19 Feb DVD Review – Brokeback Mountain
[Heath Ledger] had an essence. I, of all people, have a story to confirm that the rumours are true, he had IT…
Film: Brokeback Mountain (“Neo-Western Romantic Drama”, 134 mins, DVD released April 2006)
|Directed by||Ang Lee|
|Produced by||Diana Ossana, James Schamus|
|Screenplay by||Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana|
|Based on||Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx|
There have been very few films that have made me cry the day after I watched it. But just thinking about the final scene of Brokeback Mountain makes me so emotional, my boyfriend takes his eyes away from his computer screen just long enough to ask me if there’s anything he can do. (This is because he assumes I’m crying because of something he’s done – which is usually the case.)
Brokeback Mountain is –
– A tale of the life-long love affair between a farm hand and a rodeo cowboy.
– Based on a short story written by Annie Proulx.
– One of the greatest love stories ever told on film.
– A heartbreaking affirmation of what the film industry has truly lost – fellow actors lost a ‘bro’, creators lost a tireless conduit, audiences lost a passionate, gifted, sensual gentleman who could actually perform. The man had an essence. I, of all people, have a story to confirm that the rumours are true, he had IT.
Funny story… I actually encountered Heath at a comically major turning point in my life. In fact, we were on the same bill! Sure, it was a solo performance recital at Guildford Grammar School for boys (where he was a Year 11 High School student), but hey… Anyway I was thirteen, comprised almost entirely of retained abdominal water and self-doubt/discovery, body changes we’re occurin’…I distinctly remember my shaky fingers practicing my performance piece on my shaky knees (Chopin’s Etude no. 3 in E major, Op. 10 no. 3, “Tristesse”)…stuff it, let’s set the scene…
As a fellow pianist left the stage, I knew I would be up after the next act. So at this point my head is a Jackson Pollock of tempo changes, and reminders from my teacher to make my slurs “feel whimsical”. The next act is invited on stage, a boy, a squeaky chair and his cello arrive on stage apologetically and flip nervously between the same two pages of sheet music. I’m comforted by the sight of a ‘comrade’ equally intimidated by the occasion. I check the run sheet to see what composition he’s performing.
Untitled Duet – Cello and Voice’ – Cello: Cello Guy/Voice: H.Ledger
“Hmmm…interesting”, I remember thinking. Then I heard footsteps. An unsettlingly masculine figure with accidentally perfect ‘surfie’ hair arrived from behind the curtain (you’re supposed to enter from the stairs front of stage for solo Eisteddfods… it the rules!). Yes, of course the crowd went silent. It’s common courtesy. And also, Eisteddfod regulations. And also, well, Heath Ledger just walked on stage.
What followed certainly wasn’t regulation – a commanding Epic Western-inspired experimental spoken word/cello number, where Heath was like Alan Ladd on peyote, and cellist guy was just bringin’ “the thunder”. After 4 minutes of performative abandon, they were done. The audience was applauding waaay more than usual – I was in my seat, eyes like a pigmy owl, mouth on the floor, stomach region undergoing some serious crisis negotiations… And oh yeah, I was next.
I was introduced, I nervously approached the stairs. Heath was at the top, smiling down at me.
I was waiting for him to exit the stage first (regulations), but he still stood there, smiled and waited for me. So I BROKE EISTEDDFOD REGULATIONS and started walking up the stairs. I reached the top stair in my french braid, white blouse and long black skirt (regulations), Heath (still looking down at me) winked, whispered, “good luck”. And I felt an electrical charge throughout my newly bumpy body. He ushered me onto the stage like he owned the joint. Because he just… did. He took a seat at the front, and watched me perform. Needless to say, I made a few mistakes in my performance (pretty tough act to follow). Such things are bound to happen on the day you become a woman (thanks Heath).
There are many reasons I don’t Sweat* my performance that day. I both witnessed and was part of a solid group of performers. Being completely upstaged by Heath Ledger. What I thought of as ‘performance’ was redefined that day. Suddenly I felt less obsessed with performing something perfectly, and more interested in doing something different. This desire to “do something different” arguably defined Ledger’s approach to performance, and led him to Brokeback Mountain. That said, it doesn’t feel right to describe Heath Ledger’s portrayal of ranch hand Ennis Del Mar as a ‘performance’. It is a work of art. It is an example of what can happen when an actor decides to devote themselves entirely to creating a character so vivid and complex it that feels like they exist, living their life, continuing the narrative…somewhere out there.
Brokeback Mountain won 3 out of the 8 Academy Awards® it was nominated for in 2006. I believe screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana won an Oscar® for Best Adapted Screenplay because they took a work of fictional literature and made a film that speaks to, and behalf of so many people. My own mother struggled with her sexuality for decades before coming to terms with it (that said, I wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t). Brokeback Mountain is telling parts of her true story**. Ang Lee’s gentle hands were the right place for Brokeback Mountain to be nurtured into the film format. And all other key players in this film (Gyllenhaal, Williams, Hathaway and Cardellini especially) are doing some of their best work in this film. Brokeback Mountain could so easily have been a gimmick – it was always going to be “the gay cowboy movie”, the same way There’s Something about Mary is the “hair gel” movie. Both films are defined by their iconic, shocking aspects. Yet, because these films have so much more to offer, they will both outlive the novelty factor.
As I said earlier, it was the desire to “do something different” arguably defined Ledger’s approach to performance. It was by no means a safe choice for Ledger. In fact, he wasn’t the first choice to play Ennis; Mark Wahlberg turned down the role because he was “a little creeped out” by the homosexual themes. Thank ya, Jesus! Ledger jumped at the opportunity because this was the kind of role and film he chased after.
“If you make decisions based upon people’s reactions or judgments then you make really boring choices”. – Heath Ledger on playing Ennis Del Mar
Ledger left behind pieces of himself in Ennis, and he played Ennis because he wasn’t afraid. Ennis Del Mar like all great film characters (and works of art) will long outlast his creator. Because he contains the “soul” of a true artist.
If the rumours are true, Ledger’s performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (due for release this July) will be the insane grand finale of Heath’s career, and his life (he seemingly never quite managed the distinction).
The Dark Knight really should have marked the start of the third act. Now it seems that Brokeback Mountain marks that chapter point – where he gave everything he had, and in return he could kiss goodbye his days of stair-dancin’ and threatening to “rock you” on a billboard.
Arguably Ledger gave an unhealthy amount of himself to certain roles (I witnessed that first-hand very early on). We’ll never know how much more he had left to give. I for one am just sad that surfer/beat poet boy who put me off my game all those years ago is gone.
* Both a Heath pun and a shout out to Sweat creator/former film school colleague John Rapsey.
** I spoke to my mother about Brokeback Mountain and its impact on gay culture in the years since its release, and she said that while she is a huge fan of Ang Lee (The Ice Storm is a firm favourite of hers), she resents that it’s a male love story getting all the attention and credit. (My mother is INSUFFERABLE. I love her.)