BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
My take on the success of this film is that it was Casablanca for gay men. It’s a classical period “doomed” romance in a unique milieu that had never been presented in this way, at least not in a wide release with major movie stars. Put simply: its time had come. This was great writing about two people in quiet desperation (actually, four people), one of whom is a man so beset by guilt and fear and held to a code of ethics formed in his youth that he absolutely CANNOT allow himself to be with the person he truly loves the most.
I don’t think the ‘shock factor’ had as much to do with the phenomenon as the press would have had us believe. And for some viewers who didn’t “get it,” they complained that not much happened. But this film is not so much about actions — it focuses on theme, character and inner conflicts. Subtext is a huge factor in this story, and the writers (Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana adapting Annie Proulx) use it to create great depth from what seems to be a narrow-focus story.I think this was missed by many a viewer, as was the choice of the time period: the 60s and 70s. I can’t help but think that if the filmmakers had really wanted to make a statement about gay discrimination in society, wouldn’t they have set it much earlier; the 20s or perhaps the Civil War?
I mean, if Jack and Ennis *really* wanted to, they could have hopped in the ol’ pickup and driven to pretty much any major city and found a neighborhood that would accept them. But that’s the point: Ennis’ INNER CONFLICT was so strong it was holding him back from ever taking this chance. And he grows old knowing this mistake, his final action a subtle yet devastating one: the pitiful hugging of Jack’s shirt. His final words “Jack, I swear…” as in “I swear if I had to do it over, I would have done it different.”
But he didn’t. And this is the tragedy. A man’s regret, not a society’s failure. And that’s why it’s a great drama, as opposed to a political statement. In truth, it’s both, but the filmmakers wisely leave the political statement up to us — the flash to Jack being murdered by the men — was this a fantasy in Ennis’ head or the truth? We don’t know for sure. It’s up to us to make the call.
This open ending is a big reason why this was an independent film and not released by a major studio. If this script were submitted as a spec to a major studio, I don’t think it would have flown, and not just for the content but mostly for the huge reliance on subtext and inner conflicts.
For the studio approach to romance, look no further than…
HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS (2003)
I recently caught this RomCom on dvd in preparation for my talk with the Romance Writers of America. I enjoyed it, especially the high-conflict, high-concept premise — ANDIE needs to get BEN to break up with her in 10 days and Ben needs to get Andie to fall in love with him in 10 days. The writers did a nice job of making that premise launch inside of 20 minutes/20 pages, and from there they kept the pace and humor going with some fun set pieces: the Knicks game, the family album, the poker night, the couples therapy, the game of “Bullshit,” etc.
But although Andie (Kate Hudson) was clearly the Protagonist, she became too inactive in the second half of the story. Her triumph over Ben (Matthew McConaughey) in the card game is told to us after the fact, rather than clearly shown, and the ending finds BEN rushing to get her! It should have been the other way around — SHE should have been rushing to get him!
Obviously, the film made a few bucks so somebody out there liked it. But the reason I mention this criticism is because I don’t think these plot points would work with pro Readers if this script were submitted by a new writer on spec. If you establish an active protagonist and she takes much unique action to drive the plot, you really need to have her stay active in the final Act.
And still, the most important question goes unanswered: Who buys that Matthew McConaughey is from Staten Island?! Ha haaaaa…
Speaking of successful RomComs…
WEDDING CRASHERS (2005)
Another big hit at the multiplex that I don’t think would fly as a spec by new writers (it originated as a pitch by an established comedy team). Because after a terrific Act one showing the guys in action, they’re taken out of the wedding scene for a cliché second act at a boring summer estate. The hilarious set pieces at the weddings give way to…a game of touch football where Vince Vaughn keeps getting tackled? And other contrived situations with too-low stakes.
Act Two becomes just a countdown until their love interests are told about their past, as opposed to what I feel would have been so much more interesting — if they were caught in the act at another wedding reception. The hook of the piece and the highest conflict story engine was left behind too soon, IMHO