Ang Lee’s film may be the most loving, fundamentally unaltered, fleshed-out translation of a prior work, from word to image, ever.
Two articles published in the Guardian, about eight years apart, speak to Brokeback Mountain’s enduring legacy. The first was penned in 2006 by Annie Proulx, author of the New Yorker short story on which the film is based. In a screed titled “Blood on the Red Carpet,” Proulx responds with great vengeance and furious anger to the Best Picture victory of Crash over Brokeback at the 78th Academy Awards. Here she calls the Paul Haggis film “trash,” blames the Church of Scientology for Brokeback’s loss and (inexplicably) smears Three 6 Mafia’s joyous performance of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” as proof of…something. The second was a 2014 opinion editorial scolding Proulx’s ongoing consternation over fan reactions and their many “fixes” of the film’s tragic conclusion. The piece’s title says it all: “Annie Proulx regrets writing Brokeback Mountain? She needs to let it go.”
Proulx’s irritation with Brokeback’s place in popular culture is understandable. Her 1997 New Yorker story – cause of a rare literary commotion, nearly on par with Shirley Jackson’s classic story “The Lottery” and, most recently, a precursor to Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 phenomenon “Cat Person” – stands among very few literary works translated precisely, with absolute fidelity, to the Silver Screen. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s screenplay adaptation not only leaves the tale intact, it deftly expands on narrative glances, moments when Proulx’s spare, declamatory prose communicates drama off the page, events known but unshown. Ang Lee’s film may be the most loving, fundamentally unaltered, fleshed-out translation of a prior work, from word to image, ever.
Proulx has more than a little skin in this game, of course. If the magnitude of her discontent seems unbecoming of a celebrated writer, cartoonish and petulant – well, it’s that. Though her sour grapes and public grousing are something between embarrassing and inappropriate, we can’t just waive away Proulx’s bitterness. She isn’t alone in contending that Brokeback warranted the win over Crash. But it doesn’t matter whether the “deserving” film won Best Picture in 2006. Few argue that Brokeback isn’t a masterpiece, and its loss at the Oscars is regularly offered as a grand example of the Academy’s cowardice, capriciousness and conservatism.
In 2015, The Hollywood Reporter polled Academy voters “on a number of disputed decisions” and “Brokeback won,” over Crash, “in a landslide.” Indeed, for two-and-a-half minutes at last year’s Oscars, history seemingly repeated itself. When Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as Best Picture, before a jaw-dropping reversal, flashes of 2006 instantly came to mind. Moonlight’s ultimate victory felt like a bit of justice. That film’s blending of race and homosexuality showed how two contemporary concepts filed under “other” need not be compartmentalized, or in fake conflict, any longer.
Another of Proulx’s objections, to the question of what Brokeback is really about, is worth exploring. Who can blame viewers for falling for Ennis and Jack, immortalized by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal? Why should a “serious” film be exempt from fan-sourced flights of fancy that regularly surround properties such as Star Wars and Harry Potter? Rather than congratulating herself on a job well done, having created characters people truly care about, Proulx instead doubles down on a fallacy. For this writer, there is no distinction between author and authority. According to Proulx, Brokeback Mountain is “about” homophobia. She turns the American ideal of the cowboy, a shorthand for masculinity, on its head. A large part of her audience preferred to adore her protagonists, lament their diverging paths and mourn their star-crossed love. And many of them put pen to paper to write happier endings.
Who cares? Always a good question to ask. The less the modern viewer is preoccupied with social and political quandaries, with wrecked families and violent crimes against homosexuals, the better. That those issues no longer seem so vital marks a degree of progress. Ang Lee’s picture is no niche product. Like all great art, it’s universal. Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-based score rends the heart today as it will tomorrow. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s wide-scale vistas inspire awe as achievements of the craft. These judgments are rooted in technique, not just the politics of narrative.
But as a story of true love, Brokeback Mountain lodges itself in our minds. In its final scene, Ennis shuts his reminders of Jack into a closet. The past, however, can’t be forgotten and won’t be left behind. For these cowboys, and Brokeback’s viewers, a snow-capped formation reaches skyward: This is where everything changed.