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Gay cowboys add new spin on Oscars

Western fans can rejoice once more. A tale of cowboys on the range is back in the saddle as lead contender for the upcoming Academy Awards nominations.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 22:08 IST

Western fans can rejoice once more. A tale of cowboys on the range is back in the saddle as lead contender for the upcoming Academy Awards nominations.

Of course, Brokeback Mountain is not your father's Western, not John Wayne riding through all those John Ford epics, not even Clint Eastwood striding with anti-hero bloodlust in Unforgiven.

Set in more contemporary times, Brokeback Mountain is the story of two men who have a romantic fling as young sheepherders, then find their summer of love blossoming into a lifelong passion they conceal from their wives.

A still from Brokeback Mountain

As the film gradually expanded into wide release, it has packed theaters in both liberal-leaning urban areas and the conservative heartland.

"Once people saw the film, they understood that it was a film about a kind of epic greatness that can exist in anyone, anywhere, no matter who they are, no matter what their sexual orientation or class or historical circumstances," said Brokeback Mountain" producer James Schamus.

Brokeback Mountain is part of a wave of films that marked 2005 as a year of Hollywood activism on political and social issues. Joining Brokeback Mountain in the hunt for Oscar nominations Tuesday: the oil-industry thriller Syriana, an indictment of American thirst for Middle East petroleum at any cost;

The Constant Gardener, a story of love, intrigue and murder amid corruption by governments and pharmaceutical companies in Africa; Munich, which uses the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympics and its aftermath to examine the cycle of bloodshed in the Middle East; Transamerica, a comic drama about sexual identity and acceptance centered on a man preparing for a sex change; and Good Night, and Good Luck, a tale of personal freedomversus fear-mongering told through the 1950s clash between newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Along with all the celebrity backslapping come Oscar night March 5, will any good emerge from these films packing messages? "I think American culture is closely allied with American political progress, and a film like Brokeback will absolutely kick down barriers and open up people's hearts and minds," said playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), a potential screenplay nominee for co-writing Munich.

"I think a lot of people who are afraid of gay relationships will go and see it, and they see a relationship that whether you're gay or straight is immensely recognizable. It's great for us, and I'm thrilled."

"Brokeback Mountain" has dominated earlier Hollywood honors, earning best dramatic film and three other prizes at the Golden Globes and winning top awards from key critics groups. The film is positioned to become the first gay-themed movie to win the best-picture Oscar, while "Brokeback Mountain" filmmaker Ang Lee is a front-runner for best director.

As one of the cowboys in love in "Brokeback Mountain," Heath Ledger has a virtual lock on a best-actor nomination, though he faces serious competition from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Golden Globe for lead actor in a drama as author Truman Capote in "Capote."

For her gender-bending role in "Transamerica," which earned her the dramatic actress prize at the Globes, Felicity Huffman is considered the favorite to win best actress. An Oscar would cap a breakout year for Huffman, who won an Emmy last September for "Desperate Housewives" after years of toiling in bit movie roles, failed television shows and TV guest spots.

The confluence of her abrupt TV and movie stardom is all part of Hollywood, Huffman said.

"We're in the kind of business where it's more like gold mining than sort of a matriculation like college, you know?" Huffman said. "You sort of go, `Hey, you know, I found gold,' rather than going, `Hey, I graduated and became a senior."'

Along with presenting fresh awards faces such as Huffman and Hoffman, the Oscars likely will follow the lead of earlier film honors and focus heavily on smaller, independent fare rather than studio flicks.

Indie films such as Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Transamerica, The Constant Gardener and Good Night, and Good Luck have gathered far more attention this awards season than big-budget Memoirs of a Geisha, King Kong or Munich. "This year, I'm particularly happy for the movies that were in, that are coming out," said Brokeback Mountain director Lee. "I feel very not only honored, but it's just a pleasure to be with those so-called small movies."

One studio film almost certain to do well on nominations morning is the Johnny Cash biography Walk the Line, which won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy and acting prizes for Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as the country legend's soul mate, June Carter.

First Published: Jan 29, 2006 18:00 IST