Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal wearing cowboy hats and leaning on a truck in a scene from 'Brokeback Mountain'
Screengrab via YouTube

The History of Gay Cowboys in Film, From 'Brokeback Mountain' to 'Power of The Dog'


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The western archetype in film is largely centered around a heterosexual male hero saving the day. Men like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood formed their careers around these roles, which were largely the same types of characters put in different situations. Gunslinging white knights who save the damsel in distress, bring the outlaws to justice, and ride off into the sunset. But things weren't always this black and white in the real Wild West. Not all cowboys were looking for an actual damsel to spend their free time with. The words "gay cowboy" probably make you think of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain since it's easily the most mainstream example we've seen in Hollywood in recent years. But these queer relationships were more prevalent in the west than you might realize.

In 2009, the Autry National Center debuted an exhibit called 'Out West' which was dedicated to analyzing queer people, their relationships, and their roles in shaping the American frontier.

"It doesn't just start with 'Brokeback Mountain.' In a way, the movie is an exclamation point to that history," Stephen Aron, an executive director at the Autry told the LA Times.

Reading between the lines

In fact, Brokeback Mountain wasn't even the first film to analyze the concept of gay cowboy relationships. Sometimes you need to read between the lines, which is certainly the case with 1954 film, Johnny Guitar. It's not as blatant as some of the other films that might come to mind, but it is certainly sexually charged. Not with two cowboys though. This film features undertones of a lesbian relationship between saloon owner Vienna (played by Joan Crawford) and her adversary Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Crawford and McCambridge became two of the most well-known lesbian icons of their time along with women like Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich so it's no wonder this film has developed a reputation for being an early example of gay relationships in Hollywood. Though there's no actual sex or even physical scenes between the two women, you can definitely feel there's something going on. Not to mention all of the lines in the film commenting on their masculine energy are clearly pointing to something.

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"Never seen a woman who was more of a man," a man says about his boss Vienna. "She thinks like one, acts like one and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not."

A more blatant example comes in the form of the 1995 film Dead Man. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, the film follows a young Johnny Depp as William Blake, a man on the run from the law with his Native American friend named Nobody. In one notable scene, this duo crosses paths with three men in the Great Plains, including Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop. They are all infatuated with William, stroking his face and arguing over who gets to sleep with him. It's a refreshingly honest scene. Obviously, there were gay men arguing over sexual partners in the Old West...that's certainly not a unique concept in the 20th century. So why is it that we see these scenes so infrequently?

Power of the Dog

At the Oscars this year, The Power of the Dog was recognized as one of the best new films of the year. Its lead character Phil was a closeted gay cowboy, with homosexual themes reflected throughout the film. It was similar to Johnny Guitar, in the sense that you really had to read between the lines and pick up on the sexual energy. Phil, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in an Oscar-nominated performance, is cruel and rough, though intrigued by the son of his brother's new wife, Peter. There are nods to his homosexuality throughout the movie as he has an infatuation with the late Bronco Henry, who warmed his body in a sleeping bag which saved his life but also made a lasting impression. He even comes close to kissing Peter, though stopping himself and never actually getting to see things through.

It's a sad story with Phil; He's seemingly grappling with who he really is and taking out his rage on the actual object of his affection. The film received some criticism from western actor Sam Elliott, who sparked controversy for his comments on the homosexual undertones of the film. (Elliott later apologized for his comments.) As much as we love Sam, he kind of missed the point. Those undertones were the entire heart of the story, which was adapted from Thomas Savage's 1967 novel, and beautifully depicted by director Jane Campion on the screen. In fact, Campion did such an incredible job bringing the story to life, she is now one of only three women to ever take home the Best Director award at the Oscars.

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The enduring legacy of Brokeback Mountain

Easily the most important example of gay cowboys in the world of film was Ang Lee's groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play two cowboys, Ennis and Jack, who spend a meaningful summer together which sparks a relationship that begins affecting their personal lives over the years. This is one of the few examples in queer western cinema we've seen where the director actually captures the physical relationship, not just leaving it up to the audience to interpret the undertones. Set in the '60s, the movie was incredibly heartbreaking. But despite the, at times, depressing subject matter, it's been credited with helping queer stories on the big screen become more mainstream and it was an important step forward for Hollywood. It also helped create awareness that there were actual gay cowboys out on the range...the real West wasn't straight out of a John Wayne movie.

10 years after the film was released, The Hollywood Reporter asked Jake Gyllenhaal about his experience and what it was like to sign on to the film. Apparently, many actors were considered for the roles of Ennis and Jack but certain men in Hollywood were too scared to sign on. Despite being praised for his Oscar-nominated performance and willingness to dive so deep into the role, Gyllenhaal explained that his decision to be in the film was really a no-brainer.

"And when that opportunity came, I was a young actor. I was like, 'Yeah, I'm in.' I know a lot has been made of the choice to do it, but it just didn't seem like something that was scary to me. You know, it was binding, because sometimes a lot of that character is very specifically the more overtly gay character of the two. The one who's struggling with it less. And I didn't really realize that. And that was an interesting journey for me, giving in to that idea."

READ MORE: The 20 Best Western Movie Performances of All Time

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