By Richard Cohen
In anticipation of the Academy Awards, let me conjure up the odd casting that occurs in the 1939 epic Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant. This George Stevens movie takes its title -- and not much else -- from the famous Rudyard Kipling poem about a water carrier for the British army in 19th-century India. In the movie, the Indian water carrier -- Of all them blackfaced crew/The finest man I knew/Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din -- is played by Sam Jaffe, a New Yorker who got his start in show business by acting in the Yiddish theater. As the saying goes, if Kipling were not already dead, this would have killed him.
What brings Jaffe to mind is Brokeback Mountain, which is up for Oscars Sunday night in a variety of categories (best actor, best director, best picture) and which is good enough in any of those categories to win. It is, as you must know by now, the story of two cowboys and their decades-long love affair. Its a terrific movie.
But in one sense, it is an odd movie -- as odd as Gunga Din. If it now seems strange that a Jewish New Yorker would play an Indian, then it might someday seem even more strange that two gay cowboys were played by two straights. In fact, around the time of the movies opening, the fan magazines -- no doubt doing the bidding of publicists -- pictured the two leads -- Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal -- in all their robust heterosexuality. People magazine, for instance, showed Ledger with his girlfriend and new baby. Get the point?
As a result, Brokeback is not quite the radical movie it is often said to be. Nonetheless, it is certainly the first major American movie I can recall where two men fall in love, just as a man and a woman might, and follow all the usual rules of cinema courtship: Two people meet, there is an almost instant sexual attraction, a night of sex that changes everything (there is no such thing as safe sex) and then they embark on a long, hopeless romance. Chekhov did this best in his unforgettable short story, The Lady With the Dog, but doomed romances -- roads not taken -- are a staple of all the arts, if not of life itself.
Where Brokeback is different -- and critically different -- is that its protagonists are gay and in the closet. This means its not an occasional weekend thats a lie, but an entire sexual life. As Daniel Mendelsohn put it in The New York Review of Books, the movie is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the closet -- about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression. It is, therefore, not just a nonconventional love story about roads not taken. It is about a kind of suffocation.
My friends in the movie business tell me it should not matter if straights play gays. They regale me with tales of leading men and women who hated one another -- and were applauded afterward for their cinematic sexual chemistry. We know, too, that gay actors have played straights, and successfully so. Rock Hudson is not suspect as Elizabeth Taylors husband in Giant, nor is Montgomery Clift out of place as Taylors lover in A Place in the Sun.
Still, it says something not just about Hollywood, but our times, that the parts of gay men were played by heterosexuals. It suggests the era when whites blacked up to play blacks or, incredibly, when blacks did the same thing. (Bert Williams, maybe the greatest entertainer of the vaudeville age, was a black man who worked in blackface.) Once, men played women on the Elizabethan stage. Its hard now to see Juliet as a man and Romeo swooning for her under that balcony in Verona. It is just as hard for me to believe that Ledger and Gyllenhaal had an ounce of attraction for one another -- at least, I didnt see it or feel it.
Hollywood has no major gay actors -- none out of the closet, that is. Brokeback needed some star power, otherwise it would have been a minor gay art film. So the producers got two straights to impersonate gay men -- and then reassured everyone in sight that they were not gay at all. Whatever this is -- and it is worthy in its own terms -- it is not a revolution but rather a statement of how little things have changed. In more ways than one, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group