Jake Gyllenhaal Recalls 'Stigma' Attached to Starring in 'Brokeback Mountain'

Monday September 27, 2021
Originally published on September 27, 2021

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain"
Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain"  (Source:IMDb)

If "Brokeback Mountain" was made today with two straight actors in the lead, there would undoubtedly be a backlash. But at the time, 2006, out leading men were a rarity in Hollywood and Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal took the roles. But that didn't come with a different kind of backlash, Gyllenhaal recently told the London Times as reported by The Insider.

"There was a stigma about playing a part like that, you know, why would you do that? And I think it was very important to both of us to break that stigma," he said.

The film, the Insider adds, "was one of only a few instances where straight actors had taken on mainstream gay roles, and it became arguably the most successful movie of its kind with eight Oscar nominations and three wins, including best director for Ang Lee."

Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal were nominated for Oscars, as was the film; but both actors lost and "Crash," in one of the most embarrassing Oscar upsets in history, took home Best Picture. This despite "Brokeback" winning for director and adapted screenplay. How could a film that won neither take home the big prize?

Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in "Brokeback Mountain"  

IndieWire has labeled "Crash" the Worst Best Picture of the 21 Century, while BuzzFeed calls it third worst of all time. One theory is that some of the voters — mostly older, white and male — didn't watch it. When one of "Brokeback's" producers was asked to meet Clint Eastwood at an Oscar party shortly before that year's ceremony,Entertainment Weekly reported, she learned that Eastwood hadn't seen the film.

At the time, Screenrant reported, "Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggested that Crash benefitted from the Academy's ingrained homophobia. Even at its most progressive, they just weren't ready to celebrate a film like 'Brokeback Mountain.' For many, it felt like a rejection of progress and cemented the Academy's status as an out-of-date institution, a problem it's still fighting with today. In the Academy's preferential voting system, that means the amenable 'Crash' won out."

If the film were made today Gyllenhaal says he wouldn't mind too much if his role was taken by a gay actor. "But then again, I think that has led the way towards people saying, you know, people of all different experiences should be playing more roles, that it shouldn't be limited to a small group of people. And I believe that."

In 2019 Gyllenhaal said both he and Ledger took their roles seriously and didn't like the slew of gay "Brokeback" jokes that circulated after the film's release. "I see people who have joked with me or criticized me about lines I say in that movie — and that's the thing I loved about Heath," Gyllenhaal told IndieWire in 2019. "He would never joke. Someone wanted to make a joke about the story or whatever, he was like, 'No. This is about love'. Like, that's it, man. Like, no.'"

Ledger even nixed an idea to make a gag out of the actors being straight and playing gays at the opening of the Oscar ceremony that year. Gyllenhaal told Another Man magazine last year. "And Heath refused. I was sort of at the time, 'Oh, okay... whatever.' I'm always like, 'It's all in good fun.' And Heath said, 'It's not a joke to me — I don't want to make any jokes about it.'"

Gyllenhaal adds "opened tons of doors. It was crazy. It was amazing. It's defined my career in different ways," he said. "[But the film] is bigger than me...It has become not ours anymore. It's the world's."

But he wasn't the first choice for the role. Prior to director Ang Lee being involved, Gus Van Sant was to direct and told IndieWire that both lead roles were offered to a number of leading actors.

"Nobody wanted to do it," Van Sant said. "I was working on it, and I felt like we needed a really strong cast, like a famous cast. That wasn't working out. I asked the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no. Yes, all those young gentlemen [at the time] turned down the project, for various reasons."