At the risk of sounding cliche, Brokeback Mountain was a revolutionary film. Ang Lee’s epic love story, set against a sweeping mountain backdrop, was an awards darling as well as a pivotal moment for queer cinema. The success of Brokeback Mountain paved the way for future LGBTQ+ stories to be released into the mainstream. However, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger faced significant backlash when originally taking the roles, but not for the reason you may think.
The LGBTQ+ community has often voiced its concerns about the lack of opportunities for queer performers in Hollywood. This has led to many straight actors avoiding queer roles, so as to allow for more diverse performers to see themselves represented onscreen. In Brokeback Mountain, both Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger were straight actors playing queer characters. However, that film came out in 2005, when Hollywood had very different views on LGBTQ+ representation. Would the film’s casting elicit a different response if it were announced in 2021? Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t sure. He recently told The Sunday Times:
Jake Gyllenhaal raises a number of interesting points. While it’s true that queer actors should absolutely have more opportunities in film, it’s also a sad truth that mainstream gay romances were far from common in 2005. The producers of Brokeback Mountain wanted famous names for the leads (think Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio), so it’s probable that they were never even considering queer actors. By challenging the stigma surrounding queer roles, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger may have helped pave the way for future queer stories to exist.
However, now that the aforementioned stigma has indeed been challenged, Jake Gyllenhaal is right: it’s time for LGBTQ+ performers to have wider access to better opportunities. While it’s perhaps not entirely required for an actor to fully identify with their character’s sexuality (especially considering that many actors may not be ready to share their sexual orientation with the public), casting directors, writers, and directors should be conscious of the identities being represented in their projects, and which actors they are choosing as that representation. Brokeback Mountain may have set the stage, but it’s time for more LGBTQ+ actors to take the spotlight.
Brokeback Mountain is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
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