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Making Love in the Shadow of Brokeback Mountain

by Rich Merritt

Making LoveBrokeback Mountain wasn’t made for me and that’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 man’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.

Ennis  cuddled by JackIt’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 that’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.

Rich MerrittTo learn more about Rich Merritt:


Visit the Rich Merritt website
Read his memoir Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star
Read the Nightcharm interview with Rich Merritt

©2006 Nightcharm

  • Jamie C

    I am 30 but I didn’t face my sexual identity until I was 28. That was just under three years ago and it seems like ages considering how much has changed. When I came out, I was aware of how many gay cultural milestones I had missed and I was deeply sad about that time lost. When I first saw the trailer for Brokeback Mountain in a theater a while back, I started crying the second I heard the big swelling hollywood score (not much of which was used in the actual movie it seems) and saw those phrases like “Truth that can’t be denied.” I was in the theater on opening night with about ten friends and I was so excited. Not just to see the movie but to be somewhere where I knew I belonged at last! With other gay men as an out gay man. It was so amazing. The movie made me cry the most the second time I saw it. There was so much emotion on screen that I could relate to. After years of thinking, “What are these people going through?” “Or what’s wrong with me that I don’t care about these people or that I don’t get it” I was finally going, “Yeah. I know exactly what’s going on in Ennis’s head right now. When Ennis gets up and rides away on his horse the next morning after the first time they spend the night together, I know that feeling! Something has cracked inside his identity and he feels completely broken. Because there’s no way to put the pieces back together the way they were before, when he had never acted on his impulses. Now he can either go forward or choose to live his life in limbo, literally a living hell. He chose limbo and we see how life just weathers him and beats him down. I chose to move forward. I don’t know why, perhaps only because I lived in a time and place where I felt like I might survive the trip out of the closet. So far I have. Thanks for the great article.

  • http://NakedMetalMan.com Kz

    I hope that Mr. Merritt wasn’t being literal when he wrote that Brokeback Mountain is for Generation Y. Certainly these are not the ticket buyers filling up theaters when Brokeback comes to town. The 14- and 15-year-olds of American have only to turn on their televisions to witness all kinds of gay portrayals from asexual to hypersexual, from clown to hero. (Witness Queer As Folk which left the barest minimum to the imagination.)

    Brokeback is not a coming out, or even a coming of age story. In the end, neither Ennis nor Jack accept their natures, nor do they rise above the circumstances of their lives to attempt to discover who they really are.

    If anything, the surface message the characters convey is that attractions of a queer kind are to be indulged only on pain of dismemberment and death, if discovered. This is certainly not a message the queer youth of today are seeking. Indeed, independent film has birthed a whole subgenre of queer fairytale films with happy endings and hopeful messages and they are as easy to get as a can of coke.

    All subtexts aside, isn’t it possible that Brokeback is simply a great film based on an extraordinary short story?

  • Derreck

    Goodday guys,
    I’ve wred the book Brokeback mountain, and I tell you, ah can’t wait ’till the dvd releases here in the Netherlands. Reading the book was my first truly emotional experience with gay media. I must say I hadn’t dropped a tear since I was, hm, fourteen. I didn’t even crie at my Uncle’s funeral a year later. So I hope it won’t be too long before the thing arrives from America.
    The story was really comforting in a way that I can’t describe, and those watery eyes did make me feel kindah strange. Nevertheless, the book was wonderfull, I hope the movie will be too. I saw the trailer alreaddy, and had my eyes on the actors a bit. It isn’t really what I imagined after reading the book, but they’ll do, and I bet mister, eeh, well the director, is capable enough aswell.

    Yours, D.A. Becker

  • blugiraff

    Well, now, there are those of us who felt tha’Brokeback Mtn’ was a film that struck a chord. We are the older gays, the ones who have never ‘come out’, who have never had the luxury of boing ourselves, and who have had clandestine affairs with our lovers of 20 years ,living in fear of discovery because of our teaching as children. We are the ones who sought a straight life, thinking that this was what we shoud do and thinkgin that there wold be miserable punishment should we not. We are the ones in whom these ideas are imbedded. We envy you younger people who have the freedom to be yhourselves, though you may think you don’t. You have lots more than us older guys did. ‘Brokeback’ was a fantastic film and mirrored my last 20 years .

  • http://walkingonscorpions.blogspot.com/ Bill

    Making Love reminds me of the beginning of AIDS. I was 26 and just beginning to suck cock and all of a sudden BANG! WTF!

  • Derreck

    Dear blugiraff,

    I can imagine the pain the unknown to others must have caused you in your early days, or even up today. I agree that I don’t share the tears you may have cried when you were young, but I do have to say, being gay isn’t at all easier today. Eighty percent of my family are big-time christians. That is the one reason I didn’t come-out either. I must admit I can’t say I love any of them. Those times, having dinner, the silent rage firing up in me, when they started about homosexuals… My grandparents of that side of my family, have altogether twelve children, who, on average, have three children themselves. Brokeback was to me very emotional, because of this reason, and the pity I felt for the two main-characters.
    You may envy what you like, as I envy you for your experience and knowledge age brings, but know that life isn’t as easy as it seems in those pride-parades of yours, and our Amsterdam gay-parade. Especially the days in which you are starting to feel you’re gay, and try to hide it, as you hinted, more than discribed.
    I now I shall not be punished for my love, but I know people are stupid, and many don’t know the love we harbour.

    Truly yours, D.A. Becker

  • Jeff

    As a closeted young gay man coming of age in conservative Birmingham, Alabama (USA)in the late 70’s and early 80’s I was heartened to see major motion picture releases with gay themes/characters. Unfortunately, I felt that I had to attend showings of both “Cruising” with Al Pacino and “Making Love” with M.Ontkean(MO) and H. Hamlin(HH) in the early afternoon in a mostly empty theatre for fear of being outed. I also remember taking a notebook and pen with me to these movies so that I could use the excuse of “writing a review for the college paper” if I ran into anyone I knew while entering or exiting the theatres. “Cruising” was a very graphic film that while arousing me made me fear life as a gay man. “Making Love” was a very powerful film that I recognize as the turning point for allowing me to come out as a gay man to the young woman that I was dating at the time. I do want to point out that the MO character was able to move on after his relationship with the HH character came to an end. And the Kate Jackson(KJ) character, although pained, was able to move on as well to find happiness with another man after the divorce while still able to keep alive her love for MO. The most touching moment for me was when KJ revealed that she chose the name for the son she had with her second husband based on the love that she still felt for MO. I enjoyed “Brokeback Mountain” but I agree with Kz that it is a great film based on an extraordinary short story.

  • greg

    I too remember Making Love as a turning point for me. Thank God for HBO. I was nearly 14 when it came out on cable and remember having to watch it in the middle of the night so that I would not get caught by my father or stepmother. I remember it as great movie that really touched me in more ways than one. Brokeback Mountain is a wonderful movie but my heart belongs to Making Love. Thanks Rich for bringing back such a wonderful time for me in my life.

  • Anonymous

    where do i get a copy of the movie making love and can you rent it anywhere

  • http://www.nightcharm.com Nightcharm

    Making Love is available on DVD from Amazon. Rental places vary, but ones which boast of comprehensive libraries, should carry it.

  • Wayne

    “Brokeback Mountain” (both the story and the movie) is powerful and emotionally wrenching. The relevance for me lies in the struggle between men who love each other and a society that did not (and still doesn’t) accept such love. Is this because of straight paranoia about man-to-man sex? Yes, Jack and Ennis’s relationship began as a sexual one, but it quickly evolved into love—even though it took them years to realize it. Once realized, Jack had the courage to act on his feelings; but he needed Ennis’s courage to give them the combined strength to break free from societal constraints. Ennis’s fear of commitment and resignation—if you can’t fix it, you have to stand it—dooms them both. Jack is destroyed and Ennis realizes that acceptance of their love for each other could have given him the courage he lacked. They could have had a life together. The power of their love could have sustained them. Alone, Ennis finds solace in the symbols of their love: their shirts nested one inside the other and a postcard of Brokeback Mountain. But these are only memories of a lost opportunity. Ennis finally acknowledges that Jack was the true love of his life: “I swear.” It is too late; and this is the tragedy. Men who love men must find the courage and the strength to acknowledge their love, have confidence in its power, and seek their own Brokeback Mountain. I did not; and like Ennis, I’m alone with only memories of what could have been.

    For me, the counterpoint to “Brokeback Mountain” is not “Making Love”. It’s E.M. Forster’s “Maurice” and the 1987 movie starring James Wilby (Maurice), Hugh Grant (Clive), and Rupert Graves (Alec). It also depicts the struggle between men who love each other and a society that will not accept such love. Maurice and Clive love each other; but Clive’s fear of societal rejection and other risks confines their love to a Platonic relationship. Maurice tries to maintain his love for Clive under these restrictions, but he’s miserable. Maurice is too passionate to be satisfied with anything less than total commitment, including sex. When Maurice meets Alec, he finds a man who is equally passionate. The intensity of their relationship proves to Maurice that total commitment is possible. His love for Clive is supplanted by his love for Alec. Unlike Jack and Ennis, Maurice and Alec seize the opportunity and acknowledge their love for each other. Its power gives them the strength to commit to a life together regardless of societal rejection. Together they will find a place for themselves, their “greenwood”, and never be parted. When two men find each other, love each other, and commit to each other, they have the courage to make a life together. This is the message that’s most relevant to me.

    I well remember seeing “Making Love” in 1982. Beyond its profound effect on me emotionally, the movie was especially relevant because it hit close to home. Three years earlier I had been seeing a married man. He was passionate, gentle, good looking, and everything else I could have wanted in a man. Nevertheless, I was content to accept a sexual relationship, on his terms, with no strings attached. About the time I was seeking a new job in Washington, D.C., he dropped a bombshell on me: he intended to divorce his wife. I never expected this. It hadn’t happened to me before, although I had had previous sexual relationships with married men. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. All I could think about was whether I would be named as the co-respondent in the divorce proceedings, and its impact on my career and family. So I said nothing and moved to D.C., having accepted a new job that was also a promotion. This was the stupidest mistake of my life. I was throwing away happiness with both hands. In retrospect, what I should have done was to acknowledge his courage, ask him move in with me, support him emotionally, support him financially if needed (I was making a decent salary), and for the two of us to decide whether to move to D.C. If “Making Love” had only come out three years earlier, I would never have made that mistake.

  • Samuel

    Well as everyone can see from the date of my post, i was a bit late in discovering this site and message board. I can personally attest to the great emotional effect that Brokeback Mountain had on me. I’ve seen many user reviews and takes on this movie, some gay person’s saying that the movie wasn’t positive in its tone since one of the characters are killed for the way he is. I, as a person who lives in a very homophobic society can personally relate to the harsh reality of 1963 Wyoming. Where i live (a caribbean country) homosexuality is illegal, i’ve heard of as well as seen persons bludgeoned to death by vigilantees for partaking in homosexual activities or for being openly gay. The greater injustice however lies in the fact that many (even the so called christians) in my country dont see the unjustness and repugnance of their actions, instead they opt for citing biblical verses as excuse for their outright hate and discrimination. However dont mistake my country as a religous one, for antihomosexual views is just about the only so called “religous value” in my country; we have the highest murder rate in the world, probably 90% of the births are out of wedlock, and drug and crime lords control entire communities (to the objection of none, not even the politicians). It is in this environment that i’m trying to understand and come to terms with my same sex attractions (a task i’m finding almost impossible). Not am i only frustrated with my inability to explore this part of me (which has no plan of going away) due to my conservative broughtupsy and my restrictive society but also with the fact that anytime there is any sort discussion on the issue of homosexuality among my peers i am virtually unable to make any compassionate arguments or at least contradict the hateful mindset of some of my friends, due to fear of being ridiculed, jeered or of suspicions arising about my sexuality; is almost as if my mouth is duck taped shut.
    I also have my own personal experience, somewhat similar to that of BBM. When i was a senior in High School(which is about 5 years ago) i fell deeply for for one of my fellow classmates, this scared me very much, not because i wasn’t aware of my same sex attraction (SSA) before, but because for the first time i wasn’t able to ignore it; anytime this guy was around i would start to sweat and stumble over my words, i couldn’t help also from starring at him sometimes(he was unbelievable good looking). Cutting a long story short he eventually found out how i felt about him, not because i told him, but because he picked up on certain nuances in my behaviour. he pretty much assured me that he felt the same way about me, though he didn’t quite say it. This came as a suprise to me since i never thought that there was anyone like me in my country (i knew technically that there had to be other people out there like me, but never thought i would find one i could connect with, especially someone who was your typical Jock). We would often find comfort in each other stares and while we would never nor could we ever take it to a physical level; our hearts ached for each other. Eventually after 2 years of subtle flirting and excrutiting longing, he moved on and found a girlfriend, much to my dismay. often times i would be in class as he made out with his girl, i would see him staring at me while she was closely snuggled in his arms, me and his eyes locking, expressing a love and longing that could never be alieviated. Him and I now attend the same university, different programmes. We call to each other when we cross paths and i can tell that the attraction is still there, but what to do?
    My point comes down to this: BBM tells the story of two induviduals who have to endure a solution less problem, an immense predicament to which they are no easy or pretty options. This too is my situation, i know eventually i’m going to have to settle down with a girl and possible start a family, i know to some who live in a more free and liberal state, that this my seem to be a very foreign, mundane and incomplete existence, but i fear its the only option my society and numerous other socites have given to me and other men. I’m not sure if the host shall accept my post since it is so loooooong, but i appreciate the opportunity to express what has been trapped inside for so long.