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HOLIDAY SNEAKS | Brokeback Mountain

Landscapes, foreign and familiar

Love, nervousness, commitment

November 06, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz

"PEOPLE call it a gay western.... For me, it's a love story. It has very little to do with the movie genre, the western," says Ang Lee, the director of "Brokeback Mountain." This certainly isn't a film in which the good guys ride off and trounce the villains a la John Wayne. Rather, it's the tale of the dying West of the late 20th century, where the cowboy life has grown increasingly obsolete while the traditions of machismo nonetheless linger. The film is a portrait of love denied, of two impoverished cowboys who hide their love for decades, leading lives of increasing desperation.

Taut, desolate, heart-wrenching, the film (which opens Dec. 9) is generating awards buzz. It has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist and Heath Ledger, in a career-making role, as Ennis Del Mar.

"He's always battling his genetic structure," Ledger says of Del Mar. "He was battling the traditions and morals and fears and beliefs that had been passed down to him, and they've been embedded in him so deeply, he couldn't get past them."

Lee decided to cast up-and-comers in the film, which spans 20 years. "Instead of taking middle-aged or older actors, I choose the young, the innocent. Their fresh faces will carry the audiences a long way and will make the movie a lot more poignant at the end."

In preproduction, both Gyllenhaal and Ledger went to cowboy camp to practice their riding -- though this was more for Gyllenhaal's benefit, because Ledger grew up riding in western Australia. They holed up with Lee to rehearse, meticulously going through the scenes, line by line.

"We'll do exercises until we have the feeling or taste of that person, the way he speaks, pauses, poses," Ledger said. Yet once filming started, the director -- as is his way -- barely spoke to the actors. "They're all supposed to know what they're doing. If I talk to them too much it loses the freshness," Lee said. "It should remain fresh for me to photograph."

Lee says that neither Gyllenhaal nor Ledger seemed anxious about playing explicitly gay characters, though they did seem concerned about the film's potential impact on their burgeoning careers. "They care very much what the movie will do for them," says Lee, noting their respective faces as they finally walked in to see the finished film. "It looked like they're nervous."

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