Ever since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof introduced American audiences to the concept of the straight man straying to the other side of the gay/hetero divide, each generation has had its Real Men In Love story to make women swoon, gay men salivate and straight guys squirm. This season’s entry is Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s retelling of the Annie Proulx short story. While the partnership promises an intriguing film, it also suggests that many of the genre’s conventions — some as outdated as a Studebaker — remain intact.
For starters the men slumming in the gay ghetto have to be unhealthily attractive (overcompensate much?). Heath Ledger and Jake Gylenhaal as Brokeback’s ruggedly pretty cowboys certainly fit the bill, while in 1969’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (helmed interestingly by man’s man John Huston) a still human-sized Marlon Brando fought feelings of testosterone-fueled lust for a chiseled-featured subordinate with a penchant for riding his horse naked (that cowboy theme again.) It seems that faced with the unenviable task of making a mainstream audience empathize with a part-time pansy, producers need to mask unpalatable behavior with matinee idol handsomeness for what is still a very conservative American audience. It’s similar to the way black characters in the early days of leading mandom had to be both perfect physical specimens and absolute pillars of the community — Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? anyone. (Now make a movie with a big fat ugly straight black guy falling in love with a man and this country will have made some progress.)
The next facet of the love that Hollywood dare not depict realistically is that nothing can even hint at the explicit nature of the relationship. I’m guessing Brokeback will feature a couple of drunken smooches and maybe even a few furtive post-coital glances across cow pastures, but that’s it. The point being that the idea of two guys schtuping is gross enough without making audiences think about it any longer than they have to. Inevitably, the attraction will be elevated to some sort of deep spiritual bond that cannot be contained within the conventions of society malarkey with any purely physical attraction downplayed. Women In Love also tended to elevate man sex to a higher philosophical plane. Ironic then (or perhaps typical) that the most common real-life profile of a wife and two-kidser with a penchant for a little boytail is some middle-aged middle managerial slob cruising the New Jersey park and rides in his SUV trying to score a blowjob behind tinted windows. (Full marks to Gregg Araki for showing that in Mysterious Skin.) Interestingly, underground filmmakers like Paul Morrissey (Flesh, Trash, Heat) show straight guys getting it on with other dudes for 3 simple reasons — cash, drugs and good old-fashioned lady-deprived lust. But that’s not the kind of happy ending Hollywood wants.