Brokeback Mountain is remembered today as a groundbreaking and critically acclaimed film that remains one of the most successful LGBTQ films ever. Ang Lee's love story starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them and it made $178 million on a $14 million budget. Yet despite its eventual success, Brokeback Mountain almost didn't get made. Before Ang Lee, Gus Van Sant was at one point working on the film but was having trouble finding actors for the lead roles, as he explained:
Nobody wanted to do it. I was working on it, and I felt like we needed a really strong cast, like a famous cast. That wasn't working out. I asked the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no.
Given the success that Brokeback Mountain enjoyed and the awards recognition for its co-leads, it is surprising to hear that no one wanted to do it. Nowadays a role in a film like Brokeback Mountain is the kind of thing you might expect actors to jump at because of the awards potential, but that wasn't always the case. There was a belief that playing a homosexual man could hurt a heterosexual actor's career and that may have been why big name actors like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio passed on the film. But as he told IndieWire, Gus Van Sant felt that the film needed a famous cast, so with that requirement, they were unable to find actors to play the lead roles and his version of Brokeback Mountain struggled to get made.
This difficulty in casting the leads hurt Gus Van Sant's enthusiasm for the project, and ultimately he didn't direct the film. In hindsight, Gus Van Sant acknowledges that he should have just cast unknowns in the lead roles instead of A-list actors but at the time he felt like the project needed that. You can see why too. At the time there was even less representation of LGBTQ characters and stories onscreen and having big name actors involved helps to elevate a film and get more eyeballs on it. It's also possible that A-list actors could have impacted financing for the film, with an expensive actor justifying a bigger budget.
Ultimately, Brokeback Mountain did just fine without Matt Damon or Brad Pitt. Stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal received huge acclaim for their performances, earning Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations respectively. Playing gay men clearly didn't hurt their careers either, with the late Heath Ledger going on to win a posthumous Oscar for his role in The Dark Knight and Jake Gyllenhaal still a leading man to this day.