Study Guide

Brokeback Mountain Introduction

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Brokeback Mountain Introduction

Release Year: 2005

Genre: Drama, Romance, Western

Director: Ang Lee

Writer: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, Annie Proulx (novel)

Stars: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Think of a cowboy, any cowboy. Quick.

Maybe you thought of a Lone Ranger type, riding his horse across wide-open plains. Or you thought of the Marlboro Man, that studly archetype of rugged masculinity. Or you thought of Woody from Toy Story.

Or maybe (especially because you got to this page because of your interest in a certain genre-defying Western film), you thought of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.

But until Brokeback Mountain hit the cinema with all the cultural force of a bucking bronco, a person asked to "think of a cowboy" would probably have never thought about the possibility of two cowboys falling in love under the star-dappled skies of the Rocky Mountains.

Because that's just not how we thought about cowboys.

However, over the years the image of the cowboy has become less romantic/ two-dimensional and more complicated. The Lone Ranger's depictions of Native Americans rely on racist stereotypes. His horse probably went to the glue factory. The Marlboro Man died of lung cancer. And Woody is…a toy.

In 2005, Brokeback Mountain changed the image of the all-American cowboy forever. It's the story of two men who are sent to wrangle sheep on a mountain, and end up getting into each other's Wranglers instead. Over two decades, the men have a secret affair with one another, while attempting to hide it from their wives and children.

Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain was directed by Ang Lee. If Ang Lee seems like an odd choice for a Western that featured cowboys in love, he was. He had previously directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk starring Eric Bana. But these films showed Lee's expertise in capturing scenic vistas, like the lush green jungles of China or the sprawling green pecs of the Hulk. With those skills, Lee brings the beautiful, but isolating, mountains of Wyoming—and Jake Gyllenhaal's chest—to life.


The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, along with white Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek, not Destiny's Child) and Anne Hathaway. The actors had all starred mostly in teen movies prior to Brokeback Mountain. Hathaway made the jump from Princess Diaries and Ledger was a teen heartthrob from films like 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight's Tale. But after Brokeback Mountain¸ they were legit Hollywood stars with dramatic cred.

Brokeback Mountain was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won Best Director, Best Original Score (Gustavo Santoalalla) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), but lost Best Picture to the Worst Best Picture Ever: Crash. Many critics believe that Crash, which boils down racism into its simplest, most reductive aspects, was the "safe" choice while Brokeback Mountain was too controversial for the old fogies in Hollywood who count pelvic thrusts when assigning film ratings. (Source)

But "safe" is boring. Variety keeps things interesting, so we're happy to add Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist to the rogue's gallery of classic cowboys. (Not that they're even cowboys—they're sheepboys. But that's a discussion for another day.)

What is Brokeback Mountain About and Why Should I Care?

Gay characters, y'all. Where are they?

Gay characters in movies and on TV are still hard to find. Real, complicated gay characters are even more difficult to find…though things are changing. Thanks to shows like Modern Family and Looking and films like Weekend and Milk we have more gay characters onscreen than ever before.

But historically, that wasn't the case. And by "historically," we mean "the late 90's and early 2000's." Back then, gay characters mostly fell into a variety of stereotypes, like Jack from Will and Grace or Kevin Kline's character in In And Out. Effeminate and non-threatening, these men were the butt of jokes more often than they made jokes.

Enter Brokeback Mountain. Its two leading men are tough as saddle leather and craggy as the mountains of Wyoming. Aside for their love of others with a Y-chromosome, they're the polar opposite of the perpetual swishy stereotypes of earlier gay characters—and they're also (gasp!) totally three-dimensional. Jack and Ennis have as much depth and nuance as any character we're seen on the big screen (and we're film nerds that watch about seven movies a week).

Although Brokeback was directed by a heterosexual man, based on a story written by a heterosexual woman, and starring four heterosexual actors, it was a groundbreaking film that tackled serious issues still rarely seen on the big screen today.

Brokeback brought gay issues out of the closet and into mainstream consciousness. It informed people that homophobia doesn't only affect gay people, it hurts everyone. And it forced people to confront their own prejudices. One movie theater owner in Utah proved this point by banning the film for pushing a "gay agenda." (Source)

Cinema (and all of society, especially that jerk in Utah) still has a long way to go on this topic, but Brokeback Mountain is a good entry point into the conversation. It struck a nerve when it hit the cinemas in 2005, and it's still striking nerves today…especially the nerves that activate the tear ducts (this movie is so sad), the nerves that activate the Homophobia-Is-Messed-Up center of your frontal cortex, the nerves that activate the Why-Did-Brilliant-Heath-Ledger-Have-To-Die reflex, and the OMG-This-Movie-Should-Have-Won-The-Best-Picture-Oscar muscle group.

Which is why, more than a decade later, this movie is still topping lists like Time Out's The Fifty Best Gay Movies and The Advocate's The Top 175 Essential Films of All Time for LGBT Viewers. That's right: Brokeback Mountain ain't only one of the first movies to really bring awesome gay characters and LGBT issues to the silver screen…it's also voted as being the best.


The featured song for Brokeback Mountain is "A Love That Will Never Grow Old." Guess what? It grew old. These senior citizens recreate the iconic climax from Brokeback. (Source)

Brokeback Mountain is being developed into a play by Tom O'Connell, who produced Beautiful Thing. (Source)

If Texas had a princess, she'd be Lureen Newsome. Anne Hathaway auditioned for Brokeback Mountain in full-on Princess Diaries 2 regalia. All hail the Disney princess turned Oscar winner. (Source)

If you want the shirts Ennis and Jack wear atop Brokeback Mountain, you'll have to wait for them to hit eBay again. A collector bought the actual shirts off eBay for only $101,000 in 2006. They were on display at the Autry National Center, a museum of the American West, in 2009. (Source)

Ang Lee gave Ledger and Gyllenhaal a book to help them research for their roles. It was called Farm Boys, and it features interviews with real-life gay cowboys. (Source)

Brokeback Mountain Resources


In Focus
Focus Features draws your attention to a variety of key clips on their website.

Book or TV Adaptations

Source Material
Every river has a source, and so do most movies. You can trace Brokeback to its source with Annie Proulx's story here.

Annie, Are You Okay? Are you Okay, Annie?
Annie Proulx has a regret in writing "Brokeback Mountain," and she explains her reservations here.

Different Approaches to Brokeback
If you want to get to know Brokeback Mountain a little more, Eric Patterson explores the film through a variety of scholarly angles in his book On Brokeback Mountain.

Articles and Interviews

The Cowgirl Wears Prada
Meryl Streep was a big fan of Hathaway's performance, which earned Anne the role in The Devil Wears Prada, even though there wasn't a steer to rope in that film.

Do the Twist
According to Jake, Annie Proulx says that Jack Twist's last name refers to the "strength of thighs and butt" a bull rider must have. We'll need to watch it again to see if Gyllenhaal's butt is strong enough.

Ask No More Questions, Tell No More Lies
Heath tells the truth when he says Ennis isn't the type of person to ask questions.


Observation Deck
Observe Heath Ledger talk about how Ang Lee observes life in this observational interview.

A Warm Interview
Anne only gives interviews in exchange for fluffy winter accessories.

Heath Bar
We just wanted to use that headline, even though it has nothing to do with this interview.

The Big O
Oprah asks all the questions her audience wants to know the answers to.


The New West
Ang Lee talks about his movie, which isn't your grandfather's Western.

Straight Acting
Mark Mobley argues that Brokeback Mountain isn't as revolutionary for diversity in film as some critics think it is.

From a Distance
Critic David Edelstein dishes out his review for the film at its release in 2005.

Forever Young
Emmylou Harris sings "A Love That Will Never Grow Old" for the Music from the Credits of the Movie Brokeback Mountain.


Hug It Out
This poster pose is reminiscent of Leo and Kate's in the Titanic poster.

We wouldn't return this postcard-themed poster to sender.

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