Seven years ago, when I decided to move to LA to pursue a career as a screenwriter, I wanted to write (& sell) good scripts with gay characters as I believed (and still believe) that the best way to improve the lives of gay and lesbian people is to promote a more positive image of us. I had hoped to show that just like the overwhelmingly majority of Americans who seek intimate relationships with those of the opposite sex, those of us who seek intimacy with our own gender have similar longings (for affection, understanding and lifelong commitment) and suffer similar sorrows (when we cannot find love — or lose that love). But, as I watched movies and studied the box office, I realized that not many straight Americans would go to see a gay-themed movie regardless of the power of the story or the quality of the filmmaking.
While I continued to work on some gay scripts (completing one and now producing a lesbian-themed short while recently returning to a second (half-finished) gay romance), I have focused more on straight romances, while frequently bringing in a gay romantic subplot as the script’s “B” story. I just didn’t think studios would take a risk on gay-themed movies. And those that they did produce would only be released to a small number of theaters in a handful of cities. Thus, I was delighted when I read last year about the upcoming release of Brokeback Mountain. I hoped that a film helmed by a director as gifted as Ang Lee would prove me wrong and that a gay-themed movie would do well a the box office.
And while the film has done better at the box office (currently at $76 million) than any other film nominated this year for best picture, I, like Mickey Kaus, remain unconvinced that it has done as well in the heartland as some of its fans claim. While Michael Moore‘s movie topped $100 million at the box office in the summer of 2004, Byron York, in his book The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, found that the film “had done the vast bulk of its business in the usual blue state urban centers (and in … Canada).” Given the number of gay people I know who have seen Brokeback multiple times (and the stories I have read about others doing so across the country) as well as the reports I have heard (from friends and acquaintances) of sold-out (and near capacity) screenings in D.C., San Francisco, New York and L.A., it seems that this film is also appealing to a more urban crowd — and may not be experiencing as much crossover as the media has claimed.
That said, the movie is hitting home for a lot of people, most of them gay. And not just gay people. Gay audiences alone, even with multiple viewings, could not sustain a box office this solid. Straight people must be seeing the film as well.
It seems that this movie has played particularly well with gay men born before 1960, those who, like the characters in the film, grew up in an era where there was much more social pressure than there is today to live a heterosexual life. Indeed, I have yet to meet a gay man born in the 1950s (and before) who had seen the movie and was not blown away by it. Those gay men (like your humble bloggers) who were disappionted by the film were all born in the 1960s — or later.
I think one reason the film so moves these people is that it, in many ways, tells their story. Social pressure made it difficult for them to come out — or to make lasting a clandestine, youthful romance. To be sure, those aren’t the only ones moved by the flick. I know many younger gay men — as well as a number of straights — who have found that the film resonates for them as well. Perhaps it is the universal message of the film — of the power of love and loss.
And perhaps those who, either because of social pressure, their own stubbornness, their own pride or some other mistake of their own doing, cut themselves off from someone they loved deeply and so lost forever their connection to that beloved individual, find that Brokeback tells their story. It may well remind them that if they had realized what really mattered, they would have acted differently — when they had a chance to change things — and so spared themselves much sorrow and solitude. Indeed, this is also a theme of a number of great movies such as Gone with the Wind and The Remains of the Day. Brokeback is the first film from a majort to tell this universal story through a gay romance.
It is significant when a gay romance does this well at the box office, but we should not read too much into its success. Its success makes clear that there is a substantial market for quality gay films, but it’s not so clear how far that market extends beyond urban areas and university towns.
As one who didn’t particularly love the film (while appreciating many of its qualities), it’s been particularly amusing to read (& hear) the hype, both positive and negative, about the film. Its fans — as well as gay organizations and many in the gay media — act as if it’s the new Star Wars, a quality movie which has won over audiences from coast to coast, places in between and around the world. Some of its fans have been quick to criticize those not enamored of the film, accusing them of harboring anti-gay animosity. They just can’t seem to recognize that some may have a generally positive attitude toward gay people, but just not care for the film.
And then there are those, mostly from the extreme fringes of social conservatives, who are appalled that the movie has gotten so much media attention. Many of them have faulted the film without even seeing it, figuring that because it’s about those horrible “homosexuals,” it just has to be bad because “homosexuals” are bad.
It’s almost as if one’s attitude toward the film is like a Rorschach Test* which helps explain an individual’s attitudes toward gays. Those who have not seen the film, yet are dismissive of (or hostile to) the flick, probably have negative feelings about gays. Those dismissive of anyone critical of the film tend to define everything in terms of their sexuality (or are insecure in that sexuality as well as in other aspects of their lives) as they are quick to dismiss any criticism of gays (or approved culture product featuring gays) as smacking of bigotry. They don’t see people as individuals but as members of a group. While those who have mixed feelings about the film — and its success — tend to see gay people as individuals, as gifted and as flawed as everyone else. And for those who just didn’t like the film, well, we’ll need more data before making further judgments about their character.
Whatever the film says about its viewers, it has, as Mike, a reader, wrote in an e-mail to me, opened “a flood of dialogue all over the world about being gay. That is the key, discussions and debates are springing up all over the planet about this movie.” We should be grateful that it has increased, as Mike put it “people’s awareness and perspectives about being gay.” It allows people to see that a gay man can delight in the intimate company of another man just as a straight man can delight in the presence of a beloved woman. And the loss of that love can hurt him as it would a straight man in similar circumstances.
While this movie may not have hit home for straight people in the heartland, it has hit home for a pretty substantial audience — and not just gay men. It is beginning to do what I had hoped (and sometimes still hope) to do with my scripts — to show the depth of our relationships and the reality of our longings for intimacy and affection. While the market for such films may not be as great as for such heart-warming straight romances as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it proves that there is still some interest in gay stories well told. And offers the hope that this medium may still serve to improve the image of gay people here in America — and around the world.
-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com
*After writing this, I googled to see if others had used this reference and found that in an article in USA Today on February 22, Scott Bowles noted that, “‘Have you seen Brokeback?’ has become a dinner-party Rorschach test of gay tolerance.”