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    January 24, 2008

    True grit from a great actor

    Posted by: Chris

    Heathledger_3 The tragic news of Heath Ledger's untimely death has left many of us remembering just how affected we were by his Oscar-nominated performance in "Brokeback Mountain." The movie had a singular impact on gay viewers not simply because of its high profile actors, the quality of Ang Lee's filmmaking or the emotional poignancy of the story.

    Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal convincingly portrayed the passionate heat of a real gay couple and also the heartache that comes from being driven apart by a society not ready for them. Credit author Annie Proux with the emotional complexity of the characters but Ledger and Gyllenhaal for pulling them off in a way that never came across as stereotyped or fey.

    As I thought about just how powerful those performances were in "Brokeback," it occurred to me again just how rare it is to see gay roles done so well, despite their proven career-making, Academy Award-winning potential. So I came up with my own list of the 10 best performances by straight actors portraying gay men and I've posted them in Vizu poll on the Citizen and on Gay News Watch. The polls appear randomly on both sites, but if you visit often enough you'll get the chance to vote on which one you thought was best.

    My list was obviously incomplete and likely neglects obvious choices. But here's what I came up with (in no particular order):

    • Heath Ledger, "Brokeback Mountain"
    • Jake Gyllenhaal, "Brokeback Mountain"
    • Antonio Banderas, Almodovar's "Law of Desire"
    • Daniel Day Lewis, "My Beautiful Laundrette"
    • River Phoenix, "My Own Private Idaho"
    • Michael Ontkean, "Making Love"
    • Tom Hanks, "Philadelphia"
    • Matt Damon, "Talented Mr. Ripley"
    • Will Smith, "Six Degrees of Separation"
    • Kevin Kline, "In & Out"

    Even looking at that very distinguished list, Heath Ledger stands as among the best. That his life and career were cut so short is indeed a tragic loss.



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    1. Michael Bedwell on Jan 24, 2008 4:24:57 PM:

      Given how viscerally we disagree about some things, it genuinely pleases me that we find common ground/feeling here. RE the list, "Law of Desire" is such an unknown, underappreciated film to most under 4; as is "Laundrette" great for their lovemaking scene above all. Damon's Ripley? Wow. Wow. Wow! I can't comment on Smith because I've never been able to bring myself to watch the entire film since reading of his taking the homophobic advice of Denzel Washington and refusing to actually kiss the other man, though the resulting camera angle trick convinces viewers unfamiliar with the background that he did. As for Hanks, he could never make another film, and I would always treasure him not just for the performance but even more for the generosity of his acceptance speech [which inspired the politco-comedy "In & Out":

      "I would not be standing here if it weren't for two very important men in my life, two I haven't spoken with in a while but I had the pleasure of just the other evening - Mr Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me 'Act well the part, there all the glory lies', and one of my classmates under Mr Farnsworth, Mr John Gilkerson. [whom he did not mention had died of AIDS]
      I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.
      And there lies my dilemma here tonight. I know my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names - they number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all - a healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common-sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia 200 years ago.
      God bless you all, God have mercy on us all, and God bless America!"

      Ledger had also done that—created something that so touched both my heart and my political passions that he could have never made another film and I would always treasure and honor him. As for the miracle he wrought on celluloid, others have described it better than I:

      "Heath Ledger is just almost really beyond description as far as I'm concerned. .... All that thinking about the character of Ennis that was so hard for me to get, Ledger just was there. He did indeed move inside the skin of the character, not just in the shirt but inside the person. ...[He] erased the image I had when I wrote it. He was so visceral. How did this actor get inside my head so well? He understood more about the character than I did. This isn't nice for a 70-year-old woman to say, but it was a skullfuck." – Annie Proulx, author, Brokeback Mountain

      But maybe anyone would look thin next to Ledger's Ennis Del Mar. The actor hunches over and pulls his emotions under his canvas coat; he doesn't age so much as slowly cave in. That's fitting: Ennis is both ennobled and shamed by feelings he doesn't possess words to describe. ''This thing we have" is the closest he comes, and yet it's the only real part of his life, despite the damage left in its wake. Ledger turns the classic iconography of the Western male -- a cowboy hat pulled low, a measured drawl that says no more than it absolutely has to -- into protective coloring. The genius of the performance is in how little he shows and how much he suggests. – Ty Burr, Boston Globe

      Jack, a shade more comfortable with his nature, talks of getting a ranch together, but Ennis will have none of it: Stung by childhood memories of a rancher who lived with a man and got bashed for it, he fears — he knows — that exposure could kill them. In the classic Westerns, the cowboys were often men of few words, but Heath Ledger speaks in tones so low and gruff and raspy his words just about scrape ground, and he doesn't string a whole lot of those words together. Ennis' inexpressiveness is truly ...inexpressive, yet ironically eloquent for that very reason, as tiny glimmers of soul escape his rigid facade. Ennis says nothing he doesn't mean; he's incapable of guile, yet he erupts in tantrums — the anger of a man who can't be what he is and doesn't realize the quandary is eating him alive. Ledger, with beady eyes and pursed lips, gives a performance of extraordinary, gnarled tenderness. Revolutionary. A film in which love feels almost as if it were being invented. - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

      More than any of the others, Ledger brings this film alive by going so deeply into his character you wonder if he'll be able to come back. Aside from his small but strong part in "Monster's Ball," nothing in the Australian-born Ledger's previous credits prepares us for the power and authenticity of his work here as a laconic, interior man of the West, a performance so persuasive that "Brokeback Mountain" could not have succeeded without it. Ennis' pain, his rage, his sense of longing and loss are real for the actor, and that makes them unforgettable for everyone else. – Kenneth Turan, LA Times

      Ledger's magnificent performance is an acting miracle. He seems to tear it from his insides. Ledger doesn't just know how Ennis moves, speaks and listens; he knows how he breathes. To see him inhale the scent of a shirt hanging in Jack's closet is to take measure of the pain of love lost. As Jack told him once, "That ol' Brokeback got us good." It hits you like a shot in the heart. – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

      From the original short story: “What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger. They had stood that way for a long time in front of the fire, its burning tossing ruddy chunks of light, the shadow of their bodies a single column against the rock. The minutes ticked by from the round watch in Ennis's pocket, from the sticks in the fire settling into coals. Stars bit through the wavy heat layers above the fire. Ennis's breath came slow and quiet, he hummed, rocked a little in the sparklight and Jack leaned against the steady heartbeat, the vibrations of the humming like faint electricity and, standing, he fell into sleep that was not sleep but something else drowsy and tranced until Ennis, dredging up a rusty but still useable phrase from the childhood time before his mother died, said, "Time to hit the hay, cowboy. I got a go. Come on, you're sleepin on your feet like a horse," and gave Jack a shake, a push, and went off in the darkness.”

      Of the many YouTube BBM salutes, this one is as good as any and more poignant now than when it was created nearly two years ago:


    1. Michael Bedwell on Jan 24, 2008 4:26:36 PM:

      Ooops, make that "Law of Desire" is such an unknown, underappreciated film to most under 45."

    1. Martin E. Hollick on Jan 24, 2008 7:07:25 PM:

      You missed James Wilby as the title character in Maurice (1987) [and Rupert Graves as Scudder]; John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral [his lover in the film played by Simon Callow, is gay]; Robert Preston in Victor/Victoria; John Lithgow in The World According to Garp (although he's really not gay but transgendered); Ving Rhames in Holiday Heart; Philip Seymour Hoffman in Flawless or Boogie Nights; Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, and Wesley Snipes in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everyhing Julie Newmar; Steven Sandvoss and Wes Ramsey in Latter Days. This list goes on and on.

      I must disagree with your inclusion of Will Smith on the list.

    1. Craig Ranapia on Jan 24, 2008 7:35:33 PM:

      Don't want to come across as pissing on an open grave, but Ledger and Gyllenhaal would have been a damn sight more impressive if they'd not been quite to keen to assert their heterosexuality with a frequency, and vehemence, that really got borderline offensive. Gee, you mean actors, like, act boys? Next you'll be telling be Neil Patrick Harris and T.R. Knight aren't quite the bed-hopping hetero horn dogs they play on TV...

      Could someone explain this to me: Why is it 'brave' for Ledger to play gay, but playing a 'murderous, sociopathic clown with zero empathy' (his words, not mine) in a comic book movie was a great career move. We're going to have real progress, both in pop culture and society at large, when that equation is reversed.

    1. John on Jan 24, 2008 10:08:31 PM:

      How do we know (for sure) all these actors mentioned are straight? I'm sure there is much pressure to be "straight" in Hollywood, with a lot of collusion going on with publicists, media, studios, etc. I've always thought that Heath and Michelle were a couple for convenience. (my thought alone). I don't think we can really trust the actors themselves to be "straight" with us about their personal life.

    1. Michael Bedwell on Jan 24, 2008 11:01:16 PM:

      With all due respect, Mr. Ranapia, if memory serves, the "assert their heterosexuality with a frequency, and vehemence, that really got borderline offensive," is a characterization that derives more from reactions of some thin-skinned Queerer Than Thou commentators at the time than the actors' actual remarks. No one took Ledger having identified himself as being from Australia as a diss on America or Americans. And few paid attention to the fact that his first acting role was as a gay teenager there, about which he said, "I actually remember getting harassed on the street ...small occasions where I’d get bullied on the streets for it! But I was never out to prove myself or my sexuality—it didn’t really bother me. I think if that was an issue, I wouldn’t have done [that] show; I wouldn’t have done this ['Brokeback Mountain']." Trust me, I'm about as "demand accountability and if you don't get it take no prisoners" gay man as any [hence my continuing hostility to Will Smith and refusal to accept Obama's smile fucking us over McClurkin], but the only real problem I had with anything either said that I read [and I read alot] was Jake's assinine observation that "I approached the story believing that these are actually straight guys who fall in love." Exactly where they fell on the Kinsey Scale is debatable but they were much closer to 6's in desire than any other rating, and I attribute, and excuse, his comment to being only 25-yrs. old at the time. Things far more uninformed and just plain stupid often come out of the mouths of gays, followed with similar actions, who should know far better. Two words: "Austin 12."

      The first trashing of BBM, long before anyone had seen it, recycled the once valid but by then long since moth-eaten assertion that the death of one of the characters was just more of the "fag dies in the last reel as punishment for being a fag" cliche. They missed that it was original a "short story," and no one had spent much time over the years creating a parallel "fag dies in the last chapter..." theorem.

      Approaching and upon release, we got pseudo intellectual drool from pseudo intellectuals like Kenji Yoshino, "professor of law and deputy dean for intellectual life at Yale Law School," who complained about people involved with the film engaging in "covering," "acced[ing] to various demands to conform to straight norms."

      An even greater idiot, and apparent part time mindreader, wrote that Ledger's only interest in costar Michelle Williams was to prove he wasn't gay and he only knocked her up to prove it. Such professional victims paid no attention to the fact that one of Ledger's first roles, at 17, was as a gay teenager about which he said, "I actually remember getting harassed ...small occasions where I’d get bullied on the streets for it! But I was never out to prove myself or my sexuality—it didn’t really bother me. I think if that was an issue, I wouldn’t have done [that] show; I wouldn’t have done ['Brokeback Mountain']." Nor did his relating that his gay uncle, who'd been kicked out by his father at 20, inspired him.

      I was an unpaid extra in the finale scene of that Village People masterpiece "Can't Stop the Music" and, in addition to gaping at a handsome, healthy Rock Hudson and a gorgeous blond young thing standing off camera, will never forget/forgive fag producer Allan Carr bellowing at one point, "The press wants to know if this is a gay movie. This is not a gay movie! This is not a black movie! This is not blah blah blah," some time after I overheard a paid female extra saying they'd been told to make it look like boy/girl couples around the stage. Amazing what a pissed queen can do with his elbows but blink and you'll miss me.

      I didn't need anyone to explain to me then the "covering" that Caftan Carr was trying to get away with, nor the huge difference from what all those involved with BBM were trying to do. Anything else, I blame on Youth, and will always be grateful for the Ennis Del Mar that Heath Ledger pulled out of his soul.

    1. Craig Ranapia on Jan 25, 2008 11:58:05 PM:

      With all due respect (and I mean that sincerely), I don't need to take my 'cue' from any "queerer than thou" nitwits. (Though I must thank you for the delightful novelty of being lumped in with the PC left brigade. More often I'm slagged off as a nasty self-loathing 'Uncle Tom' who deserves to burn to death in my Republican Log Cabin.)

      I just wish Ledger and Gyllenhal could have shown a little of the poise and dignity I saw Meryl Streep display when she was asked if she felt 'weird' or 'uncomfortable' about kissing Alison Janney in The Hours, or simulating cumming her brains out in Angels in America after locking lips with Emma Thompson (though the interviewer put it more politely).

      You want to know what she said? That she thought the question was stupid, and if she had any issues with same-sex intimacy she 1) would have chosen a different profession, and, 2) certainly would not have signed on to those particular projects. And her parting shot was perfect: "I did read the scripts, you know." Snap!

      As I said above, Michael, won't it be a wonderful world when a male actor can take on a well-written role (where the character happens to be gay), under the direction of one of ther best film-makers working today - and it's just not a big deal. No fuck-wit reviewers going on about how 'brave' it is to 'risk your career', or sniggering interviews on Letterman about how no 'funny stuff' went on. I guess what really pissed me off about it was that Ledger and Gyllenhall gave such beautiful performances, that it was frustrating (but perhaps a little naive on my part) to the real world homophobic bullshit machine crank up again.

      Sorry if you took that as a diss on an actor you obviously admire a great deal, and a film you identify very strongly with. That wasn't my intention.

    1. Monster Beats Sale on Nov 30, 2011 2:35:15 AM:

      Sorry if you took that as a diss on an actor you obviously admire a great deal, and a film you identify very strongly with. That wasn't my intention.

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