MUSTWORTHINESS If early rumors are true, ''Brokeback Mountain'' -- based on an Annie Proulx short story and adapted by Larry McMurtry -- could bust one of Hollywood's long-standing barriers. A-list hunks Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal appear as a Wyoming ranch hand and a Texas cowboy whose friendship develops into an explicit, decades-long love affair. ''Everyone is really excited and nervous,'' reports Ledger from the film's Calgary set. ''We're all hoping that it'll break some taboos. But I don't want people getting overexcited about how new the story line is. To me, we're telling a beautiful love story before anything else.''
THE COWBOY WAY Ledger worried that the film's subject matter could lead to a second-rate cheesefest. ''[Director] Ang Lee came to me with the story, and the first time I heard about it, I thought it sounded really retarded,'' he laughs. ''I mean...a gay cowboy movie? Once I read the script, the story revealed itself to be anything but. It's mature and strong.''
SHELF LIFE The story -- which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1997 -- languished in development hell for years despite interest from the likes of Gus Van Sant, Josh Hartnett, and Colin Farrell. Lee finally agreed to take it on, quickly attracting a supporting cast that includes Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway. ''Naomi [Watts, his ex-girlfriend] definitely helped me muster up the strength and courage to say that this was the right thing to do,'' says Ledger.
NEXT ''Brokeback'' opens in 2005.