Heath Ledger Helped Jake Gyllenhaal See The Seriousness Of Brokeback Mountain

From the moment it was announced, 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" was the subject of ridicule — "the gay cowboy film," people called it. If anything, the movie's box office success and three Oscar wins (including Ang Lee for Best Achievement in Directing) only egged comedians on. Indeed, long before his infamous homophobic tweets and stand-up jokes, Kevin Hart appeared in a sequence directly mocking Lee's romantic drama in 2006's "Scary Movie 4." Two years after that, Ben Siller's 2008 satirical action/comedy "Tropic Thunder" gave "Brokeback Mountain" yet another ribbing with the in-movie trailer for "Satan's Alley," a fake period drama in which two queer 12th-century Irish monks fall in love.

None of this is to suggest "Brokeback Mountain" or any film, no matter how "important" it's deemed to be, is off the table for comedy ... assuming that comedy is punching up at a deserving target. One could argue "Satan's Alley," much like the rest of "Tropic Thunder," was doing just that by satirizing Hollywood for only being interested in producing LGBTQ+ movies starring A-listers after "Brokeback Mountain" proved there was big money to be made and even bigger awards to be won. Stiller and his collaborators weren't wrong, either. Queer films like "Milk," "The Kids Are All Right," and "Dallas Buyers Club" featured big-name actors and earned lots of love from the Academy not long after.

Over the years, however, "Brokeback Mountain" lead Jake Gyllenhaal has rightly defended the movie and the vital role it played in bringing queer stories further into the mainstream. He credits this recognition in part to his late costar Heath Ledger and his refusal to treat the film as a joke in and of itself, even back when so much of the world seemed to view it as exactly that.

'This is about love'

"Brokeback Mountain," like the Annie Proulx short story of the same name from which it was adapted, centers on Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), two young men who fall in love while herding sheep in the summer of 1963 on the fictional Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Over the next 20 years, the pair maintain a secret relationship with one another, even after they get married to women and have kids. As you would expect, their repressed feelings and desire to openly share a life come to take a heavy toll on both of them, along with the other people in their lives.

Speaking to Another Man Magazine in April 2020, Gyllenhaal recalled that Ledger helped him see just how serious and tragically believable the film's story truly is. As Gyllenhaal explained, the actor refused to perform a skit at the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony making fun of it:

"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.'"

The success of "Brokeback Mountain" came as a surprise to Lee, who didn't think many people would see it due to its content. But even as the film took off and the masses began treating its better-known dialogue like punchlines ("I wish I knew how to quit you"), Ledger didn't waver. "That's the thing I loved about Heath. He would never joke," Gyllenhaal told Sunday Today in 2019 (via Gay Times). "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.' This is a level of focus and attention that hits a certain nerve."

More than a film

While the artistry and care with which the "Brokeback Mountain" cast and crew (including writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) treated Proulx's source material remains undimmed by time, the movie itself has since been overshadowed by more radical works of queer cinema. Moreover, as much as it opened the door to more mainstream LGBTQ+ films, most of the ones that followed in its immediate wake focused almost exclusively on white queer people played — controversially, I should add — by cishet actors. Even so, it remains a touchstone in the history of queer filmmaking, as well as a movie that holds a deeply personal meaning for many real-life individuals.

In an interview with Vanity Fair in April 2022, Gyllenhaal recounted the incident that really drove this realization home for him and Ledger. It took place during a Q&A after a screening of the film at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles. As Gyllenhaal remembered it, he and Ledger had gone to dinner during the showing before taking the stage:

"... And I remember us joking backstage, and I remember us coming on to stage in a humorous mode because we were just having fun with each other. We sat down, the lights came up, and a man stood up — and the movie had been out for a week and a half —and he said, 'I just want to say, this is my 11th time seeing this movie, and I can't stop watching it, and I just want to thank you all for making it.' And I thought, 11 times in 10 days."

"I remember the wash of that over us ... the profundity of this thing washed over us," Gyllenhaal added. "It happens constantly to this day, and I can't really express how proud I am of it."