I’ve always enjoyed the moment in a dinner conversation when someone mentions an Ang Lee movie, and I can say, “You know, Ang Lee was my soundman at NYU.” The line always gets a big laugh at my expense. After all he is at the pinnacle of Hollywood and I’m still the struggling documentary filmmaker. In 1982 when we were working on our master’s thesis films we weren’t close buddies, and if we did reunite after all these years I doubt anyone would want to film the moment. It would never be as hot as when Jack and Ennis clutch at each other with desperate, longing kisses after four years of separation since their Brokeback Mountain days. Now that’s a Hollywood moment.
But I did feel an intense bond with Ang. I was an openly gay man and he a Chinese foreigner in the overwhelmingly straight white rich male environment that was the norm at the time at any premiere American film school. NYU’s film equipment guy, Spike Lee, probably took the closest measure of the entitlement all around us, rudely handing out broken down cameras to spoiled suburban kids demanding their due, with a “screw you, honky” attitude that took me aback even as I recognized it. We knew we were different from the others.
So imagine my surprise that, two decades later, Ang would make a film that any of those straight white boys hooked on Hollywood conventions might have made if only they’d had more talent. I know the gay websites are drooling over Brokeback Mountain. Transported by beautiful Marlboro Man icons, by the tears and applause of straight people, a lot of gay men are having their Sally Field moment-“You like us, you really like us!”-somehow overlooking a story line that’s so regressive and a cast so absurd that twenty years ago we would have been in the street protesting such a film.
I had a hunch that the movie might not be the gay epic it’s cracked up to be before I saw it. At a dinner in New York an African-American gay man named Eric didn’t laugh at my Ang Lee name-dropping but exploded, “How could he have cast straight actors to play gay men in a movie that is about the problem about being gay in the sixties?” I joked, “I guess if Ang were going to do a film about American anti-Japanese bigotry in the 1940s he would cast Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as the Nisei star-crossed lovers forced to navigate their romance in the internment camps,” but Eric did not find it amusing, and there was something exciting, because rare, in his anger.
Later, while watching the movie, I realized he was so right. These cowboys are straight, and there is no helping it even though they do all those nasty gay sex things right in front of the cameras. What Ang, his straight scriptwriters and straight actors know is that sex between men happens. What they can’t know is that little defining, liberating moment after sex between gay men who see themselves for who they are for the first time. Gay men in the sixties who were forced to live a straight life knew how to wear the mask of heterosexuality, but once together the mask fell. They were in on each other’s secret, and with that secret came language, gestures, a dry, knowing, sometimes gallows sense of humor-subtle things that say, “We’re different,” because we are. Straight actors, no matter how deeply they believe they can play a role, have no experience of that mask or how to let it drop. They certainly haven’t the slightest chance of understanding it in a creative team as robustly heterosexual as this one. It’s maybe hard for people to fathom, but casting real straight men in roles that are so clearly in need of real gay men is no different from casting Jimmy Dean in the Sidney Poitier role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
And once Jack and Ennis finally reach a point of frankness and possibility, in a climactic scene after twenty years of fishing trips, what happens next? I could almost hear the echo of consciousness raising groups-past, where the subject was movies and literature and someone would ask, “Why does the homo always have to die?”
I know Annie Proulx, the heterosexual on whose short story the film is based, thinks she has captured a reality in her heroes’ doom, but what she has tapped more powerfully is straight women’s fantasies of primal sexuality and impossible love: “O, Heathcliff! O, Cathy!” A real Ennis and Jack might have said screw this place and moved to the Castro, opening an antique shop, or taken any number of paths to an authentic life, like thousands of Western gay boys did in the seventies and eighties. But that would upend the romantic convention, so Proulx, and the screenwriters after her, relied on what has been a running joke in the gay community since Lillian Helman killed off Martha Dobie in The Children’s Hour. Hey, I cried too, but I cry at commercials. How is it that killing a homosexual to solve a dramatic problem is again a sign of acceptance?
Why Ang fell for such a stereotype after all those years of climbing out of one, I will never know. Upon hearing of Brokeback’s eight Academy Award nominations, Ang told the Associated Press, “I didn’t know there were so many gay people out there. Everywhere, they turn up.” Everywhere but on his casting couch.
JOHN SCAGLIOTTI won an Emmy Award for his 1986 documentary Before Stonewall and created In the Life for PBS. His latest film is Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World. He can be reached at: Stonewal@sover.net