Ten years ago this week, the Ang Lee film Brokeback Mountain first opened in theaters. Ask anyone today about it, and they can probably tell you two things about it: It’s about gay cowboys and it featured one of Heath Ledger’s most celebrated performances. Indeed, Brokeback Mountain remains a highlight of Heath Ledger’s all-too-brief career.
Ledger, who starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, died of an accidental drug overdose in 2008 and only appeared in four more movies, including I’m Not There, and then The Dark Knight and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both of which were released posthumously. In honor of the film’s ten-year anniversary, we’re looking back on some behind-the-scenes stories that fans may not know, as well as recollections of from cast members about working with Ledger.
(Warning: Some clips from the film contain language that may be NSFW.)
1. Ledger’s romance with Michelle Williams blossomed on set
Though the film focuses on the relationship between Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s characters, Ledger has palpable chemistry onscreen with Michelle Williams, who plays his long-suffering wife, Alma. In a 2005 interview with TIME, the film’s producer, James Schamus, said everyone on else on the set watched the pair fall in love, and that the relationship added an extra spark to the actors’ scenes together. “It was a big gift to have two people falling in love in our midst,” Schamus said. “You forget how lovely that is.”
2. And there was one scene in particular that proved pivotal to the couple’s relationship
Earlier this year, Out magazine compiled an oral history of Brokeback Mountain. As part of it, the film’s co-writer, Diana Ossana, recalled how one of the first scenes filmed gave some indication of Ledger and Williams’s feelings toward each other.
“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,” Ossana said. “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.”
Michelle Williams’s Changing Looks!
3. Williams’s explanation of her feelings for Ledger, years after his death, are heartbreaking but beautiful
She granted an interview to GQ in 2012. In it, her interviewer asked her a question that brought her to tears: “Do you think there was a part of you that imagined the two of you would somehow end up together?” Her response concludes the interview: “I said it would make me too sad to answer but it’s also one of my favorite things to imagine It’s actually one of my favorite places to visit.”
4. Ledger understood why the movie was important
Gyllenhaal told Out that his late costar took the movie’s issues to heart. “He was extraordinarily serious about the political issues surrounding the movie when it came out,” Gyllenhaal said. “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.”
5. Had either Ledger or Gyllenhaal declined the part, the other might not have been cast
Gyllenhaal also explained to Out that he and Ledger were cast as complementary costars, not as individual actors. “When I first met with Ang there were a number of different combinations of actors he had in mind – and each combination of actors was different,” he said. “After I had met with Ang – a brief, somewhat awkward meeting – I heard, ‘Now he’s thinking about Heath Ledger and you. But if Heath doesn’t want to do it, then it’s going to be somebody else.’ ”
6. And Gyllenhaal has used Ledger’s death to re-examine his own life
While promoting his film Southpaw in 2015, Gyllenhaal told NPR’s Fresh Air that Ledger’s passing had affected him on a fundamental level. “I miss him as a human being and I miss working with him and what an unfortunate thing it is that we won’t be able to see the beauty of his expression,” Gyllenhaal said. “I think losing Heath and being a part of a family that was something like the movie, that movie we all made together, makes you appreciate that and hopefully moves you away from the things that really don’t matter to the things that do.”
7. Anne Hathaway fibbed to get the part
Hathaway played the rodeo queen wife to Gyllenhaal’s character, but she told Out she didn’t know how to ride a horse when she auditioned. “When I left the audition, the last thing Ang said was, ‘Oh, by the way, can you ride a horse?’ My parents have given me a lot of gifts in my life, and one of them is: If you’re ever asked if you can do anything, say yes. You can learn anything in two weeks if you’re motivated enough.” But that didn’t mean her time on horseback went smoothly. “I went to a rehearsal in front of 300 extras, all of whom work in rodeos, and the horse wouldn’t do a damn thing I wanted it to. And at the end it threw me – in front of everyone,” Hathaway recalled.
8. Also, Hathaway auditioned with ‘big princess hair’
As Hathaway recalled to Out, her audition coincided with the filming of Princess Diaries 2. “We were shooting the coronation part of the movie, so I was dressed in a ball gown, wearing this big hairpiece that was way over the top, but also worked for a rodeo queen, so it was fine,” she said. “I just put on my jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, and drove across the lot in a golf cart with my big princess hair.”
9. Kate Mara remembers Ledger as ‘an incredible actor’
Mara played the daughter of Ledger and Williams’s characters, and in a CBC interview, she described Brokeback as feeling like the first movie she ever made even though she’d been acting for years. “I remember I was really concerned because I was not that much younger than him and I was playing his daughter, so I thought ‘Oh gosh, this is going to be a horrible mistake’ but I wasn’t going to say anything about it,” Mara said. “So I was really nervous it wasn’t going to be real but I was so wrong because [Heath] was such an incredible actor And he was very, very sweet and he sort of, took care of me. It wasn’t my first movie but it really felt like it was.”
10. And Linda Cardellini calls working with Ledger ‘a gift’
In Brokeback, Cardellini plays a waitress who has a fling with Ledger’s character. Speaking to the A.V. Club in 2013, Cardellini recalled feeling nervous about whether she’d get the part but ultimately feeling grateful for the opportunity to work with Ledger. “I’m a huge Ang Lee fan. That script is so beautiful. I remember spending 45 minutes auditioning and thinking, ‘I may not get this part, but it doesn’t matter because I just spent 45 minutes getting directed by Ang Lee,’ ” she said. “When I got the part, to work with the talent that was in that film, including Heath Ledger, it was really a gift and privilege.
11. It could have starred Matt Damon and Joaquin Phoenix
Initially director Gus Van Sant expressed interest in adapting the film, with Damon playing Ledger’s role and Phoenix Gyllenhaal’s. In 2007 with EW, Damon said he passed as a result of already having The Talented Mr. Ripley and All the Pretty Horses under his belt: “Gus, I did a gay movie then a cowboy movie. I can’t follow it up with a gay-cowboy movie!” Van Sant ended up directing a different gay-themed movie, Milk, which starred Phoenix.
12. Other actors auditioned, but hesitantly
Lee told Out that auditioning actors to play the male leads proved unusual to other films he’s cast. “During the interviews I had a feeling they were a little, if I may say, afraid, uncomfortable,” Lee said. “Usually when they come to meet with [the director] their agents will follow up: ‘How’s it going?’ They didn’t say that to me this time.” Ossana said some actors were discouraged from auditioning. [Co-writer Larry McMurtry] believed actors’ representatives were dissuading them from doing the part – they called it career suicide for a straight actor to play a gay person. We just thought that was ridiculous.” In the end, both Ledger and Gyllenhaal were nominated for Oscars for their performances.
13. The director credits Brokeback Mountain with reviving his interest in filmmaking
Two years before the release of Brokeback Mountain, Lee directed a very different sort of movie: The Hulk. He told Out that Brokeback proved to be the movie he needed to make next. “After The Hulk I thought about retirement. I thought I’d had enough. My father had just passed away, and I was exhausted. Brokeback Mountain nurtured me back to filmmaking and as a person. I’m not the creator of that movie – I’m just a participant. It was meant to come out, to see the world, to affect people. I think everybody involved felt that way, like we were blessed. I don’t have another movie I feel that way about.”
14. The author wishes she’d never written the short story
A short story titled “Brokeback Mountain” first appeared in the Oct. 13, 1997, edition of The New Yorker, and author Annie Proulx later included it Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a 1999 collection of stories by Proulx. Following the success of the film, however, Proulx told the Los Angeles Times, that she receives an abundance of revisions and expansions of the story by fans who miss the point. “I wish I’d never written it,” she said. “These cover letters always begin with the sentence ‘I’m not gay, but ‘ [These fans] think that just because they are men, they understand men better than I do.”
15. That said, she liked the movie
“The film is huge and powerful,” she said in an interview on her website. “I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire. And, when I saw the film for the first time, I was astonished that the characters of Jack and Ennis came surging into my mind again I thought I had successfully banished them over the years. Wrong.”