Coming out of the closet is hard. But the real trick in Hollywood might be rescuing a film once it's been relegated to development hell -- a place where many good scripts go to die.
"Brokeback Mountain," the tale of two young cowboys who fall in love first appeared in 1997 as a short story by Annie Proulx in The New Yorker. It won a National Magazine award, among other accolades. Two of Hollywood's top screenwriters got to work, and soon, the project attracted the likes of Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher.
Still, even with a top director, the question remained, would theatergoers want to see kissing, cuddling cowboys? Should this be a small independent film that plays only in big cities where there's a prominent gay community?
Of course, Hollywood has a simple solution to such problems. Just attach a big-name actor to the project. At various points, Colin Farrell, Josh Hartnett and Joaquin Phoenix were linked to "Brokeback," but nothing materialized.
Finally, Ang Lee took over. The celebrated director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Sense and Sensibility" got Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger to risk alienating their fans, and brought home the picture for a mere $12.5 million. "Brokeback Mountain" finally opens Friday, and after winning top honors this fall at the Venice Film Festival, there's undeniable Oscar buzz.
"If a project is not scary and sensitive, then it's probably less interesting to me," said Lee, who says he was close to giving up on making movies after his previous film, "Hulk," left him physically and emotionally exhausted.
"At the time, it seemed like I couldn't do it again. It was too much."
But Lee and his production partner, James Schamus, returned to the cowboy script they had looked at two years earlier. "I had read the short story, which I wasn't aware of when it was first published," Lee said. "I had tears in my eyes."
"I just knew in the bottom of my heart, if I let it go, I would regret it for the rest of my life."
'I Hate When They Call Actors Brave'
"Brokeback" had been in development so long, the 24-year-old Gyllenhaal was still a teenager when he had met with another director about starring in the film. Ledger agreed to the film without ever meeting Lee. "The opportunity to work with him was pretty big incentive," he said.
Though scenes of the two young cowboys falling in love and sharing a tent are getting heavily hyped, a good chunk of the movie follows them in the years that follow, when they leave the isolated Wyoming mountainside, marry, have children and try to forget their romance.
"You know I ain't queer," says Ledger's character after their first night together.
"Me neither," Gyllenhaal responds.
When they part, they go to opposite sides of the country. But love denied inflicts misery on every person in their lives, even as the two meet up on annual fishing trips and try to come to terms with who they are.
"My character is a guy who doesn't talk. He's just unaware of the monstrous battle within himself," Ledger said. "Essentially, he's a homophobic man in love with another man, and he's destined to be hollow and alone."
Interestingly, Ledger began dating Michelle Williams, the former "Dawson's Creek" star who plays his character's long-suffering wife, just as the film went into production. They're now engaged, and she gave birth to their first child, a girl named Matilda, last month.
"Right now, I wake up, cook breakfast, change diapers and I love it," said the Aussie actor, who is setting a light schedule over the next few months, after a hectic year. His next film, "Casanova," opens Dec. 25.
Certainly much has changed in the seven years since "Brokeback Mountain" first appeared as a blip on Hollywood's radar. Gay-friendly TV shows like "Will & Grace," "Six Feet Under" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" may have helped prove that there are wider audiences for homosexual themes.
"Perhaps it's easier to make this film now," Ledger says. "But I truly hate when they call actors brave or daring for a role like this. Firefighters are brave and daring. I'm a kid from Perth who's acting."