On paper, this movie sounds like a battle cry for the next heated brawl in the culture wars: Two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), circa 1963, fall desperately in love while herding sheep on a desolate Wyoming mountainside, and descend into a lifetime of longing and shame, loveless marriages, and perilous trysts.
Sure, the film walks a tightrope of American iconography: There is something almost blasphemous about the idea that these paragons of American masculinity Marlboro Men come to life might be harboring secret sexual passions for each other. But after Brokeback debuted to raves at both the Toronto and Venice film festivals (and snagged the top prize at the latter), the buzz about Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's celebrated New Yorker short story shifted from hot potato to Oscar hot property, anchored by Ledger's achingly vulnerable performance.
''The story haunted me,'' says Lee, who first read the script in 2002, after several directors, including Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher, mounted unsuccessful attempts to scale Brokeback. ''I decided to make The Hulk instead, but this story refused to leave my head.'' Once Lee signed on, his artistic and commercial credibility released the project from six years in development hell by attracting a cast willing to give themselves over to the physically and emotionally raw material. ''It was just grueling, especially for the boys,'' says Michelle Williams, Ledger's real-life girlfriend, who plays his anguished on-screen wife. ''It's like shell shock or something. We all had our little defenses. We smoked lots of cigarettes.''