A reluctant revisiting of ‘Brokeback’
E. Annie Proulx is sipping coffee at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and talking about literary ghosts.
She has struggled for years to get Ennis and Jack out of her head. These are the two leads who fall in love in Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” male ranch hands whose secrecy and self-denial is bleak and heartbreaking and -- to anyone who has experienced homophobia and its ramifications -- disquietingly familiar.
Proulx, 70, in town recently for the premiere of Ang Lee’s film adaptation of “Brokeback Mountain,” says that while she was “blown away” by the movie, she doesn’t welcome the return of Ennis and Jack to the forefront of her consciousness.
“Put yourself in my place,” the author says. “An elderly, white, straight female, trying to write about two 19-year-old gay kids in 1963. What kind of imaginative leap do you think was necessary? Profound, extreme, large. To get into those guys’ heads and actions took a lot of 16-hour days, and never thinking about anything else and living a zombie life. That’s what I had to do. I really needed an exorcist to get rid of those characters. And they roared back when I saw the film.”
The story bubbled forth from “years and years of observation and subliminal taking in of rural homophobia,” says Proulx, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Shipping News,” was also adapted for the screen. She remembers the moment when those years of observed hatred began taking form. It was 1995 and Proulx, who lives in Wyoming, visited a crowded bar near the Montana border. The place was rowdy and packed with attractive women, everyone was drinking, and the energy was high.
“There was the smell of sex in the air,” Proulx remembers. “But here was this old shabby-looking guy.... watching the guys playing pool. He had a raw hunger in his eyes that made me wonder if he were country gay. I wondered, ‘What would’ve he been like when he was younger?’ Then he disappeared, and in his place appeared Ennis. And then Jack. You can’t have Ennis without Jack.”
Proulx didn’t think her story would ever be published. The material felt too risky; Ennis and Jack express their love with as much physical gusto as any heterosexual couple, and it happens in full view of the reader, without any nervous obfuscation. The backdrop is that wide expansive West that bore forth John Wayne and the Marlboro Man -- but here the edges of the mythos fray, and the world becomes chilly and oppressive.
The story was published in the New Yorker magazine in 1997, and screenwriter Diana Ossana read it one night when she couldn’t sleep."It just floored me,” Ossana says, speaking after a screening of “Brokeback Mountain.” She ran downstairs to show it to her writing partner, who happens to be Larry McMurtry (“The Last Picture Show,” “Lonesome Dove”) and suggested they turn it into a screenplay. “I’ve known [McMurtry] for 20 years,” Ossana said, “and this is the first time I’ve heard him say yes to something I suggested, without an argument.”
The following day the screenwriters sent a letter to Proulx, asking to option the story with their own money. Proulx agreed.
“She trusted us more than she should have,” McMurtry says. “She trusted us not to make the story unless we could make it right.”
Proulx, for her part, found their enthusiasm “interesting” but thought to herself, “this is not going to happen.” She had never considered “Brokeback Mountain” to be a cinematic possibility -- it pushes too many buttons, challenges too many norms. “Never, never, never, never, no,” she says, at the Four Seasons, shaking her head. “Uh-uh.” Then, three months later, Ossana and McMurtry sent her their screenplay, a spare and unfailingly faithful rendition of the story. The divergences grow organically from what’s on the page, and the rest is as Proulx wrote it, nearly verbatim.
“I thought it was good,” Proulx says. She had a few quibbles, mostly about language -- some of it seemed to her more Texas than Wyoming -- but those were worked out in the next and final draft. It made sense for the screenplay to stick closely to its source, Proulx says with her typical candor. “This was a strong story. It had a very solid framework, it had terse, good language. It would’ve been hard to change that without maiming everything.”
The rest happened slowly, and Proulx had little involvement, retreating into Wyoming and her writing, trying as best she could to banish Ennis and Jack from her mind. Lee initially turned down the project to direct “The Hulk,” then signed on again afterward. Casting the two leading roles was particularly difficult, Ossana says.
The movie, like the story, does not pull any punches. The sex is just as graphic, the critique of rural homophobia just as angst-ridden and raw. Proulx doesn’t pretend to know how the movie will play with audiences, but she likes that her message will be broadcast through such a popular medium.
“There are a lot of people who see movies who do not read,” Proulx says. “It used to be that writing and architecture were the main carriers, permanent carriers, of culture and civilization. Now you have to add film to that list, because film is the vehicle of cultural transmission of our time. It would be insane to say otherwise, to say that the book is still the thing. It isn’t.”
Perhaps true. But for many of Proulx’s most ardent fans, the story is the thing. Take Michael Silverblatt, the radio host of KCRW’s “Bookworm” program, who says that this kind of literary genius is “uncapturable” by film. Silverblatt remembers reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker and the sensation of being surprised in stages: “Here’s a story that was taking place outdoors, which is unusual enough in the New Yorker. And it’s a western, another rarity. And creeping up on me is the feeling: These cowboys are falling in love!” (The story was recently posted on the New Yorker website at www.newyorker.com/archive/content/articles/051212fr_archive01.)
Since Proulx was in town for the film’s premier, Silverblatt arranged to moderate a question-and-answer session with Proulx after a screening of the film at the ArcLight. “The story let me cry and the movie made me cry,” he told the audience. “I feel there is a sadness ladled on in the movie.”
Proulx replied: “I think it’s good for us to feel the emotion that the film engenders, whatever its source.”
“The story began in 1963,” said a woman from the audience. “Do you think things are better now, in terms of attitudes?”
“I wish,” Proulx said. “But one year after the story was published, Matthew Shepard was killed less than 30 miles from where I live. I was called to be on the jury for one of the killers.”
The tough-guy Western mythology undergirding our national identity should be questioned, Proulx says, and she hopes that her story -- and now this movie -- will spur that kind of dialogue.
Which already seems to be happening. Bill Handley, an associate professor of English at USC, was in the audience at ArcLight, and plans to put together a book of essays on the story and the film.
“It’s a groundbreaking story, worthy of close attention,” he says. “The essays will focus on a whole range of questions on sexuality, landscape, authenticity, and labor in the West. Who knows what the response to this film is going to be, and what that will tell us about the culture.”