A trend spotter, I ain't. I looked at the trailers for the first Austin Powers movie—featuring a former SNL cast member as a dorky 1960s secret agent with bad teeth and an ascot—and I concluded this film was a career killer. I figured The Passion of the Christ's combination of subtitles, anti-Semitism and endless Messiah torture would get Mel Gibson laughed out of the movie business. I was sure audiences would find Shrek 2one trip too many to a shallow well. But even with having been so wrong so often, I was still absolutely confident about Brokeback Mountain. When I heard about this picture Ang "Hulk" Lee was making about two gay cowboys, starring perennial box-office loser Heath Ledger and that kid from Donnie Darko, well . . . I figured it'd maybe find an audience with gays and those straight girls who like gay stuff, but that'd be it. It'd be a cult hit at best, and probably nothing they'd ever even hear about in the Red States.
But no, Brokeback Mountain has become a bona fide phenomenon, and you can't stop at the local Quickie Mart to buy cat food without the clerk trying to engage you in a discussion about Jake Gyllenhaal's sensitive yet manly performance. And the thing is I seem to be the only human on Earth who thought the movie was good-ish but a bit draggy (in other words, typical "Best Picture" material). Everybody else is either taking to the rooftops to proclaim this the Greatest Thing Ever, or they're making fag jokes. Lots and lots of fag jokes. If nothing else, Brokeback Mountain has certainly been effective in flushing out America's secret homophobes.
I'm sure many rabid Brokeback Mountain fans are sincere, while those who are exaggerating their enthusiasm in order to look broad-minded and cool are basically harmless phonies. (Sorry, fellas, but having a Brokeback poster on your wall won't get you laid. Well, not by a girl, anyhow.) But the guys who keep snickering, "Ah wish ah knew how ta quit yew" are far more troubling, and they seem to be everywhere. There have been endless homo-panicky Brokebackparodies on TV, and all too often, their creators seem to think that homosexuality should be enough in itself to get laughs. Saturday Night Live recently did a Brokeback bit with Alec Baldwin and Will Forte as two grizzled prospectors in love. There were no jokes. Seriously, that was it; two old guys in love. Ha, ha.
Fortunately, it's just not cool anymore to be explicitly homophobic, but you can see the late-night talk-show hosts struggling with that fact every night. Normally Jay Leno never passes up an easy, sleazy laugh, but it's rather amazing how his endless Brokeback jokes have managed to be both sneeringly intolerant and toothless—like the one in which he showed a horse mannequin wearing a feather boa and modeling a "gay cowboy saddle." Letterman, meanwhile, approaches the film with a depressing but polite Midwestern distaste. He obviously knows he can't ignore this movie but just as obviously wishes he could, as evidenced by such half-hearted material as "Top 10 Signs You Are a Gay Cowboy," highlighted, sort of, by the line "Native Americans refer to you as Dances With Men."
In daily life, you see average straight guys responding to the film with no more grace or wit than Leno or Letterman have, in ways that are often sadly revealing. Recently, I witnessed two clerks in an indie record store re-enacting a Brokeback scene with much joshing melodrama. It was as if they were going through the entire display just to say to each other, I'm not fag, but I love you, man. What the hell is wrong with straight American manhood that we have to bury our genuine affection in all that parody and pop-cultural bullshit?
Maybe there is an upside to all this Brokeback weirdness. It has been said that the next step after ridicule is boredom, and the next step after boredom is acceptance. In America, gays have been cruelly ridiculed for decades. In recent years, TV shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guyand Will & Grace were blockbuster hits, but some critics charged they represented gays as sexless clowns. Now Brokeback Mountain comes along, presenting the sexuality of two gay men unapologetically, with passion and heartbreak and grunting and fumbling in the dark, and people argue about it and praise it and make fun of it until we're all completely bored of hearing about the damn thing. And maybe tomorrow morning, we all wake up and finally gays don't seem so scary anymore and we accept the truth that should've been obvious all along: love is love, whether it happens between a man and a wife or two lonesome cowpokes.