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'Brokeback's' tasteful appeal

February 01, 2006|David Ehrenstein | DAVID EHRENSTEIN is a freelance film journalist and author.

HOLLYWOOD LIBERAL. To hear it from conservative pundits that's one word, not two. But is the "misguided idealism" of liberals (as the right would have it) truly at one with the multimillion-dollar mainstream fantasies manufactured in Tinseltown?

That critique would seem especially apropos after "Brokeback Mountain," the gay cowboy picture (and let's face facts, folks, it is a gay cowboy picture) was nominated Tuesday for eight Oscars, including locks on at least three. But appearances can be deceiving, because when you take a closer look at the bottom line -- ideological as well as financial -- the "radicalism" of "Brokeback" is more apparent than real.

Arriving at the climax of a cultural moment that includes "Will & Grace," Mary Cheney and above all Ellen (no last name needed), "Brokeback" is a shrewdly crafted "prestige" picture aimed like a heat-seeking missile at the same female viewers who made "Queer as Folk" a cable hit. The movie is not daring, or edgy, or even particularly controversial. It's not about "gay liberation" or the radical politics that would transform self and society. What it is is a well-closeted romance, replete with studly leads smooching and muttering about "feelings" in ways sure to set aflutter those feminine hearts longing for a soft-core version of hot man-to-man action.

Needless to say, traditional Hollywood liberalism hasn't gone begging this year, what with the one-two Oscar punch of George Clooney's McCarthy-era drama "Good Night, and Good Luck" and his acting turn in the oil-and-terror thriller "Syriana."

Yet while Clooney seems primed to be the Man of the Liberal Hour, he's been overshadowed by "Brokeback." To understand why, one has to look back at that most signal of Hollywood legends, Gregory Peck. One of the most revered of all Golden Age stars, Peck's career was marked by well-tempered playing -- both on-screen and off. His low-key yet commanding presence in a film was a cynosure of "quality," enabling cautious discussion of liberal issues that without him would have been too "controversial" to bring up.

In 1947, Peck starred in "Gentleman's Agreement" -- the Oscar-winning film version of Laura Z. Hobson's novel about anti-Semitism in the U.S., playing a Gentile journalist who passes himself off as a Jew to expose discriminatory injustice. In 1962, he won best actor for "To Kill a Mockingbird," the film version of Harper Lee's novel about a white Southern attorney defending a poor black man accused of rape. In both instances, Peck served as a cordon sanitaire between the "mainstream" (i.e. non-Jewish, non-black) viewer and dramatizations of religious and racial injustice. Just as "Gentleman's Agreement" soft-pedaled anti-Semitism though Peck's goyishness, so "To Kill a Mockingbird" delicately bypassed the actual history of the civil rights movement, and the African Americans who lived and died for it, to tell the story of a good, nonracist white man.

In 2006, the real descendant of Peck's tasteful, unthreatening liberal restraint is not Clooney but "Brokeback" director Ang Lee. This moviemaking chameleon, capable of navigating from "Sense and Sensibility" to "The Hulk," is neither gay nor a cowboy, and therefore in Hollywood terms perfect for telling a gay love story uncontroversially set in the pre-AIDS past, utterly removed from the political movement whose success made it possible.

Lee positively glows with Atticus Finch-like temperament. He's gracious and modest to a fault -- just like his film. Safely kept in a closet of breathtaking visual beauty, decorous dramatic restraint and utter ahistoricism, the gay cowboys of "Brokeback" are stoic and safe. And thus the man who brought them to the screen will be rewarded for services rendered to what that celebrated anti-cowboy Gore Vidal calls "The United States of Amnesia."

Gregory Peck, we "just can't quit you."

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