Last night, I reluctantly rewatched
Brokeback Mountain. I say "reluctantly" not because I dislike the film. If I were to compile a top-10 list of my favorite movies of all time,
Brokeback would easily make the cut. No, I hesitated because the heartbreaking love story of Ennis and Jack always leaves me an emotional wreck, and the undercurrent of Heath Ledger's untimely death was a tragic added layer I couldn't bear. But after a couple of glasses of chardonnay and a gentle nudge from my partner, Kit - "Think of it as a tribute to Heath" - I decided to do the brave thing and, rather than sidestep my grief, run headfirst into it.
So I popped in the DVD. And within seconds, the floodgates opened. I was a mess. A crying, nose-running, whimpering mess. But then, Gustavo Santaolalla's haunting, Oscar-winning score always triggered my inner Tammy Faye. (The Terms of Endearment theme has a similar effect on me.) The fact that those simple guitar tracks could easily double as the soundtrack to Ledger's real-life final chapter only compounded its potency. But I powered on, continuing to cry through much of the opening act, with varying degrees of intensity. Suffice it to say, the tissues were flying during any scene that featured both Heath and That Music.
But once I got deeper into the movie and over my initial rush of grief, I started to appreciate the brilliance of Ledger's transformative and, sure, I'll go there, legendary performance. And Kit was right: It did feel like we were honoring him. The highest compliment I can pay Ledger is that, differing accent and sexual orientation aside, I honestly didn't know where Ledger ended and Ennis began. Having never seen a single Ledger performance before or since - I know, it shocks me, too - the actor and the character were like one person to me.
But about 90 minutes into Brokeback, I started to seriously question the entire therapeutic exercise. You see, the hardest part was lurking around the corner, and I was dreading it. I'm talking about the two most gut-wrenching scenes in the movie: Ennis discovering his missing shirt in Jack's closet, and then that final scene. Alone - and lonely - in his trailer with nothing but his memories of Jack keeping him alive, Ennis opens his closet and sees the shirt.
Cue That Music.
Gets me every time. But it really got me last night. That scene was, from all indications, not dissimilar to Ledger's final hours. He was alone. Possibly depressed. Definitely struggling with his demons. The parallel was too much to bear and I lost it.
I remember the first time I saw Brokeback, and how deeply that final scene affected me. I left the theater feeling like someone had punched me in the gut. My heart ached for Ennis and the happy ending that so eluded him. I reminded myself that it was just a movie and Ledger was just playing a part. In real life, he was well on his way to a happy ending with then-girlfriend Michelle Williams and their daughter, Matilda. And, strangely, that was an enormous comfort to me.
But this time around, that emotional crutch was gone. Ledger's story had ended as tragically as Ennis' had. And it all seemed so incredibly heartbreaking - with or without That Music.
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