'Brokeback Mountain' Turns 10: A Look Back at the Controversy Surrounding the Cowboys-in-Love Classic

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (Everett)

By Oliver Lyttelton

This month, it will be 10 years since the release of Brokeback Mountain, director Ang Lee’s story of the tempestuous, tragic romance between two cowboys. The movie follows the decades-long love affair between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who meet when they’re hired to tend a herd of sheep in 1960s Wyoming. The film stands up as well today as it did then — a moving, instant classic that serves as perhaps the finest testament to the talent of Ledger, who died at the age of 28 only two years later. But it’s easy to forget the whirlwind of controversy the movie caused at the time.

Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name was published in The New Yorker in 1997 and swiftly drew the attention of screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who received an option from Proulx and completed a script by 1998. That caught the attention of My Own Private Idaho and Milk director Gus Van Sant, who attempted for some time to get the film made but had difficulties casting it.

In part, it seems, there was reluctance by A-list male stars to play gay characters. As Ossana would tell Out magazine this year, “Larry believed actors’ representatives were dissuading them from doing the part — they called it career suicide for a straight actor to play a gay person. We just thought that ridiculous.” Among the stars who were in the mix at various points: Matt Damon, who’d talked to Van Sant about a role (“I said, ‘Gus, let’s do it in a couple of years. I just did a gay movie and a cowboy movie. I can’t do a gay cowboy movie now,’” the actor would later tell Playboy, referring to The Talented Mr. Ripley and All The Pretty Horses, respectively) and Mark Wahlberg, who met with Ang Lee at one point and who said in 2007 that he was “a little creeped out” by the script.

Watch the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ trailer:

In the end, it was Lee — on the hunt for something more modest after his poorly received 2003 superhero movie Hulk — who managed to get the film made, with Heath Ledger cast as the taciturn Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal as the more heart-on-his-sleeve Jack. The film was shot in the summer of 2004, and premiered at the Venice Film Festival a year later, winning the top prize, the Golden Lion.

That was just the first in a host of rave reviews and accolades for the film: It was one of the best-received films of 2005 (“moving and majestic,” said the New York Times), and won top prizes from the Golden Globes, the Spirit Awards, BAFTA, and the directors, producers and writers guilds of America, as well as picking up eight Oscar nominations — more than any movie that year. It also proved to be a legitimate box office hit, taking $178 million worldwide by the end of its run.

Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal (Everett)

Inevitably, as the movie started to become a phenomenon, it became more and more of a talking point, particularly as the religious right became aware of it. Larry H. Miller, the owner of a number of movie theaters in Utah, reneged on a contract and cancelled the film’s screenings in one of his venues when he became aware of the film’s plot, citing concern about “getting away from the traditional families.” Veteran critic Gene Shalit caused controversy when he referred to Gyllenhaal’s character as “a sexual predator.”

A number of church leaders came out against what they saw as the film’s positive portrayal of homosexuality, including Minneapolis archbishop John Nienstedt and the United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops, which classified the film ‘O’ for “morally offensive.” A Fox News report at the time reveled in the film’s steep drop at the box office after its opening weekend (a drop that almost every movie in history has seen). The film was banned in the Bahamas and most of the Middle East, among other places, while older members of the Hollywood establishment — like Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine — spoke out against the film (“If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave!” Borgnine said at the time). Attacks came from elsewhere too: Some in the LGBTQ community criticized the film for depicting a very straight idea — from straight filmmakers — of homosexuality, while a piece in American Sexuality Magazine accused it of “biphobia.”

Michelle Williams and Heath Ledger (Everett)

And yet, as the New York Times pointed out, compared to some other movies, Brokeback Mountain got off lightly. (The gay-themed drama Priest had drawn condemnation from the Catholic League a decade earlier, and only the year before, the teen movie Saved!, which satirized religious homophobia, was savaged by its targets.) The culture wars had shifted, and while Christian bloggers and reviewers might have discussed what they believed to be the film’s sinful subject matter, they didn’t organize protests for the most part, and some even praised the movie. (Even the United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops said that “the universal themes of love and loss ring true.”) “We’re not going to go out and protest it because it would probably play into the marketing plans of the producers,” Stuart Shepard from Focus on the Family said at the time.

Ang Lee winning his Best Director Oscar in 2006 (Getty Images)

As the most-nominated movie at the Oscars, Brokeback was widely expected to win the Best Picture Academy Award. But while Lee won as Best Director at the ceremony on March 5, 2006, the top prize ended up going to Paul Haggis’s ensemble drama about race relations in Los Angeles, Crash, a decision that caused shocks that night and has since become, fairly or unfairly, one of the more controversial wins in the history of the Academy Awards. (Even Haggis says he thought Brokeback was a better movie).

Commentators were divided. Did the Crash win prove that some Academy voters were homophobic, as Ang Lee hinted a few years later? Had, as Diana Ossana suggested, city-swelling Academy members been unable to relate to a more rural-focused movie?

Or had voters, as Roger Ebert argued, simply gone for the “greater movie?” The critical consensus today, which often names Crash as one of the worst Best Picture winners ever, suggests not. Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter held a poll asking members of the Academy to vote again on controversial Oscar decisions. Brokeback Mountain won the recount.