|Left to right: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain|
Over the past 10 years, there have been few films as important as Brokeback Mountain. You can argue that director Ang Lee made better films, whether it's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Life of Pi, but none of them have held the same impact that the film, labeled by the public at the time as "the gay cowboy movie," had on society. It wasn't just its subject matter, but how society spoke of the film in the years following. It was a film that transcended just being one of the most successful LGBT movies in history. Its history was a time capsule not only of how we viewed gay culture then, but how society has evolved in the short time since. Still, even as gay characters have started to become more representative in media, there's no denying the impact that Brokeback Mountain had in paving the trail for them. It may not have been the first mainstream film of its kind, but it definitely was the lightning rod that propelled the conversation forward.
If one wants a simple explanation of Brokeback Mountain's impact, simply look at how it was equated into pop culture. Beyond being "the gay cowboy movie," the film's title became a punchline for all sorts of easy jokes. This usually regarded "brokeback" being inferred as gay sex in an inflammatory way. While there were other takes (such as Mind of Mencia's Mexican-based "Wetback Mountain"), the film's subject matter was lampooned as well as praised. It made it both an easy target as well as a clearly impacting film for those willing to look past the jokes and see the sensitive subject matter for its harrowing, emotional romance that it was. Even then, audiences were so timid that they looked for ways to describe the film, believing that the characters weren't in fact gay (though there's rational argument that they were actually bisexual).
Lee made it as a chance to challenge himself with an audacious, never before seen story, based on the book by Annie Proulx. With great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, the film immediately captured a passion unlike anything mainstream audiences had seen. Ledger would later claim that it was difficult to shoot the more intimate scenes, but decided to just give in, as it was in his characters' motives. While there were other romances entangled, the brooding drama's exploration of how a forbidden romance can impact someone's life in a machismo society inevitably hit several emotional cues. With beautiful cinematography, it wasn't a film that was caught up in a taboo of being gay. It was more involved in the struggles of love, which inevitably gave it an edge.
While it didn't quite escape the ongoing trope of gay films ending with a death, it at least addressed the struggles in a more honest and real way. The film conversation came a long way from the 1961 William Wyler film The Children's Hour, where a film based on an explicitly lesbian stage play from 1934 didn't even use the common slang or admit the relationship directly. Mainstream film's relationship with gay culture has long been uneven. Even within The Academy, the only representative gay characters in Best Picture winners were murderers, specifically in The Silence of the Lambs and American Beauty. It was also hard to see them beyond the stereotypical flamboyance and lisped voices that served as the caricature gay in pop culture. It didn't help that homophobia was also present, notably in the works of DMX, Eminem, and Boat Trip.
Still, to humanize gay characters was more revolutionary than one would initially think. These weren't exceptional characters, but men who spoke and acted like civilized humans. Their romance was expressed similarly to more heterosexual takes. Still, it was taboo in 2005, and thus resulted in the marketing to hide most of the gay text so that when it was finally seen, it was shocking. This became so problematic that the film earned its share of enemies. Lee, who was Chinese, had the film infamously banned in his home country (with other countries giving more mixed reactions) - only to be honored when he won Best Director. Conservatives like Bill O'Rielly accused the film of pushing a gay agenda. Others, like Larry H. Miller in Utah, banned the film for not expressing traditional family values. As one can expect, this lead this group to eagerly track any of the film's shortcomings and labeled it as a "Brokeback burnout."
Beyond the zeitgeist's attention to it, The Academy itself was conflicted on how to honor it. In keeping with the general consensus, members of The Academy complained at length about how the film makes a mockery of cowboys. Two notable detesting parties were Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine, the latter of whom claimed that the late John Wayne likely wouldn't have enjoyed it. There was an entire smear campaign (covered in more detail here) to keep the film from winning. While there's further conspiracy regarding the actual ballots, the homophobia ran rampant during the season, thus causing a negative attention to the film. When Crash won, many immediately began to consider it the worst Best Picture winner ever, citing said homophobia as to why Brokeback Mountain lost.
Along with the overwhelmingly negative legacy of Crash, the esteem for Brokeback Mountain has only increased over time. It also helped that society in general was slowly changing. Along with films like Milk, gay culture was becoming more accepted and normalized. With the passing of marriage equality in 2015, it showed something that seemed unexpected in the time of Brokeback Mountain. It showed that LGBT culture wasn't only on the verge of being accepted, but it was now recognizing rights that were rejected and laughed at in 2005, much like the film's title. While there's still homophobia, there's also more of a positive unity for gay culture. There are transgender performers in major roles (such as Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black), and we're even at a point where films like Freeheld that preach this understanding are considered tame. In 2005, the story would've been way different, and that's an achievement.
Brokeback Mountain isn't the only gay movie of the 2000's to make a difference, but it will likely be the one that mainstream audiences will recognize. The reason that the film's an impressive achievement is not only because of how it normalized gay romance, but how we as a society have shifted in talking about it. While there will always be that strife, the fact that artists like Macklemore can release songs like "Same Love" and make it a radio hit shows some progress as a society. Was the film snubbed when it came to that Best Picture gold? Most likely. Yet time has favored Brokeback Mountain (even Crash's director Paul Haggis does), and that alone shows how a film can make a difference, even if it's not respected during its time.