Friday, January 25, 2008

Two Steps Forward?

I've been mulling over my reaction to the death of Heath Ledger, and reading the heart-felt responses from many in my blog family. Brokeback Mountain obviously struck a deep chord with a lot of people, as it did with me. In one of my earliest posts, written just after seeing the movie, I talked about how connected I felt culturally to this particular story in ways that didn't make sense. I had privileges Ennis never dreamed of, yet I still see how easy it would have been for me to become him. For an interesting interview with Ledger on his experience working on the film, go here. The skill and emotional insight Ledger and Ang Lee brought to this character created a resonant performance, one that deserves all the accolades and awards it received. I think it may go down in history as one of the great film portrayals. I was inspired in deep ways by the beauty and commitment of Ledger's work, and it's obvious I was not alone.

Ledger -and in fact, Gyllenhaal as well- impressed me in another way. As is still the case whenever a straight man plays a gay role, members of the press, particularly the gay press, often feel compelled to ask if the decision to take the role was 'scary'. It's not uncommon for there to be a fair amount of thanks given for an actor's willingness to play gay, like he is doing us some kind of favor. Read Ledger's response to a variation on this question in one interview (see above link).

Question: Who was the biggest supporter and biggest detractor in you playing this role in regards to the gay aspects?

Heath Ledger: No one was trying to detract me from it. Everyone was very supportive of it. I understand everyone else or people found it risky. I hate to call it "daring" or "brave"; firefighters are daring and brave. I'm acting. I didn't get hurt and I'm not mentally wounded from this experience.

I love him for this response, and I love what it tells us about the present landscape in Hollywood. I am even more encouraged by comments he makes later in the same interview.

Question: Why did you take the role when others in the past had said no?

Heath Ledger: It was a beautiful story. It was a story that hadn't made it on the screen; which is rare to come upon a script so beautifully well written and hadn't been told before. It was very exciting to tell a new story. Ang lee is attached to it. I don't think I would have done it if it were in anyone else's hands. He was the perfect director for it and that's really [it]. I looked at it as a wonderful opportunity to get in the head of this character. I never saw it as a huge risk that everyone else was seeing. It's all relative to the person you are and how relaxed you are with people and the people around you. I was very happy to tell a story that hadn't been told and I thought it should have been told.

This response reveals to me both a sensitive artist and an astute businessman. He recognized the challenges of the role -playing gay was not one of them- and saw the potential for a rewarding project and improved career. No one can know in advance if a film is going to be a critical or popular success, but part of being a successful actor is learning how to pick projects wisely, to weigh the potential risks and benefits, and to strike a balance between personal challenge and box office success. It seems to me that Ledger recognized the benefits far out-weighed the risks, especially for him.

It's easy to forget now, but before 2005 (when Brokeback came out), Ledger's career appeared to be on a downward spiral. After making a big splash with his Hollywood debut, being identified as a hot up-and-coming actor, Ledger had four commercial and critical flops in a row, and in Hollywood that is often the kiss of death. At this point he was in the papers more often for his high profile romance with Naomi Watts than he was for his work. People were already looking at him as one of those 'where are they now' stories. His response to this career crisis was that of a talented artist (as opposed to determined star); he looked around for projects that would, yes, improve his professional standing, but do so by connecting him with artists he admired (he wouldn't have taken the role without Ang Lee, remember), in challenging, well-written material, and as he says, a story "that hadn't been told before."

Don't misunderstand me. I am not discounting Ledger's achievement in this role. I applaud Ledger for insightful, detailed, captivating work with a character who was as different from him as he could be, but was also a difficult person to portray on film. Lee told him the thing to keep in mind in portraying Ennis was 'stillness'; between the two of them, they did just that, and it worked brilliantly. Ennis' clenched jaw, physical awkwardness, and flattened speech showed us a man at war with his feelings, the demands of his culture, even his own body. Ledger deserves all the praise he received for this work, and more. I simply want to counter-act the idea that he took a huge gamble to play gay, or did so as a favor to us. To his credit, he never made any such claim, in fact he denied such claims when others suggested them. There was a time when playing gay could seriously damage a career even for a straight man, but Ledger, perhaps in part by looking at the list of actors who had done so with great success before him (a partial list, off the top of my head: Tom Hanks, Antonio Banderas, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Kirk, Campbell Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Daniel Futterman, Daniel Day Lewis, Ewan MacGregor, Christian Bale, Jude Law, Matt Damon) realized that risk was now pretty minimal. He saw an incredible opportunity, and he leapt at it.

Then of course, I began to hear the ugliness -John Gibson's reprehensible response, Fred Phelps desire to picket Ledger's funeral- and I thought, maybe I was dismissing the risks of playing gay too quickly. Further examination though leads me to believe I am not. Yes, horrible things are being said in response to his death, making it clear (surprise!) homophobia is alive and well. More than one whack-job is suggesting Ledger's death is God's punishment for his involvement with Brokeback Mountain. Gibson may have been ridiculing him as a 'weirdo' with a 'drug problem', but his exclusive use of Brokeback Mountain quotations tells us what really bothered him.

The fact is though, this stuff came out in the open again only because of Ledger's death. It wasn't stopping him from working while he was still alive. His career was not damaged by Brokeback, in fact it was significantly improved by it. He had gained A-list status in Hollywood and remember, and this was not a status he had ever had before. I honor Ledger for his work on this role, and for the respect he gave to Ennis and the film as a whole, and I honor him even more for his clear-sightedness on how little a gay role threatened his career. Neither he nor Gyllenhaal were the first actors approached for these roles; men with bigger names were approached first, and all of them passed. I hope at least some of those actors are now realizing what an opportunity they missed, and that their fears were unfounded, or at least archaic. And those folks spouting such poison about this man's death and his career choices, I think that's just further evidence that this film struck a nerve. If I had been involved, I would be taking almost as much pride in the viciousness, as I would in all the accolades.

I could easily start writing more about related issues (gay actors being cast in gay roles, gay actors being cast in straight roles, lesbians getting cast at all), but those seem topics for another time. Ultimately I just want to acknowledge that I am greatly saddened by Ledger's death, not only because I find it horrible when anyone fails to make it past thirty, but also because he was clearly a great artist whose best work, I can only assume, was still ahead of him. I am sorry for the grief his loved ones are now experiencing, and I regret the work that we will never see now. Most of all, I am grateful to him for the gift he gave us in Ennis Del Mar, and for making it clear that playing gay was a risk only if he let it be.


Java said...

I really like the way you think about this event and the issues surrounding it. About Heath Ledger; after seeing Brokeback I was impressed by his acting. I've seen him in a few other roles, but this was the best acting I'd seen from him. I was looking forward to watching his art improve. I am sad that he is dead. There is so much more at issue here, though, and I like the way you have presented your thoughts on the deeper aspects.

And this post is yet another example of why I check back here so often. I really like the way you write. More than that, I like the way you think. You explore things, people, events in directions few people would consider. Then you express your thoughts so clearly that it is easy for me to follow for my own benefit. Sometimes you give voice to ideas that I've been ruminating but haven't put into clear thoughts. Other times you introduce me to a new way of seeing things. I like the exercise you give my brain.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I wasn't a huge fan of Brokeback Mountain at all; I much preferred A Knights Tale. But, this was from an artistic standpoint too.

He was a tremendous artist with a huge potential to project cinema into a new and improved direction. For that he should be sorely missed and we consumers greatly saddened.


somewhere joe said...

I'm a bit Heathed out, and have commented at Coooper's, but you make some interesting points, Patrick. I understand Heath's desire to deflect the kind of praise that Brokeback Mountain would inevitably bring to him, although I suspect his response was at least partially simply modesty. You're right, it was a win-win for everyone; it raised consciousness regarding homosexuality, and kick-started Ledger's career, while opening new horizons and opportunities to him. But the honor that the movie's achievement has won, and not just for Ledger, would inevitably overwhelm the actor's assessment of his participation. The hard and poignant fact remains, however, that Heath is gone, and what he gave us in Brokeback, remains. Academics is one thing. Life and history are another. In an odd twist of fate, we've lost Ennis and kept Jack.

The movie was qualitatively different from its predecessors in that it focused on the love itself, as explicitly rendered as a mainstream motion picture could, of the central characters rather than the usual issues and stereotypes surrounding homosexuality. Movies about homosexuals may be sympathetic... but they always evoked the sympathy accorded to characters caught up in a tragic and destructive perversion, or at least an eccentric way of life. Brokeback turned that upside down. It is the homosexual lovers who are shown as righteous and sane, and society that is perverse.

In a way, dealing with homosexuality through the conventions of gay culture is probably easier for the broader culture, than to approach the heart of homosexual love directly, which was Brokeback's singular achievement. Once you can stereotype, you can deal. Homosexuals' complicity in self-ghettoizing has made it easier, of course, for popular culture to avoid the issue. It's easier for the general public to dismiss, and therefore cope with, the flamboyant creatures of, say, La Cage, or the tortured protagonist of Philadelphia, than for it to open their minds and hearts to two lovesick cowboys. And yet Brokeback accomplished exactly that. It opened hearts and minds.

That was its breakthrough. Ennis and Jack were human beings first and last. It wasn't, in fact, a gay movie. It was a movie about homosexual love, or to put it more simply, love... removed in both time, and even more so location, from all the trappings of gay lifestyle. In fact it was distinctively ungay. But there is no getting around the fact that there they were, two straight actors, in bed together, roughly, tenderly, passionately in love. Those scenes were the spiritual and emotional heart of the movie. Its raison d'etre, really. Up close and personal, in some important ways, for the first time. Marginalize that, and we're kidding ourselves. Heath and Jake were courageous I think, even if it was in spite of themselves.

Patrick said...

Java: Thank you for your kind words. I often feel my thoughts are pretty convoluted and murky, often the writing is a process of trying to find clarity for me, so it is gratifying for you to say you are able to see what I'm saying clearly.

Christopherc: I haven't yet seen A Knight's Tale, but in previous movies I thought Ledger was fine, if not notable. Brokeback really seemed to me like a big step forward in his growth as an actor, but that doesn't mean his work, or the movie, is going to resonate with everyone, naturally.

Joe: "Academics is one thing. Life and history are another. In an odd twist of fate, we've lost Ennis and kept Jack". I don't understand the first thought, but I'd argue with latter that we haven't lost Ennis, and never will, we've lost Heath. That is sad, but there is some small consolation (at least for those of us who weren't actual friends of Ledger's) in never losing the film, or his work on it.

The film obviously must have been different for it to have created such a groundswell, but I disagree with some of what you say is the difference. Parting Glances and Longtime Companion both dealt with same-sex love, in a way that I would argue was free of perversion or tragedy. Yes, AIDS figures in both movies, but it is not seen as sane by any means. Of course they were both indy movies back when that denoted a much bigger gap, nonetheless I would say they helped pave the way for Brokeback's success. (I wasn't crazy about Philadelphia, to be honest; I thought it was far more timid than it needed to be for the times and with the support it had from big players. La Cage, I know less well, and feel less able to judge how risky a project it was at that point in history.)

I have to admit I get a bit wary when someone talks of the gay community as a monolithic entity. There is no denying certain things have become short-hand (if not stereotypical) for what gay life is: an urban world, heavily ghettoized, an emphasis on dancing, drugs, sex, disco, youth and physical beauty, for example. But it seems like more people identify themselves in opposition to this than as a part of it. Somehow that is 'gay' with an implication that it is less than admirable, while the speaker is NOT like that because of fill in the blank (I'm from the country/small town, I don't do drugs, I hate bars, I don't care about fashion, I'm not white, I'm not rich, I'm not young, I'm not swishy, flamboyant, effeminate etc.). I don't see how a story that is about two men in love can be identified as 'ungay' unless we're dealing with very specific and personal definitions of the word 'gay' that you have, and I don't. True I doubt either Ennis or Jack would have ever called themselves gay even in their own heads, but I think that too would have been because being gay meant something very specific to them that they just were NOT a part of, no matter how they made, or fell in love. It makes me uncomfortable when it seems like an effort is being made to identify 'those people over there that I don't like and want nothing to do with'. I'd much rather expand the term to include me, Ennis Del Mar,Andre Sullivan, Bruce Vilanch etc. Of course no one should have the term forced on him/her. But nor am I ready to accept other definitions of the word without a request for specificity at least.

As for marginalizing the love scenes at the center of the movie, again, I'm not entirely sure I understand your point, but if you feel that is what I'm doing, I would disagree. As I said above, the enormity of the reaction to this movie indicates that some nerve got touched. The fact that some pinhead (I don't remember who, nor do I care to) could be quoted as saying it was 'the rape of the Marlboro Man' is a glimpse, I think of why so many loved and loathed this movie. Certainly its setting is part of why I felt my story was being told for the first time in a way, despite the fact that I'm not a shepherd/cowboy, didn't grow up in the West, got a good education, had a family who loved and supported me, and was exposed to a variety of gay lives before I came out, showing me there were options. I don't believe I'm kidding myself about the significance of this movie at all. I do applaud Ledger and Gyllenhaal for taking these roles, and making such good things of them, but I don't think they were risking their careers by doing so, and I appreciate the fact that they both said as much. The fact that many other actors passed on the film, (and I have to assume the gay issue was the problem for at least some of them) is irritating to me, since by now I think everyone should know better, at least in Hollywood, though I accept that 'should' rarely has much meaning in life. Campbell Scott and Dermot Mulroney (Longtime Companion) and Steve Buschemi (Parting Glances) took the supposed bigger risk of playing gay before they had established careers twenty or more years ago, and their careers have gone nowhere but up. Perhaps it seems unfair of me to accuse the actors who passed on the film of timidity, while simultaneously denying that Ledger or Gyllenhaal did anything risky, but I don't think I'm going to back off that just yet. I think they were simple more sensible, more realistic, had better senses of the political/cultural climate, and understood the benefits far out-weighed the risks. I'm grateful to them for that. I applaud them for that. But I don't think it required special courage, just good sense, and they seem to agree with me. I love them for that too.

somewhere joe said...

Thank you, Patrick...One more point, and I'll stop tiring you, and probably everybody else. But I think it's important to honor what Annie Proulx, and Ang Lee, were trying to get at with this story, at least as I see it. In the scenes in which Jack, abandoned by Ennis, briefly descends into gay subculture, the story makes an innovative and rather pungent observation: the gay underground is a detour away from the homosexual love that the author has heretofore elevated, toward something else: a desparate and pathetic substitute, shadowy and cynical. This is a dramatic contrast with the purity of the pair's unreferenced love in the mountains. I would even go so far as to suggest that the story is not only a critique of society's intolerance to homosexuality, but also of the self-defeating homosexual response to it that is gay subculture. It looked for something deeper and, in my opinion, found it and celebrated it, if only for those brief, shining summers... The isolation of the setting, Brokeback Mountain, is the master symbol of this movie for me. The 'love that dare not speak its name,' is redeemed precisely because it has no name.

Patrick said...

Oh, by no means are you tiring me, Handsome, you're the one who said you were "Heathed out". I see your point about the gay subculture being a poor substitute for true love, but hasn't that point been made with other movies, like The boys in the Band? Perhaps the difference is that those movies suggested there was no other option. I'm also not quite ready to agree that furtive, shame-filled sex once or twice a year is such a big improvement over sneaking into Mexico to pick up a hustler. I agree that Brokeback Mountain starts out as an idyllic place of freedom for the boys, but by the time they're grown men, it has become more of a prison. Ennis sees it as the only solution, and his economic straits start making even it hard to achieve. The fight they have the last time they see one another breaks my heart in the way they feel so angry with one another and trapped by their situation.

It breaks my heart to think about the fact that it's 1983 when the movie ends; it's tempting to say "why didn't they go somewhere they could live openly" but I know from my own experience that sort of thinking doesn't necessarily happen for us. And hell, I was coming out in '86, under much better circumstances.

I am totally with you that the oppressiveness of their culture is presented as the problem, not their love, but I don't think their relationship is nourishing or rewarding by the end. We see Ennis shut down more and more, we see Jack taking bigger risks, one of which ultimately leads to his death, and they're simply not able to help one another.

The moment with the two shirts does move me a great deal however, because I see it as a moment when Ennis truly accepts and how much he was loved. I also find touching that Jack's mother, without saying a word about them, makes sure Ennis finds the shirts, then she puts them quietly in a bag for him without drawing her husband's attention to them. One could argue that having Ennis realize what he had only after it's gone is more of the same old tragic gay stuff, but I agree with you, something more else, something special is created here.

Oh, and yes, I don't mean to ignore the fact that Annie Proulx is the one who got it all started. Both the short story and the screen play are exceptional.

somewhere joe said...

"...Brokeback Mountain starts out as an idyllic place of freedom for the boys, but by the time they're grown men, it has become more of a prison."

Yes, sadly, yes...

Somebody said that great art is ambiguous. Which is to say multi-faceted and open ended. No easy answers. No message, as Nabokov once wrote, "to bring in its teeth." Thanks for another stimulating discussion, mon ami.

Back to Heath, the man, for a bit...

When Jack Nicholson, upon hearing of his death made the enigmatic and cruel-sounding remark "I told him so," it was taken as a reference to rumors (pretty much discredited)of Heath's recent lifestyle. But he was actually talking about Ledger's role as The Joker in the upcoming Batman movie, a role which Nicholson seemed to suggest was trouble. Hollywood urban legend no doubt, but stage lore has been replete with such stuff for centuries. The movie is in post production.

Melissa said...

What a beautiful entry Patrick -
I wish there was a way to send it to his family.

Patrick said...

Yay, Melissa you're HOME! I missed you...

Thank you Joe, for all this, I enjoyed it too. I was secretly hoping we'd have to settle it like men, with naked wrestling, but I like a stimulating conversation too. It just never seems to involve any oil, sadly.

I'd heard that story about Nicholson as well, and am going to search for it, to see if it's legit, and if he went into further detail. The Joker is a psychopathic killer of remarkable energy and charisma, so I wouldn't discount the idea that playing him might mess with one's head. Then if one is dealing with other difficulties anyway, it might be easier to have warped reactions one wouldn't have otherwise. I don't want to sound too indulgent actory with this, since I think we do have to know how to leave work at work, but I'm not dismissing this story out of hand yet. I'll let you know what I find.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

I still believe the people who took part in this film, unknowingly or on purpose, used it as a way to say gay relationships are acceptable. Even if we say, we don't need straight culture's approval, it is still a turning point for the main stream to accept us and leave us alone, it does make life a little easier. I know of people who would never watch a gay movie, that have watched this one. None of the other movies you mentioned grabbed the straight world's attention like this movie did.

On another note, why does every gay blog writer mention that church of hate? You will never see me mention that name, it is just a bitter man that thinks up new ways to get attention for himself. He needs free advertising and he is not going to get it from me. The gay culture needs to wake up and see that for what it is, keep an eye on him but do what he fears most, let him fade away from lack of attention.


Cooper said...

I have just finished digesting your post, Patrick, and the lively discussion following it. A beautiful dance, indeed. I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on most of the academic points made. I only know the emotional response of my heart.

Our personal solitude, secrecy and closeness as gay men is benign and secure as long as we stay home, so to speak. It's a different matter when we take the winding mountain road, climb the granite surface, touch and claw and taste the rock and earth. Brokeback Mountain, I think is a symbol of that chasm in every way.

This week I plan to watch the movie again, as my own little memorial ceremony for Heath Ledger.

As the poet Robert Frost wrote:

Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
Not in a position to look too close.


Patrick said...

Steven, It seems I didn't make my points very clearly. I never for a minute doubted that all the people involved believed they were making a statement about the acceptability of gay relationships. My point merely is that they all recognized (wisely) that the career risks were minimal. I never discount the good will behind their work, any more than I discount the beauty of their work. My point in mentioning the other films is not to suggest they did what Brokeback did, my point is they helped pave the way for Brokeback PARTICULARLY in the sense of a providing a string of respected straight actors who could tell Ledger and Gyllenhaal "come on in boys, the water's fine." Some people have suggested (elsewhere, not here) that L and G took bigger risks than Tom Hanks for example, because their careers were less established than his. This is why I point out Campbell Scott, Dermot Mulroney, and Steve Buschemi, all of whom took the same risk twenty or more years ago, and proved it didn't have to kill one's career. For Buschemi in fact it was his FIRST film role.

At the heart of all of this is my feeling that it is time to retire the question "was it scary to play gay?" My feeling is it is the gay press which STILL tends to ask this question most often, and I dislike it's fawning implications. Actor after actor(Law, MacGregor, Bale, Damon, and now L and G)has by this point said no, and more than one of them has gone so far as to say the question is out-dated. THAT statement is what I love to hear from these actors, and I respect the fact that they seem to be ahead of many gay reporters these days. I can and DO value what all the makers of Brokeback did, I do feel grateful to them, I can thank them. I simply don't need to suggest they risked their careers by doing so, because they just didn't. Or they didn't any more than one does with ANY new project (A Knight's Tale did NOT prove to be good for Ledger's career, for example.)

I hear you on not naming Phelps and the Westboro Church, I respect that decision even if it's not one I choose to take. I feel ignoring a voice is almost as risky as trying to suppress it. I think freedom of speech means we have to let the haters, crazies and (which is harder for me)MORONS speak, so at least we know where everyone stands. I think it's much easier to address things when they're out in the open (no more closets!:))than it is to go along pretending that ugliness isn't there. I think at the root of this is my hope that MLK Jr was right, and that we need to work hard to call to the humanity in ALL people, even the ones that seem beyond hope, because a)doing so is the only way true change can be achieved, and b)doing so honors our own humanity while reaching out to those we're confronting, so even if we fail (and that is possible no matter WHAT tactic we use) at least we have not sacrificed our own humanity in the process. Ignoring Phelps seems like a good approach only if I think he's beyond saving, and as hard as it is for me at times, I try not to think that about ANYONE.

Patrick said...

Darling Cooper, you and Joe both mention 'Academic'points, and I have to admit, I'm still unsure what you mean by that. My response to this film is highly emotional. Are you referring to the times when I mention all the other films? I'm not trying to structure some film class thesis with that, just trying to show sufficient evidence for why I think it's time to let go of the question (as I said to Steven above)"was it scary to play gay?" It seems to me our straight allies are ahead of a lot of us when it comes to this issue.

What I like about the symbol of the mountain itself is the way the boys' relationship is shown as natural, ie. literally out in nature, at the beginning of the movie, but gradually, as Joe and I were discussing, it becomes a prison, a symbol of shame, secrecy, and pain for the men and their families. A good symbol does that, changes, grows, and as Joe points out, triggers lively debate.

I feel honored and blessed that all of you have found your own paths into the light, and into my life, even if it's at the remove of a keyboard. As I've said before, I still marvel at how easily I could have become Ennis, even with all my advantages, so the movie reminds me (among a lot else, obviously) how lucky I am to have a community like this.

Damn, I have to go to work. Never has standing around naked been less appealing.

Cooper said...

Patrick, you standing around naked sounds appealing to me.


Sooo-this-is-me said...

Okay Patrick I understand your point. Maybe it is my over sensitive closeted self, but I felt at the time, that the movie could have backfired and backfired on the actors as well. Maybe they saw what I could not see then or even now still, that most people do not care about our sexuality, my view of the world was slightly skewed when this movie came out.

I'm with Cooper on the 'you naked' part! ;)


Patrick said...

Thanks fellas, that was nice to come home to; maybe I could get one of you to rub my shoulders a bit? They're killing me. I'll even stand around naked for ya, if that helps.

Steven, I doubt the makers realized the movie was going to be quite as huge as it was, it obviously struck a deep chord. It seems to have been the right movie at the right time. And of course it wasn't without controversy; I just think the actors were correct in saying playing gay was itself not a big risk.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Ummmm naked huh, well I'm a lot closer to you than Cooper and he is just so busy with the little guys these days so I'll do it! I just hope that darn Joe doesn't read this before I get there or he'll try and beat me to it! ;)


somewhere joe said...

Steven, if I do get there first, you can referee Patrick's and my nude oil wrestling challenge... for starters :oP

Cooper said...

Hey, just because I have kids doesn't mean I'm too busy! Joe ... Patrick ... nude wrestling?! Where do I sign-up?

Dantallion said...

It's getting a little warm in here...