Glances put him on the map and launched his flourishing career. Sadly it didn’t do the same for its lead, Richard Ganoung, who now works in regional theater. One can find any number of straight actors whose careers were jump-started by gay roles, like Campbell Scott in Longtime Companion, Daniel Day Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette and most recently Peter Sarsgaard in Kinsey and The Dying Gaul, Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto, and most spectacularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin But what about gay actors playing gay roles? Is it beyond their ken? Would they be open to accusations of “simply being themselves” rather than “really acting”? Such questions hang I the balance as important gay actors are for the most part passed over by Hollywood and left to fend for themselves in indie climes. Craig Chester (whose brilliant performance in Swoon knows no equal) leads a pack that includes Mitchell Anderson, Wilson Cruz , Patrick Bristow, Dan Butler, David Drake, John Cameron Mitchell,Taylor Negron, Juan Fernandez, Gedde Watanabe, Malcolm Gets, Victor Garber, John Fleck, and Peter Paige.

And if you’re speaking of “marquee value” it should be pointed out that thanks to cable television, Peter Paige is better known to entertainment consumers for his role on the long-running Queer As Folk than either Ledger or Gyllenhaal.

A marvelously cheeky article by writer Philip Hensher in The Guardian called “Gay For Today” put it best:

“There are no gay actors - or at least, there weren't until Nathan Lane, to everyone's utter incredulity, came out. Of course, there were gay actors in America's past - James Dean, Cary Grant, Dirk Bogarde, Rock Hudson, Danny Kaye. Plenty of them, in fact. But, for whatever reason, there's hardly a single gay actor of recognizable stature working in Hollywood. An incredible fact.”

Likewise incredible, but true, is a fact Craig Lucas highlights in his deliciously mean-spirited The Dying Gaul (a gay film that will be remembered long after Ang Lee’s camping trip has been forgotten) in a scene where Campbell Scott’s scheming bisexual producer tells Peter Sarsgaard’s sensitive/vulnerable (but not above a scheme or two himself ) gay writer "No one goes to the movies to have a bad time. Or to learn anything." going on to declare matter-of-factly "Americans hate gay people,"

“What about Philadelphia?” Sarsgaard counters.
"Philadelphia was about a man who hated gay people,” Scott replies.
But his most telling remark, as he prepares to seduce Sarsgaard is “You can do anything you want -- just so long as you don’t call it by its name.”

The name for Brokeback Mountain is chicken shit.

Thus endeth the lesson.