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."
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