In 1980, Ordinary People embarrassingly won the best Picture Oscar over Raging Bull. A decade later, the Academy trumped that immense shitting of the bed when Dances With Wolves somehow beat Goodfellas. But it turns out, Martin Scorsese isn’t the only dude to get monumentally screwed by the Oscars. Because legend has it, that when Jack Nicholson read out the winner for the Best Picture in 2006, the decision was so wrong, there was an audible, communal gasp from the audience. That was the year that Crash beat Brokeback Mountain.
Taking not quite legal work as sheep herders on the titular mountain, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), go from strangers, to friends, to lovers as they spend months isolated and alone. But these kinds of guys aren’t the sort to be out and proud. Cowboys and southerners in the 60s, being gay doesn’t really seem like an option. So after a season on the mountain, they go their separate ways, repress their feelings and start all American families. Ennis with girl next door, Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack with rodeo queen, Lureen (Anne Hathaway).
But their true feelings can never be fully ignored, and soon Jack and Ennis are drawn back together. The only problem is, the more they try to resist, the more they build fake lives, the more they have to lose and more people to hurt. Over the years, and even decades, they keep trying to find ways to define, ignore, embrace and learn to live with their feelings.
Ledger and Gyllenhaal both got Oscar nominations for their work in Brokeback Mountain with Ang Lee winning for Best Director. At the time, this move was impossible to avoid. And now that I’ve finally seen it, I understand all the praise and notoriety it generated back then. You totally get Ennis and Jack’s attraction to each other the second they appear on screen together, and the fact that a happy ending seems so unlikely only makes that attraction all the more dangerous and compelling.
Ledger makes the repression of Ennis almost physically painful with his clenched jaw and darting eyes always avoiding contact with anyone but Jack. You can see a weight on his shoulders the entire time. Whereas Gyllenhaal gives a kind if childish optimism to Jack that makes him the perfect opposite.
Brokeback Mountain got a lot attention when it came out for being the gay cowboy movie, and I was skeptical that people liked it because they felt obligated to. But now that I’ve seen it, I realise it’s more than that and that it earned its high praise back in the day. Ennis and Jack are one of the most convincing screen couples I’ve ever seen, and the Wyoming countryside, where most of the story takes place, means the movie looks amazing too.