WHEN Ang Lee was outside of Calgary shooting "Brokeback Mountain" last year, he spent hours one day trying to film a sequence of sheep drinking from a babbling brook. As the day wore on, Diana Ossana, the film's co-writer and producer, got on the phone to share the news with novelist Larry McMurtry, who had collaborated on the script with her.
McMurtry, a native Texan, knew just what Ossana was thinking. "Hasn't anyone told him sheep won't drink from a brook?" he said. "They'll only drink from still water." Eventually Lee gave up, never having gotten the shot. For McMurtry, it was deja vu all over again.
Forty years ago, when Hollywood and Paul Newman came to the Texas panhandle to make "Hud," McMurty had witnessed a similar incident. "Hud's" director was trying to film a flock of buzzards waiting for their moment to swoop down on a heifer's carcass. The movie wranglers wired the buzzards to a tree, which resulted only in a tangle of upside-down buzzards. The shot was ultimately abandoned. As McMurtry later wrote, "It is hard to imagine anything less likely to beguile a movie-going audience than a tree full of dangling buzzards, nether parts exposed."
In town the other day for a rare interview, McMurtry is considerably less sardonic about "Brokeback Mountain," perhaps because so much effort went into getting it made. The original story, written by E. Annie Proulx, appeared in the New Yorker in 1997. McMurtry and Ossana optioned it with their own money, wrote the script together and spent nearly eight years struggling to get it made. Skittish about making any sort of drama these days, Hollywood was especially wary about the tale of two cowboys who meet one summer tending sheep on an open range and fall in love.
But now things are looking up. The film, which was named the year's best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., has earned rhapsodic reviews, both for Lee and for his lead actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.
It feels especially poignant to see the pent-up emotion and repression that is so present in Lee's other films, especially "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," transferred to the iconic American West. As Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote, "In an age where the fight over gay marriage still rages, 'Brokeback Mountain,' the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks ... when it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?"
The film adaptation, which hews closely to the gnarled roots of Proulx's story while carefully fleshing out her character's lives, is something of a late-career capstone for McMurtry. Best known for dozens of popular novels -- he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986 for "Lonesome Dove" -- he's one of a handful of gifted writers who's actually seen his work treated well by Hollywood. In fact, it's hard to imagine any writer who's had a longer and more fruitful association with film and TV. His first novel, "Horseman, Pass By," was made as "Hud" with Newman as its venal Cadillac-driving cowboy. Other successful adaptations of his work have included "The Last Picture Show," which McMurtry wrote with Peter Bogdanovich; "Terms of Endearment," which won an Oscar for best picture; and "Lonesome Dove," the Emmy-winning miniseries with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.
At 69, McMurtry continues to publish books at a rate that would put younger writers to shame. But his Hollywood star has dimmed. His most recent screen work, with Ossana, was for "The Johnson County War," a little-seen cable TV miniseries.
McMurtry has a certain grumpy charm that has served him well as a writer but keeps the rest of us on our toes.
"Larry doesn't tolerate laggards or rudeness or laziness, and he can't abide people who are late," says Ossana, who has been a constant in McMurtry's life for two-plus decades. They live together much of the time in Tucson, where Ossana has a home, though it is made clear that they are devoted friends, not lovers.
McMurtry doesn't own a cellphone or a computer, preferring to write on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter. He also has no use for the modern art of self-promotion. Although he's endured brief question-and-answer sessions about "Brokeback Mountain," it has clearly taken its toll. When McMurtry arrived at a radio station the other day to promote the film, the interviewer, noting his glum expression, said, "You look like you don't want to be here." McMurtry's response: "I don't."
McMurtry gets along best with women, his circle of female friends including Ossana, Diane Keaton and Polly Platt, whom he met when she was married to Bogdanovich and at work on "The Last Picture Show." "Women love Larry because he's one of those few men who's a good listener," says Platt. "There's something about him that's such a mystery -- he's the unknowable man."