The 2005 holiday season brought a film that is unquestionably a breakthrough in the cinematic depiction of homosexuals. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that this film will be seen as a dividing line, a watershed, after which it will not be possible to think of gays in film the same way ever again. I’m referring, of course, to The Producers.
Oh yes, Brokeback Mountain was good too.
All kidding aside, these two films — as different as it’s possible for two products of 21st-century Hollywood to be — really do mark some important movement in American cinema, and possibly the culture. The Producers’ depiction of its gay characters is so over-the-top that it shoots way beyond even the most flamboyant stereotypes. A minority group can tell it’s arrived when it no longer has to couch itself in camp or code, when it can flaunt its own people’s silliness so far that even the densest Midwestern grandmother gets the joke. We’ll know that America has finally dealt with its racial issues when a big-screen version of “Amos ’n Andy” breaks box-office records. (R.I.P., Richard Pryor).
For those who haven’t seen the film or the Broadway musical it’s based on (itself based on the 1968 film, all springing from the deliriously fertile, dangerously dirty mind of madman Mel Brooks), The Producers features Gary Beach as “the worst director on Broadway,” Roger De Bris, and Roger Bart as his “common-law assistant” Carman Ghia. Their first big number is “Keep it Gay” (their musical comedy Rx for such potentially depressing subjects as Nazis, World War II and that little old troublemaker Adolf Hitler).
The number is sung by De Bris’ production team, composed entirely of GLBT stereotypes à la the Village People plus a dancer sporting a dangerously large codpiece, and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”’s Jai Rodriguez in harem pants and a matching turban as Sabu the houseboy. Fortunately, Mel does not know the meaning of the word subtlety.
I acknowledge that gay folks who are not as susceptible as I am to Brooks’ all-out assaults on taste could conceivably be offended by this; ditto Jews by Beach’s impersonation of Hitler as a combination Ethel Merman/Judy Garland diva immersed in self-love, gently crooning “Heil myself” as the capper to the (in)famous “Springtime for Hitler” number. Brooks is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender.
But at the risk of taking this silliness too seriously myself, let me note a few important changes from the 1968 version that may indicate a slight maturing of both Brooks and his audience. The first version had crooked producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) daintily imitating the mincing, flouncing walk of Ghia — a tiny “bit” but one that always made me squirm. The implication was that Bialystock felt it OK — even necessary — to prove his straightness by imitating the faggots he had to deal with. Another implication was that De Bris was a bad director (scheming Bialystock wants a bad director, the better to ensure the show’s failure) in large part because he was gay. In 1968, gay was clueless, silly, the butt of lame jokes.
The 2005 De Bris is no smarter than his 1968 predecessor (who was well-played by Christopher Hewett) and is in many ways sillier, but the tone is a bit different now. He’s making the jokes, even when they are ultimately at his own expense, and nothing is done behind his back. And of course the ultimate joke’s on Bialystock, when De Bris’ campy interpretation of Der Fuehrer turns “Springtime for Hitler” into the hit show Bialystock so dreaded.
Let’s also mark another quiet advance: openly gay actors playing both gay and straight. The Producers has gay Nathan Lane playing straight Max Bialystock; gay Gary Beach playing gay Roger De Bris; and straight Roger Bart playing gay Carman Ghia — ultimately a more sympathetic and hip character than his homicidal straight pharmacist on “Desperate Housewives.”
Brokeback Mountain, the “gay cowboy” movie, breaks boundaries too: it dares to take a love story seriously. Much of the ache of watching this beautiful, truly sad (not tear-jerking) movie was the realization that Hollywood only rarely does love stories any more.
The cynical side of me notes that it had to happen some time. Love stories require that the lovers be kept apart, and all the old barriers to two people’s happiness (class, economic and racial differences, physical and mental disabilities, feuding families, “Bewitched” partisans vs. “I Dream of Jeannie” fans) have fallen by the wayside. What was left but the forbidden attraction of same-sex love?
Seriously, Hollywood still does produce the occasional romantic comedy, and the best of these do take love seriously. But romantic comedies are primarily about pursuit — of the real love object, the false love object and then the real love object again. In Brokeback the “pursuit” part is over within the first 40 minutes; the rest of the movie is about what to do with a love that won’t go away and can’t be fulfilled. It’s Anna Karenina in Big Sky country.
Please note that their love can’t be fulfilled only in part because society and culture deem the love between two men as wrong, though that undoubtedly plays a part. If the 20-year story began in 1983 instead of ending then, and took place in Greenwich Village or West Hollywood, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) would encounter far fewer societal strictures against their relationship. But somehow I still don’t think they would have lived happily ever after. I believe the story’s point, and director Ang Lee’s genius, is to show us two people who feel they don’t deserve the happiness of love.
Yes, they have undoubtedly internalized society’s rejection of gays. Their dialogue after their first sexual encounter is “I’m not queer.” “Me neither.” Self-hatred and the need to identify with the majority’s sexual ethos doesn’t get much plainer than that.
But these two damaged, fragile people, pushed around by hardscrabble lives and rejecting families, can’t really handle any kind of love; that’s the tragedy. They are real people for whom this love has opened up a window, revealing the shallowness of the rest of their lives and their world. But the window is a torment, because they don’t have the tools they need to reject that world. Ultimately they can’t be satisfied with the few “high-altitude fucks” that they fit into a Same-Time-Next-Year scenario during the story’s 20-year span — another refutation of the old canard that it’s all, and only, about sex with gay men.
In any case, Brokeback Mountain isn’t the first Western that’s really about the love between two men; the classic example is Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River, with tough guy John Wayne and dreamily sharp-featured Montgomery Clift hiding their feelings for each other through feudin’, fussin’ and fightin’. (Actually Red River counts as father-son love as well as cub-daddy love — not that there’s anything wrong with either one.) As countless film commentators have pointed out, the Western genre is a hotbed of not-so-suppressed homoeroticism. But Brokeback Mountain is, in my book anyway, a love story first and a Western second. And whatever it is it’s a wonderful, and wonderfully important, film.