A basic plaid button-down intertwined over a simple blue denim shirt evoked more emotion from the reticent Ennis Del Mar than any words Heath Ledger could've spoken in "Brokeback Mountain." Ennis discovered the two lonely shirts hanging in a closet after the death of his lover Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Symbolic of their lifelong forbidden relationship is that Jack's denim was draped over Ennis' plaid as if to protect him. Ennis changed the shirts' positions in the emotional last scene of the film that finally reveals his true feelings.
Those two emblematic shirts worn by Ledger and Gyllenhaal that played such a pivotal role in the film are currently on display in the Autry National Center museum's Imagination Gallery, which is devoted to the western in popular culture.
Local collector Tom Gregory purchased the shirts three years ago in an EBay auction for charity for $101,000. He merely hung the shirts on the wall in his office until author Gregory Hinton called him last New Year's Eve.
"I was doing research on 'Night Rodeo,' my fifth novel about my dad, Kip [a Wyoming native and former editor of the Cody Enterprise], and wondered what happened to the shirts that were such an important prop in the film," Hinton said. He tracked down Gregory and pitched the idea to the Autry along with a Gay Rodeo Legacy Project, which evolved into a symposium, "Gay in the West: Reclaiming Our Country Heritage," that will address the urban/rural bias as well as other issues, tentatively scheduled for the fall.
"The shirts hold deep meaning for so many, especially those 50 and older who could relate to the anguish and isolation of Ennis," said Gregory, who thinks the display of the "Brokeback Mountain" shirts at the Autry underscores the need for gay men and women who leave rural communities to reclaim their heritage.
The Autry museum is known for exploring all people of the American West, and he thought it was the perfect museum to display the shirts. Jeffrey Richardson, assistant curator for film and popular culture at the Autry, got involved and was instrumental in accelerating the project and pulling it together in six months.
Gregory's only request in lending the shirts for display: that they always remain entwined. "They have remained that way since the film wrapped and will always remain that way under my watch," said Gregory, who is also a radio commentator and Broadway producer.
The shirts are part of a reinstallation of the Contemporary Westerns case that displays memorabilia and art from significant films since 1970.
"The western genre has shifted significantly since the '70s to accommodate the issues in society," said Richardson of the many revisionist films that have kept the western alive, such as "Appaloosa," as well as parodies like "Blazing Saddles."