‘Brokeback Mountain’ Cast Remembers Heath Ledger On Film’s 10th Anniversary

Brokeback Mountain is 10 years old this year. If that’s not enough to make you feel old, nothing will.
The film, notable not only for its unique portrayal of two male cowboys struggling with feelings for each other – nestled in a genre otherwise almost completely dominated by heteronormative hyper-masculinity – but its cast of young actors all on the verge of being bonafide megastars, delivered director Ang Lee the Best Director Oscar at the 78th Academy Awards, whilst also picking up gongs for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score, although the film did miss out on the Best Picture award to Crash in somewhat controversial circumstances.
The film’s legacy remains great, and it stands the test of time – even if it has, in the years since, entered the lexicon as something of a nervous joke for the straight gaze when identifying any potential elements of queer that enter – or threaten to enter – pop culture.
Sadly, lead actor and much beloved Australian artist Heath Ledger passed away seven years ago at the age of 28.
To mark the film’s tenth anniversary, OUT Magazine conducted an in-depth oral history of the film, interviewing key cast and crew members – all of whom painted a picture of a rare camaraderie on the set of the film, which included the burgeoning real-life romance between Ledger and Michelle Williams.
Screenwriter Diana Ossana recounted how enamoured Heath was with Michelle – practically from the instant they met.
The first day we filmed that scene where Michelle’s character is on the toboggan and falls off the sled, and Ennis is with her—they’re laughing; well on the third take, Michelle fell off the sled, and at the bottom of the hill she was crying. She’d twisted her knee, and we had to call someone to take her to the hospital. Heath was not about to let her go alone, and as he was getting into the vehicle with her he was smoothing her hair back. I remember him looking at her, and she looking up at him with these wide eyes. She was almost startled by the attention he was giving her, but you could see it every day from thereon. For him it was truly love at first sight. He was so taken with her.
Meanwhile Ledger’s co-star Jake Gyllenhaal recalled the simple existence that the film’s set cultivated, and the indelible bond that forged between himself and his co-stars.

“For the first month of shooting we all lived by this river in little trailers, and I had my dog there. We all just lived on a campground and would walk to set. You know, in a world driven by commerce, particularly in the movie business, there’s no time spent together—relationships are fleeting. But in the old-school way, people really used to spend their time together. They became a family. And that’s what Ang created on the movie. It’s why we are all still close— not just bonded by the success of the film, but bonded by the experience. It was an intimate project in that way. We’d wake up and make breakfast for each other, and hang out. Heath and Michelle fell in love. It was a really special, special time.”

Anne Hathaway – who played Gyllenhaal’s on-screen wife Lureen – remembered the sense of importance that she felt the story had, and the enormity of the role that the four of them (Hathaway, Williams, Gyllenhaal, and Ledger) had in telling it.

“The four of us were taken out to this restaurant in Calgary by the producers, and I remember sitting there and looking at beautiful Heath, and Jake, and Michelle, and it hit me that we were all under 25. It’s funny how recent it was, but at the time we were very far away from this burgeoning humanist moment that we’re having now with gay rights. And it felt like a very big and important step—a statement about love, about the need for love, about the consequences of limiting people. And I was just so blown away that these four 25-year-old kids could bring this to life, especially the three of them.”

Hathaway also gave two vivid examples of Ledger’s extreme commitment to his craft, and to the role – both existing in complete disregard to his own physical wellbeing.

“Heath almost broke his hand making the movie. It’s the scene where Jack drives off and Ennis starts to walk down the road and all of a sudden sort of falls into an alleyway because he’s got a pain in his stomach and is overwhelmed. Heath just really wanted to go there, and kind of got down. The plan was for him to put his face against the wall—that’s what the shot was supposed to be—and he just wound up punching the brick. Everyone was freaking out because it was a real wall. It wasn’t a movie brick wall. It was a fuckin’ brick wall. And he did it, and they got it, and they said his hand was mangled. He might have actually broken it.”

“I remember getting to watch the shot of Heath walking across their front yard, which is really just dust and dirt more than anything else, and Heath had decided that at some point Ennis had been in an accident and had a limp. It was so subtle, and it looked like he’d had this limp for about four years, and I just remember looking at Heath in that moment, and thinking, That is one of the greatest actors that has ever been.”

But it was Gyllenhaal whose words about the late Ledger were ultimately the most poignant, recounting the way that Ledger hated how the film became punchline fodder for the largely straight mainstream media, and the enormity of talent that was lost upon his tragic passing.

“He was extraordinarily serious about the political issues surrounding the movie when it came out. A lot of times people would want to have fun and joke about it, and he was vehement about being serious, to the point where he didn’t really want to hear about anything that was being made fun of.”

“While there are many parts of the real story that are sad, one of the saddest things is that I won’t be able to exchange ideas creatively with Heath again, because that was one of the most beautiful things to come out of that.”

The full oral history of the movie is available to peruse at your leisure over at Out Magazine, and it is an extraordinarily interesting read.

Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams separated in 2007, one year prior to Ledger’s death. Their daughter, Matilda, is now 9 years old.