When first heard about this project I had no intention of going to see it. Why?
- I considered Heath Ledger, as an actor, to be on par with Hilary Duff and the the Olsen twins.
- I had tried to read Annie Proulx's The Shipping News and threw it away–one of four times in my life I've found a book so unreadable I disposed of it. I couldn't imagine that she could write beautifully or accurately about gay men, let alone about gay cowboys.
- I cynically assumed that the film would be disembowled before release. And sure enough, rumors circulated that Lee was being told to cut the "gay content" out of a gay love story and keep the central relationship ambiguous.
- Synopses of the story all made it sound like a throwback to Hollywood's traditional treatment of gay relationships: an unhappy affair between two men, one of whom is not really gay, ending with death, pain, and alienation. No, thanks.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast. When C suggested we go see the show, I decided to take the chance.
And how was it?
- The acting was outstanding. All of it. Heath Ledger, in particular, pulls off the sort of chameleon act I normally expect from Daniel Day Lewis. Raw, stunning.
- The screenplay (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) is brilliant. He expands the story without every messing up Proulx's narrative. A line from the story becomes a scene in the film. And (as you would expect from the guy who wrote Lonesome Dove) he gets the details right.
- The cinematography is breathtaking. I've seen all the Star Wars films now, and nothing Lucas and his thousands of oompa-loompas did with CGI compares to what this crew did with actual mountains and thousands of sheep. The town scenes and indoor shots are like frames by Walker Evans and Diane Arbus.
- The directing and editing are basically, and I do not use this word easily, perfect. The gay sex is there, sensitively shot. More importantly, the gay love is there, truthfully handled. Even Maurice, which aimed to be honest, ultimately fell short in this respect.
- And in spite of everything, the story has an ending that, if not conventionally happy, is ultimately uplifting and hopeful.
If this sounds melodramatic, please consider that I've waited my whole life to see gay relationships handled on screen without being hampered by bad acting, low-budget production values, soft-porn styling, underlying homophobia, or compromise of any kind. As far as I'm concerned, the true gay experience has been absent from mainstream film...until now.
Ang Lee, you done good by us. And I'm much obliged.