Friday, January 17, 2020

Truth is more tragic than fiction

The poster has followed me from one dorm room to another dorm room, to my apartment in law school and the house where my husband and I raise our children. It’s still in the same cruddy frame I bought in 2006 and really should have replaced a long time ago. It’s hung above bookshelves and televisions, next to everyone from Harry, Ron and Hermione to Call Me By Your Name’s Elio and Oliver. It’s the poster for one of my favorite movies of all time: Brokeback Mountain.

Michelle Williams in Brokeback Mountain
I was among the film’s original fans, someone who squirmed with anticipation waiting for January 2006, when it would open locally and I’d finally get to see what those lucky people in New York and L.A. had already seen. I’d read the short story the summer before, touched and devastated by the story of Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), two young guys in Wyoming who fall in love in the summer of 1963 and find themselves unable to let go. The simple, deep tragedy of it stuck with me. Ennis and Jack find what so many people hope for – a long-lasting, passionate love – but are unable to spend their lives together, due to the culture they live in and Ennis's terror of what might happen if they try to live outside its rules.

I’d hoped the movie would be good. It was great – amazing cast, stellar screenwriting, fantastic everything. What was supposed to be a small indie film turned into a cultural phenomenon. As more people saw the movie, my fellow fans and I congregated online – the IMDb message boards, LiveJournal, Dave Cullen’s Ultimate Brokeback Forum. Passionate and fascinated, we spent hours discussing the story, the film, the characters, and the cast.

I have vivid memories of all the press and publicity surrounding the film – the talk-show appearances, the lame late-night jokes about “I wish I knew how to quit you,” the fan fury when Brokeback Mountain lost the Best Picture Oscar to Crash. Prominent in it all was the real-life love story of Michelle Williams, who played Ennis’s wife Alma, and Heath Ledger, who fathered their daughter and told Oprah Winfrey, “I love both my girls more every day.”

It was comforting to fans in a way, that love had blossomed on the set. Ennis and Jack’s romance may have been doomed, but in telling their story, Heath and Michelle had found each other, with new baby Matilda completing the picture.

Two years later, what looked like a happy ending came to a shocking conclusion. After separating from Michelle Williams a few months before, Heath Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription medications. People my mom’s age know where they were when they heard Kennedy had been shot. I know where I was when I heard about Princess Diana’s fatal car crash, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Heath Ledger’s death. We were used to fictional tragedy in the Brokeback Mountain fandom, but this was the real thing. A promising life was over after twenty-eight years, and a two-year-old girl was never going to see her father again.

Alma Del Mar, wife of the closeted Ennis, is a pillar of quiet strength in the film – unexpectedly hit with the knowledge of her husband’s sexuality and then determined to press on for her own sake and for their two daughters. The Brokeback fandom watched as Michelle Williams, only twenty-seven years old, was subjected to tremendous media attention at what had to be the hardest moment of her life. Here she was, heartbroken by the death of her former fiance while the press speculated about the extent of his drug use and his final moments. As days became weeks became months, we could see how she’d been able to create Alma’s inner fortitude. Never less than dignified in public, she kept Matilda away from the media, kept working, and focused on her daughter, at one point taking a year off work to spend more time with her. The roles she took were contingent on Matilda and how much time they could spend together. Over the years her career grew and her one Oscar nomination, from Brokeback Mountain, turned into four.

An emancipated minor at age fifteen, Michelle Williams is resilient, talented, and smart. (She won a futures trading contest at age seventeen, with record 1000% returns.) If anyone can be a devoted mother in adverse circumstances, it’s Michelle Williams. And that’s why it was so damned infuriating to hear her say, as she accepted an award at the 2020 Golden Globes, that she wouldn’t have been able to live a life “carved with [her] own hand” “without employing a woman’s right to choose.” I wanted to shout at her, but more importantly, I wanted to throttle whoever convinced her of these horribly destructive lies.

I don’t know when Michelle Williams had an abortion, or under what circumstances. Her allusion to things that “can happen to our bodies that are not our choice” is worrisome, especially if you’ve read the reports that Harvey Weinstein was at one point obsessed with her and unexpectedly crashed the My Week With Marilyn set to watch her film nude scenes. She’s part of an industry filled with predatory men, and I don’t blame her for wanting to assert control over her body. But believing that you need abortion to live the life you want is playing by their rules. You can’t do this and be a mother. You need to sacrifice your own child, to let doctors push open your cervix with instruments and dismember the tiny person in your womb. And if that’ll help cover up the criminal behavior of some evil man, well, so much the better. 

Hollywood is a fucked-up place, where a girl’s father’s death is met with mourning but that girl’s sibling’s death is met with applause. Where people celebrate not because an actress is pregnant with a small human being, but because that human being had the good luck to show up at the right time. “I really wanted – and I really expected, or imagined – that Matilda would have siblings close to her age,” Williams said when Matilda was six. Matilda is currently fourteen and her pregnant mother is thirty-nine. Whenever Williams had her abortion, that child would be closer in age to Matilda than Matilda will be to the new baby. As per her Golden Globes speech, Michelle Williams wanted to have children “when I felt supported and able to balance our lives, as all mothers know that the scales must and will tip towards our children.” Whoever made her feel unsupported during her aborted pregnancy has a lot to answer for.

I can’t watch Brokeback Mountain without seeing Ennis, age thirty-nine by the end of the movie, and thinking that Heath Ledger never made it to that age. I suspect that when I watch it again, I won’t be able to see Alma’s baby bumps without remembering that one of Michelle Williams’s babies was killed before he or she got to bump size. I miss the days when Brokeback Mountain’s biggest tragedy was the one on the screen.

Jack Twist wished he knew how to quit Ennis Del Mar. I wish Michelle Williams knew how to quit the belief that her life’s successes depend on abortion. She’s a tough woman and a dedicated mother to Matilda, and she deserves better than this.

[Anna Sauber Kuntz has previously written for Rehumanize International and Live Action News. Her guest post today is part of our paid blogging program.]

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