Brokeback Mountain wasn’t made for me and thatâ€™s okay.
My Brokeback Mountain was called Making Love, a 1982 gay classic starring Harry Hamlin, Kate Jackson and Michael Ontkean (at right).
The following year, cable television finally pioneered its way into my ultra-conservative hometown of Piedmont, South Carolina. My fundamentalist Christian parents subscribed to cable without fully realizing what they were getting.
On several occasions, I would sneak into the living room in the early hours of the morning to watch Making Love. Had my parents known the impact that The Movie Channel was having on their 15-year-old son, they would have canceled cable, thrown out the VCR and no doubt locked me in my room until I turned 30!
Making Love, which was released on DVD this week, in time for Valentine’s Day, was the first cinematic moment I can recall when the love that dare not speak its name not only spoke its name, it displayed itself, without apology, for all to see.
Although I didn’t think of my adolescent self as a sodomite — the term that my church and Christian school leaders used for gay men — I was riveted by the sight of two men kissing and being intimate, as was happened right on my TV screen every time Hamlin made out with Ontkean. This was sizzling hot stuff for the early 80’s, and it was awakening something inside of me that would never again go to sleep.
Truthfully, the desire for other men had been stirring for a long time, but that movie gave my lonely inner feelings a connection with the outside world and for the first time I had hope that there might be a place beyond my small town where I wouldn’t feel like such an outsider.
Still, Making Love was a product of its time. Despite the openness about homosexuality and what was heralded as the first passionate male-male kiss in a Hollywood movie (as usual England beat us to the punch a full decade earlier with the Peter Finch-Murray Head embrace in Sunday, Bloody Sunday), Making Love ends with Ontkean divorcing his wife while Hamlin, the boyfriend who patiently brought him out, buzzes off, preferring to drift from town to town, from one manâ€™s bed to the next.
In the movie, Hamlin, the committed gay character, is never able to commit. Afraid of how vulnerable intimacy might make him and being utterly narcissistic, he goes as far as the homosexual lead could go in the 80’s. A gay man, even then, was seen as a neurotic.
It’s interesting that 25 years later, we still find ourselves on Brokeback Mountain, a place of broken hopes. Ennis and Jack, the cowboy heroes of the film (right), don’t seem to rate a happily ever after either.
Both movies are realistic portrayals of the beauty and ugliness that coexist in the world. Both present eternal human themes — the forbidden love between two men, the unrequited devotion and long-suffering of the women in their lives, the fear-based hatred that leads people to do horrible things to others.
These themes, and the lessons to be drawn from them, need to be repackaged and presented to each new generation in a way that speaks specifically to the times. Every civilization does this. Sometimes it comes in the form of a song from a traveling minstrel; sometimes in a mythic fairytale — and sometimes in a wide-release Hollywood movie.
At a time when a fake cowboy President struts about with pseudo-macho bring it on bravado, Brokeback has popped up as a perfect cultural antidote — a movie about two real cowboys brave enough to share themselves with each other — if only for a week every six months — despite the hostility of the whole world.
Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful movie that I felt I had lived 10 or 15 years ago. I have to admit I looked at my watch a few times near the end when it seemed to drag. But thatâ€™s because the story wasn’t new to me. In fact, the movie wasn’t really for me.
So who is this picture for, anyway?
Straight people? Certainly, many progressive-minded straight people will be shocked by Brokeback Mountain — shocked to realize just how deadly the effect of our casually homophobic society can be on men and women who live in smalltown America. But, no. Brokeback Mountain really isn’t for these straight people either.
Brokeback Mountain is for the 14 or 15-year old young man who may be struggling with himself, who will sit in a safe movie theater and see that his emerging desires aren’t so abnormal after all. Even if he lives on a remote Wyoming mountaintop, he will know that the love that dare not speak its name is silent no more. Because our love is everywhere.
All we need to do is make ourselves vulnerable enough to accept it, cherish it and keep it.
Rich Merritt is the author of the memoir Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star. He currently practices law in New York City.
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