Brokeback Mountain: Pain is Not Enough

From: tommy donovan
Sent: Friday, March 03, 2006 8:53 PM
Subject: JOHN SCAGLIOTTI’s CounterPunch piece
Asking Why There are No Real Gays in Brokeback Mountain?

Dear Mr Scagliotti,

I am wondering, after a few email exchanges over the past few weeks arguing about “Brokeback Mountain,” why is it so difficult to drop the jaundiced lenses of 2006 and for just a moment transport oneself into the shoes of these two men in 1963?

Why is anguish and pain somehow seen as anti-gay?

Why is the death of one of the characters seen as regressive? Matthew Shepherd is current history?

For every Western Man who made it to the Castro (or New York) in the 1960s-1980s how may lived deeply closeted lives? Anyone remember Kinsey’s reports? How many still do in these remote places?

There is real beauty in this film and the “progressives” seem as intent as the anti-gay folks in cutting it to ribbons. Perhaps that is the outcome of all spectrums of fundamentalism.



To: tommy donovan
Sent: Saturday, March 04, 2006 5:52 AM
Subject: Re: Brokeback on Counterpunch
Dear Tommy:

Stonewall Means Fight Back! and Why I Speak Out.

Because liberal straight Hollywood should not be using our lives to further line their pockets on our victimization without someone like me pointing out the struggles we have done to make rural life for gays safer. Liberals seem to love victimization and not empowerment. What gay people did in the 20th Century was truly heroic That is what Stonewall was really about. We weren’t going to sit there and let cops bust us anymore.

I certainly do understand the importance of our history and the horror that was done to us (that’s why I make documentaries about gay history) but I would never leave the viewer with just the sad story of our oppression and victimization. The fighting back against all the odds is what is heroic to me. What is drama to straight Hollywood liberals is the story of the victim — the black man lynched, the woman raped and abused, the homosexual bashed.

People bring up Matthew Shepard without the context of 25 years of struggle. What was interesting about Shepard was not that he was a victim like so many before him. No, what was interesting was how gay people took to the streets in protest. What was interesting was Barney Frank standing up in the well of the House and speaking out. Or a young woman arguing with Rev Phelps while he held his “God Hates Fags” sign at Mathew’s funeral. It takes years of struggle and change for that to happen. Or that thousands of gay people who have moved back in rural America and have formed hundreds of organizations that help demand we live in a safer environment.

I know the pain of the closet. I lived it. I was arrested for being gay. But I fought back and threw the vice squad out of Boston so other gay people would not be victims and have their lives destroyed.

I know it is impossible for some to come out today but that doesn’t give straight people the right to use our suffering to make money. I don’t need the reminder of my victimization, thank you, especially when you doll it up with pretty straight men. It’s a little sad that so many gay people have been drawn in by such absurd manipulation but expected when such forces of Hollywood jazz are rolled out to juice it up.

I will not let them make their pound of gold on our backs and applaud them too. This “Thank you Master” mentality has never been my approach however I understand its appeal when the lash is being used on your brother in the next room.

And it is only a movie, so I will end my little “speak out” by saying that hundreds of thousands of gay people around the world are suffering terribly from oppression. Liberals will be needed to help stem the worse of it and so yes, movies like Brokeback will heighten their concerns. But when push comes to shove they will as usual buckle under most demands for empowerment for the oppressed. It will take us, those who refuse to be seen any longer as a vicitim, to keep up the struggle for real change to continue in our quest for equality.

I thank you for this opportunity to speak out.


From: Thomas Wilkinson
Sent: Saturday, March 04, 2006 6:48 AM
Subject: Your CP review

Dear Mr Scagliotti,

Your comments were very interesting. I would differ with you however in focus. I do not believe that to “act you have to be”. I do think there are roles that cannot be acted because the perceiver imposes a role on a situation in which OTHERS act. In your original CounterPunch piece your friend’s outrage is perceptive. Your “Sally Field” analogy is also quite interesting. It makes me think of another film adaptation of a woman’s story of the man in her life: “Not without my daughter” (or something like that). A genuinely repulsive film, the story it tells may be filled with facts and feelings that the author had in dealing with Islam but it also showed the limits of those feelings for interpreting the world. Quite aside from the instrumentalism of such films — made successful because they are part of the dominant ideological matrix — they tell stories about other people as imagined by the observer. This observer is not a real participant. Hence, as you point out, the Brokeback Mountain images of gay men are the images which this woman has as an outsider with respect to the men she is confronted with. The question then is who is really the subject of the film? In fact the woman is together with her vision of what gay men mean to her. It is not a film about the men themselves. This is the sleight of hand. The men move to the foreground as if they were the actors in this story and therefore origin of the images projected. The narrator is takes no responsibility for these images — shifting the burden of responsibility for supposed gay male behavior to roles imagined by heterosexual society.

Allow me a comment about the Poitier-James Dean analogy: I recently saw advertising for a remake of the film with Hepburn and Poitier in which the antagonist is the African-American father being asked to accept the non-African-American (but not quite “white”) courter of his daughter. Whereas the original Spencer Tracy role may have had something anesthetizing — making racism seem a mere matter of adjustment — the problem was and is real. I seriously doubt if any “white” middle class family in the US (or elsewhere for that matter) has overcome this antipathy or at least reluctance. Black racism however is NOT a problem like white racism. It might be possible to cast Dean in an outsider role but not as the successful son of black sharecroppers.

I do not think the real problem is whether one has to be a gay man to act the role of a gay man. I think the more critical issue is whether Mr Lee wanted to film a story about gay men the way they are imagined by conventional heterosexuals but without accepting the narrative responsibility for such a film. In the end one can scarcely blame the actors for their “minstrel show” performance if the screenplay is not about the real people to begin with.

You are right about the score of years. One has to ask how numb the country has become that they absorb like sponges what is in fact a surreptitious rewrite of US social history to fit the neo-conservative world view. It is not all so crass as the lies from the US government. There are more subtle sedatives like Brokeback Mountain which quietly aestheticise the pre-war prejudices and exalt the class, race and gender structures to which there were still vocal opponents twenty years ago.

To: Thomas Wilkinson
Sent: Saturday, March 04, 2006 8:32 AM
Subject: Re: Your CP review

Dear Thomas:

I will admit that my argument about real gay men playing out the role of gay men in a movie is not that well executed in my short article.

I think I went with it and I admit I am on a bit of shaky ground here. Perhaps instead I should have used a purely social/political argument. I know as a director I would want to hire an actor that might lend more credence to the role but I do know that many performances by actors and scenes directed by directors are not necessarily from direct experience. But be that as it may, there are lines drawn — are they drawn when the cultural and political conditions demand them or are they simply good acting or casting calls?

Why does an Anglo playing the Chinese lead in the Flower Drum Song in the early 50’s not muster protests then but no one would dare do it today. It is true that Al Jolson elicited a dramatic sense of inclusion when he sang Mamie in blackface on stage. But would he do it today?

So my point is that at some point, gay identity should be as important a factor as I would like to make it now. I believe it could be a line that you would not cross like the line that would keep a white man from playing the lead role in the life of Malcom X. I am sure there are white performers who could carry it off with a great gusto and perhaps with good make up (we wouldn’t call it blackface today) . But the poltical/social conditions might not allow it. I think gay people are not yet secure in their own identity to demand such casting and the debate might not be a priority especially when we as homosexuals have bigger problems to deal with like whether we have a right to even exist. That unfortunate debate continues everyday. The truth being that in many cases our struggle especially in the developing world is about survival and not whether Ang Lee will be casting me in his next movie.

Thirty-five years ago in America it was considered a joke for gay people to think that we should seriously consider demanding we not be diagnosed as mentally ill by psychiatrists simply for being homosexual. We would have never even thought that we should demand the same legal rights for marriage as heterosexuals do at that time. So I guess demanding that gay people play roles in movies about gay problems is not yet fully developed. It is true, many people, both gay and straight, just don’t get it and are not willing to make the leap with me. But politics and social consciousness changes takes time and people like me who do make those leaps perhaps incorrectly or not are part of how those big changes take place. I never thought I was mentally ill, I should have the same rights as heterosexuals for marriage and I expect people to take gay identity as a core principal in making policies about diversity and casting for movies.

Thank you Thomas for your thoughtful analysis and I am sure it will be important for me to reflect on when writing in the future about these type of issues.


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: