Brokeback finds audiences in both the city and suburbs

By Matt Zakosek

“A lot of people who voted for Bush are going to love [Brokeback Mountain],” film producer James Schamus prophesized in Entertainment Weekly. It looks like he was right.

I’ve seen Brokeback three times—the first two times at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema here in Chicago, and the third at AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville, Illinois. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the suburban screening.

At a screening of Walk the Line I attended in Oswego, Illinois, a few members of the audience erupted in giggles during a trailer for Brokeback. I’ll admit it: I was afraid to see the latter film in my hometown. Not afraid of getting gay-bashed, mind you, but of having the film’s spell broken by a few homophobic jokers.

Judging by the newest print ads for Brokeback, the studio shares these same concerns, Schamus notwithstanding. Comments are printed from critics all over the country, with an emphasis on Midwestern cities such as Chicago and Denver. “One film is connecting with the heart of America!” the ads trumpet.

The word “heart,” I think, has a clear association here, not to cardiology but to geography—the heartland of America. Brokeback takes place in rural parts of Wyoming and Texas, but critics have done much hand wringing over the question, “Will it play in Peoria?”

And now comes news that Larry H. Miller—owner of the Jordan Commons Megaplex in Sandy, a suburb of Salt Like City—has cancelled his theater’s showings of Brokeback Mountain, allegedly after someone enlightened him about the subject matter. I guess one possible answer to the question “will it play in Peoria?” is “not at all.”

I last saw the film with two of my cousins at 11:20 p.m. on Christmas Day. Christmas is actually one of the busiest days of the year for movie theaters, but I was still surprised that I had to circle the parking lot a few times to find a space. Once inside, I was pleased to find the theater for Brokeback approximately one-third full.

What do you know? The audience was completely respectful and attentive, with the possible exception of my own family members (it was late; they almost fell asleep). There was no collective group cringe, not even during the anal sex scene. Compare that with 1982’s Making Love, during which, by some accounts, audiences practically rioted when Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin shared a kiss.

Once the movie was over, as my cousins stumbled sleepily out of the theater, I saw a few straight guys joking loudly with their girlfriends. “Keep your hands off my woman!” one of them cried, as his buddy draped his arm around one of the girls.

At first, I was appalled. Was it impossible for these guys to watch a love story between two men without having to publicly assert their heterosexuality? Clearly, the homosexual content had made them uncomfortable on some level. They could sympathize with the characters, sure, but they couldn’t imagine themselves in a comparable situation. They were straight, dammit, and they needed everyone around them to know it.

Then I realized what I was witnessing was a quiet revolution of sorts. My god, these guys had attended a big, sweeping homosexual love story of their own accord! (Either that, or their girlfriends dragged them to it. But the important part is that their asses were in the seats.)

Unfortunately, not everyone shares my enthusiasm. The Chicago Free Press—a weekly queer newspaper—ran an editorial criticizing the media for emphasizing Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams’ on-set romance. According to them, this was a sly, albeit factually sound, way of detracting from the queerness of the material. Over at The Advocate, Charles Karel Bouley III writes, “It takes courage to be gay and out, not to play it.” Say it with me now: Ledger and Gyllenhaal did it for the money. For the publicity. For the all-but-guaranteed Oscar nominations.

Look, Brokeback Mountain is progress. Was I offended by some of the comments Ledger and Gyllenhaal made about the film? Sure. According to Ledger, he didn’t draw on his relationship with Michelle Williams for inspiration during the film because, “Um, my love for [Jake’s character] is very different.” I would like to ask Ledger, “Different how, exactly?” Off the top of my head, only anatomical disparities come to mind.

But I’m willing to overlook a few bone-headed comments for a superb film that has exceeded everyone’s artistic, commercial, and sociological expectations. What I can’t overlook is that people in Sandy won’t be able to make up their own minds. Miller—who, coincidentally, also owns the Utah Jazz basketball team—has the right to show what he wants in his movie theater. I just hope the residents of Sandy exercise their right as consumers to take their business elsewhere.