A beautiful, doomed dream
By Drew Limsky | December 30, 2005
ARTHUR MILLER'S ''Death of a Salesman" tells of an ordinary family man trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collector. When Willy Loman dies at the end of the play, his long-suffering wife notes that they've finally paid off the house. ''We're free . . . we're free," she sobs as the curtain comes down. It is a devastating ending, and when I observed the audience after the Broadway revival several years ago, few seemed more moved than the 50-ish men who looked too broken to rise from their seats and go home, as if their secret burdens and fears had finally been articulated.
I'm an urban gay man. I don't go camping or ride horses. ''Will & Grace" is a lot closer to my milieu than the pastures and peaks of Wyoming. Still, ''Brokeback Mountain" is my ''Death of a Salesman." Just as the male breadwinners who saw ''Death of a Salesman" didn't need to be in a situation as precarious as Willy's to be struck dumb by his tragedy, gay men don't need to be closeted cowboys to feel that our most essential struggles have finally found expression on the screen.
My identification with Jack Twist was so complete that his heartbreaking optimism and bitter frustration made me almost physically ill, like I couldn't breathe. So strong was the way I homed in on Jake Gyllenhaal's avid portrayal that the first time I saw the movie I barely registered the anguished brilliance of Heath Ledger as Ennis del Mar, or the reason why he's being compared to Brando, James Dean, and Sean Penn (that took a second viewing).
Much has been made about Ennis and Jack's morning-after denial:
Ennis: It's one-shot thing we got going here.
Jack: Nobody's business but ours.
Ennis: You know I ain't queer.
Jack: Me neither.
In the Annie Proulx story, this exchange seems realistically uninflected, with each character trying to outdo the other in manliness. And that's how Ledger plays it. But what Gyllenhaal does is let the tone of his voice go higher ever so slightly -- he gives the line readings a quality of boyish hurt that deftly conveys his sense of being erased. Later on, listen carefully to the unsaid monologue in Gyllenhaal's long pause before he nearly whispers the line: ''The truth is, sometimes I miss you so bad I can barely stand it."
With Jack Twist, the movie places homosexuality within the American Romantic tradition, a tradition of dreaming larger than practicality will abide. Jack flows from a line of doomed, beautiful dreamers that begins with Jay Gatsby, and Jack's ambition -- a life with Ennis -- is as impossible as Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy. Jack's embittered widow isn't far off the mark when she describes Brokeback Mountain as ''some pretend place where the bluebirds sing and there's a whiskey spring."
Gyllenhaal is transparent and charismatic in equal measure: Every emotion not only ''reads," but is elevated, magnified in the tradition of great screen everymen like Henry Fonda. In his final monologue, after all his dashed dreams have come spilling out, watch his dry-eyed resignation as Ennis drives away. In ''The Great Gatsby," we know that Gatsby is through when his lover Daisy makes it clear that she won't dream the same dreams as he does. Like Gatsby's death, Jack's end is pro forma; the spiritual death precedes the physical death.
The praise for Ledger has been so across-the-board, at the expense of Gyllenhaal's equally sensitive performance, that I wonder whether (mostly straight) critics simply are more interested in the character who is perceived as ''straighter."
In an Oprah Winfrey-like lapse, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis claims that every straight woman has had an Ennis in her life, while San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle thinks:''It's possible that if these fellows had never met, one or both would have gone through life straight."
One or both? Probably not the one -- Jack -- who sidles up to Mexican hustlers and rodeo clowns.
One senses straight folks twisting themselves into pretzels trying to make a patently gay story fit their sensibilities: That's what we usually have to do with heterosexual love stories. Their comments are certainly a tribute to the universality of the story, but without understanding the erotic element of romance -- not just in theory, but in practice -- the picture is incomplete. Therefore the experience of ''Brokeback" -- watching the genders on the screen match up to what's in my head -- was a revelation. Suddenly I knew what I'd been missing at the movies all my life.
Drew Limsky teaches English at Pace University and Hunter College.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.