Homosexual Heath Ledger Character: Bad. Heterosexually Promiscuous Ledger Character: Not So bad?

I’ve had some interesting chats with the film writers and the editor of Christianity Today Movies in the wake of the publication of Lisa Cockrel’s Brokeback Mountain review.

Mark Moring, the CT Movies editor, says he’s received over 250 e-mails about the Brokeback Mountain review. Many of them have expressed hatred toward homosexuals. And some of them have expressed hatred towards Christiainity Today for even reviewing the movie.

(Some of them are posted here and more here.)

But here’s something interesting…

While many of those Christians responding felt that it was immoral for Christianity Today to say anything positive, or to say anything at all, about a movie in which Heath Ledger plays a homosexual…

there has not been one single letter raising any protest to the fact that Christianity Today Movies also reviewed Heath Ledger’s other movie currently in theaters… Casanova… in which he plays a character who happily hops into bed with one woman after another.

While Casanova does end with a nod toward the rewards of fidelity, we’re never made to consider the immorality of his promiscuity. Furthermore, who’s the villain in the film? The guy who works for the church.

So, if CT reviews a movie in Ledger gets frisky and sleeps with a bunch of WOMEN … nobody bothers to protest.

But make his indiscretions homosexual instead of heterosexual, and suddenly, it’s not just automatically a “wicked” and “abhorrent” movie, but even those Christians who write about the film thoughtfully are labeled as sinners and even “sodomites”!

It boggles the mind.

[revised question] Why are so many Christians ready to send off angry letters the moment something offends them? And why do so many respond so viciously toward their brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying to engage the culture in a thoughtful, rather than condemning and judgmental, way?

This question comes back to me constantly. For my decade of publishing film reviews, I’ve received mountains of spiteful and condemning letters from Christians telling my that I’m not saved, that God will judge me, etc. … all because of my attention to various films. My attempts to engage those writers in conversations have usually been useless–they have no interest in discussing anything, they just want to deliver judgment. Movieguide’s Ted Baehr even announced to the public on live radio that, because I liked a certain film, I have clearly not read my Bible. (An interesting statement, considering what the Bible says about people who claim to be clairvoyant.) But in all of those years, I’ve only received a couple of angry notes from unbelievers… and those notes led to interesting conversations.

Anyway, in case you missed it, here’s my review of Brokeback Mountain. A few folks have asked why I prefaced the review with such a heavy clarification. But if you could see my email box, and the responses coming in to CT, you’d understand.

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  • Ellen Collison

    Have you seen this article in the New Yorker?

    Here’s a quote (I “stole” this from smith_chip):

    “The best-known writer to come from the Ninth Ward is Kalamu ya Salaam. A poet, playwright, and civil-rights activist, Salaam used to go by the name of Val Ferdinand. When I told Salaam what I was hearing in New Iberia and Houston, he laughed, but not dismissively. He said, “The real question is why not?” He recalled that in 1927, in the midst of the worst flooding of the Mississippi River in recorded history, the white city fathers of New Orleans—the men of the Louisiana Club, the Boston Club, and the Pickwick Club—won permission from the federal government to dynamite the Caernarvon levee, downriver from the city, to keep their interests dry. But destroying the levee also insured that the surrounding poorer St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes would flood. Thousands of the trappers who lived there lost their homes and their livelihoods. The promise of compensation was never fulfilled. That, plus the persistent rumors of what may or may not have happened during Hurricane Betsy, Salaam said, has had a lingering effect. “So when I heard on TV that there was a breach at the Seventeenth Street levee, I figured they’d done it again,” he said. “Or, let’s just say, I didn’t automatically assume that it was accidental.”

  • Ellen Collison

    I felt skeptical about the “theory” until I read Lee’s remarks in context.

  • Ellen Collison


    I’m one of the CT readers who sent a *positive* response to your review of Brokeback Mountain – or, more correctly, to the CT editors for choosing to run it. (Though I really enjoyed reading your take – see below.) Have been trying to send you some comments via your web site, but for obvious reasons, my messages keep bouncing.

    So, here goes:

    “Hi Jeffery,

    I’ve read the review on your site (also our CT piece) a couple of times, along with the story by Annie Proulx and many other reviews. I’m glad you covered the movie for CT, also that CT didn’t shy away from printing your piece. It would be really interesting to see what you would do with a comparison of the screenplay to the original story, which is very terse and to the point (and also seems to have taken Proulx a very long time to write, per her own comments, on her site and elsewhere).

    I really appreciate your looking at this film and its characters with compassion, though I have to wonder if it’s mainly about “misguided lust” per se (though that certainly is one of my takes on the relationship between Ennis and Jack) – these men are not very verbal (again, see story!) and the one thing that stands out there, more than anything else, is something that goes much deeper than sex alone (presented at the end of the story). I think it’s important to see more of the emotional complexity – and confusion – that’s part of the narrative. Having said this, I should also note that I’ve not had an opportunity to see the film – I live in a rural area, and the local movie theaters won’t touch this one – so I don’t know how nuanced (or not) the characters really are. Based on reading the story, though, it seems that all of the characters (Jack, Ennis, Alma and Lureen) are people of few words but deep emotions.

    The story is definitely worth reading – and comparing with the film – for the things revealed at the very end – a glimpse into what happened besides the sex, and was (for Ennis, probably Jack too) more important than the sex. I agree that the sexual side of the relationship is both obsessive and destructive – and sinful. But Proulx’s characters, as presented in the story, aren’t one-dimensional.

    I’ll wind up now (I’m beginning to ramble!) but wanted to let you know that I appreciate your courage, honesty and compassion – as well as your admiration of Ang Lee. (I’m especially fond of both Eat Drink Man Woman and Crouching Tiger… – and now want to see The Wedding Banquet.)

    NOTE: I tried sending this a couple of days ago, but it was bounced. A few additional thoughts:

    1. I wonder if you’re making a clear differentiation (in the piece on your site) between believers and unbelievers? (Per Jack, Ennis and others – in the story, there’s no mention of religion.) I’d also have to say that attractions (by themselves) aren’t necessarily sinful – it’s how one acts on them, in thoughts and in actual fact… The story isn’t written from a Biblical viewpoint.

    2. Proulx’s story has some pretty raw sexual descriptions – though they’re not (I think) erotic in the least. Just warning you!”

    An after-the-fact comment: Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” features two lead characters who are homosexual. So it’s not as if he’s never dealt with sexual attractions/identity/etc. before, albeit in a very different way.

    One thing that sticks in my mind is a comment Lee made about “The Ice Storm” – that for him, it is literally a horror story.

    Just something to chew on…!

  • jasdye

    Greg Marquez,

    It’s called ‘Brokeback Mountaineering.”


  • Jeffrey Overstreet


    If it’s on my list, it’s because I loved it and I’ll buy a copy to watch it again and again.

    Life’s too busy and too complicated for me to waste time worrying about who my list is going to impress.

    Brokeback Mountain would be the least distinctive, the least memorable of Ang Lee’s films, in my opinion… even if the story was about heterosexuals. It’s popular primarily because it is audacious to tell this story in America on the big screen. It’s well made, as I said in my review, but there’s nothing truly outstanding about it. Ledger is pretty good, but hardly great. The cinematography is attractive, but not Oscar-worthy. And the script is only occasionally interesting.

    I was once accused of including foreign films on my list to try and appear educated. This particular critic implied I was attempting to be taken seriously by art-film lovers. Good grief… there are just as many self-absorbed art-film critics as there are self-absorbed mainstream critics. I don’t feel the need to be part of that club, or any critics club. I started Looking Closer because I LOVE MOVIES and I wanted to find other Christians who would take them seriously with me. (Music, as well.) I spent my high school years disgusted with cliques, and I’m not about to get sucked into that kind of thing now.

    Thanks for your note.


  • Greg Marquez

    Okay. I don’t have a dog in this fight but… The reason for the disparities in reaction to Brokeback Mountain and Cassanova might have nothing to do with bigotry. To wit:

    1. The battle against adulterous heterosexual promiscuity has been fought already and lost. No point crying over spilled milk, or…

    2. Maybe people would be as offended at Cassanova if there was as concerted an effort to legitimize Cassanovaing in our society as their is to legitimize Brokeback Mountaining. We’ll be able to test this theory once we start celebrating Cassanova Month and having Cassanova Pride parades, and teaching be true to your inner Cassanova curriculum in our high schools.

    On a good note I was pleased that your top movies of 2005 did not include Brokeback. I was just about certain that a Christian, living in Seattle, who reviews movies for a living would feel compelled to demonstrate his open mindedness, and distinction from his uncultured brethren by saying what a great movie it was. I was happy to be wrong.
    Greg Marquez

  • bmoorewdm

    Darnit, Jeffrey, you pulled me into another one of these discussions… :)

  • bmoorewdm

    Part of the reason, I suspect, that there is a disparity between complaints about gay-Heath-movie vs loose-Heath-movie is that the “gay movement” is seen by many to be the leading edge of the battle for morality at this point in history. And I suspect that a big part of the reason it is seen as such is that much of Hollywood, TV, modern literature, and magazines seem intent on making it the leading edge.

    Example? I was reading an article on helping adopted children work with the fact they are “different” (in an Adoptive Parents magazine) this week and plop in the middle of the second page was a paragraph arguing for the acceptance of gay marriage. I have a (admittedly non-scientific) belief – based on perceived experience – that I can turn on NPR are any random point in my commute, listen for 10 minutes, and hear a comment or report that is supportive of something homosexual.

    So, in some sense, at least, this trend Jeffrey is seeing in the letters at CT Movies is simply an indicator of where the current “flash-point” is in cultural conversation (and battle). In the 1920s it was all about “demon rum” – that’s where the leading edge was, and some Christians said some silly and sorry things at that time as well.

  • Wasp Jerky

    My hypothesis has always been that Christians come down so hard on homosexuality because it’s a sin that most Christians aren’t committing. Most everything else we’re pretty good at. I believe the stats even show that we’ve got a higher divorce rate than non-Christians. Rail against any other sin and it won’t be long until we’re forced to confront uncomfortable truths about our own selves. We might even have to, gasp!, change our own behavior. Better to put the focus on someone else if possible.

  • Timothy Grant

    Alright, I’m going to say it…

    Christians are great at writing hate mail because the vast majority of Christians are unthinking lemmings who have been told what to think and have no critical thinking abilities whatsoever. If anything threatens their comfortable little world view it is complete anathema.

    Everyone knows that heterosexual fornication and adultery aren’t nearly as bad as their homosexual counterparts, because heterosexuality is normal!

    Unfortunately, until critical thinking becomes a skill that Christian parents, churches, schools, colleges and universities insist on teaching the new generations of Christians will continue to be the best hate-mail writers around.

    I am incredibly thankful for you Jeffrey, I can send non-believers to your site and not worry about you being an embarrassment to my faith.

  • Tompaul

    Paul had some advice that would shut down quite a few Christian ministries and self-proclaimed watch groups. After telling the Corinthians (who lived in a sex-splattered society that made Vegas look like Disneyland) that they needed to guard their community’s integrity in sexual matters, but not by no means spurn the company of immoral non-Christians, Paul wrote:

    “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” (1 Corinthians 5:12, 13, NIV)

    That’s sage advice that, if taken, would radically recreate the heart of Christian witness in our society. But alas, we’re too busy criticizing non-Christians, and turning them off to Jesus in the process. We need to focus on the plank in our own eyes.

  • HCJoel

    We’re self-righteous idiots, that’s why we react this way. I know, I went through a incredibly zealous phase in my teenage years. I bet I would have written one of those vicious letters at that time. I feel two responses toward such people now.
    First, I feel angry. Who the hell do they think they are?!? The chances are I am smarter than they are, not to mention more insightful and have more of an understanding of who Christ is than they do. They’re anal retentive (interestingly enough), uncultured and ignorant. They are so busy ‘guarding the perimeter’ of Christendom, they miss Jesus completely.
    Second, I repent of my pride. Hahaha. I’m a jackass just like them. I feel sad that they are so afraid and live sheltered lives, never/rarely experiencing the freedom and love of Jesus. I need to develop more compassion toward my fellow Christians.

  • Levi Nunnink

    “Why are Christians better at writing hate mail than anybody? And why do they respond so viciously when their brothers and sisters in Christ try and engage the culture in a thoughtful, rather than condemning and judgmental, way?”

    That’s a pretty blanket statement, which I don’t think is true – and I doubt that you actually believe. In that paragraph, you’re taking your personal experiences with a few Christians and applying it to the entire Body of Christ.

    I think that the real problem is that there’s a lot of Christians in America. When you have a group as big as we are, there’s always going to be a small percent that are weirdos and jerks who tend to be ignorant, spiteful and maybe homophobic.

    But most all of my immediate brother’s and sister’s in Christ I’m sure would feel the same towards both of those movies. They’d probably react differently but I don’t think they’d be hypocritical.

    I do hear your overall point though – you sick-liberal! ;-)

    Sorry I couldn’t resist…