Michelle Williams and “Brokeback Mountain”

[REVISED, after some second thoughts…]

Thanks to Peter T. Chattaway for catching this…

[ … AND thanks to Dan Buck for challenging my first post. I got a little too cocky (Can I say that in a post about Brokeback Mountain?), thinking I was responding to the SFC headmaster, when in fact I may have been reacting to a characterization of SFC exaggerated by the journalist who reported on them. ]

‘Brokeback’ Star Slammed by Former School

Brokeback Mountain actress Michelle Williams has been disowned by her former school because of her role in the controversial gay cowboy romance. Williams, who attended exclusive Santa Fe Christian School in San Diego, California, has been blasted by the school’s headmaster as “offensive” for acting the long-suffering wife of a homosexual ranch hand, played by Heath Ledger. Jim Hopson has branded the Oscar nominee a poor role model, and hopes his education establishment won’t be linked to the film’s themes. He tells the San Diego Union Tribune, [link here] “We don’t want to have anything to do with her in relation to that movie. Michelle doesn’t represent the values of this institution. Brokeback Mountain basically promotes a lifestyle we don’t promote.”

Well, the headmaster may hope his education establishment isn’t linked to the film’s themes… but by making a public statement like this, Santa Fe Christian School of San Diego, California — a school that I have never heard of until now, in spite of a lifetime in Christian education — permanently links itself with Brokeback Mountain in my mind.

Better to have just said “No comment.” Or, if he had to say something about Williams’ career choices, he could have remembered the other career choice she made this year…

Is the headmaster aware that Michelle Williams also played a compassionate, conscientious, Christian missionary woman this year, turning in a fine performance in Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty, which was written by Scott Derrickson? Did he applaud her for giving us the only Christian heroine on the big screen in 2005?

I doubt it. Land of Plenty didn’t play in very many places. But you’d think that the school would be tracking the progress of its famous alumni. We do at Seattle Pacific University. (In fact, I can tell you that there’s an SPU student in the next Wenders film, Don’t Come Knocking.) So if the folks at SFC were aware of it, why not applaud her Land of Plenty role instead of using your moment in the spotlight for nothing more than condemnation of Williams’ career choices?

Frankly, it probably would have been best if they’d refused to make a comment altogether. After all, it’s not the school’s fault that Williams got involved with a misguided film project. And who really looks at a person’s adulthood choices and blames their high school? Has anyone watched Michelle Williams in Brokeback Mountain and said to themselves, “Thundering Judas… where did she go to school?” or “What do they teach those kids at SFC?”

If I’d been headmaster, I’d have used the opportunity to point out the role that Williams plays in Brokeback Mountain. The character of Alma is an admirable, beautiful, dedicated mother and wife who senses that her husband is lacking in passion for the family. She eventually leaves him when she finds out that he is lying to her and the children, cheating on her and betraying the family.

Heck, it’s Michelle Williams’ marvelous performance that gives viewers the best opportunity to learn something really meaningful from Brokeback Mountain — namely, that infidelity is destructive and dishonest. And further, that there is more meaning in steering yourself to the mature responsibilities of raising a family than in devoting yourself to the pursuit of a self-serving, nostalgia-driven sex fantasy.

It is the human condition–corrupted by sin, we desire things that are different than what we truly need. Brokeback Mountain, like many American films, lifts us our “basic instincts” and glorifies them, painting it as a tragedy when someone isn’t allowed to indulge their primal impulses. But we are messed up people, head to toe. “What we want and what we need have been confused,” sings Michael Stipe, not knowing how much truth there is in his lyric statement.

Ang Lee’s film sends mixed signals: it celebrates true love, but the “true love” it romanticizes is between men who allowed camaraderie to develop beyond brotherly affection so that they plunged headlong into premature and misguided sexual activity. The film wants me to believe that Ennis and Jack would have lived happily ever after if society had allowed them to, but I don’t believe that for a second. Their relationship started awkwardly and recklessly. Feeding their misguided sexual impulses, they become addicted to the nostalgic fantasy of continuing their life together on that mountain, serving themselves.

But when Ennis decides to commit himself to something more fruitful–a family–he moves on with his life, and Jack refuses to honor his friend’s choices and commitments. In fact, he pursues Ennis, and Ennis gives in. Thus, Jack basically makes a liar and a cheater out of Ennis, and ruins not just Ennis’s family, but also his own, which he willingly cultivated by getting married and having kids.

So what is Jack’s response when Ennis again tries to wrest himself back onto the right path? Jack turns nasty and selfish, and starts running around with male prostitutes. He sums up the dilemma nicely when he tells Ennis that an occasional sex rendezvous on the mountain won’t satiate his appetite: “I can’t make it on a few high-altitude f—s every year!”

This is not the behavior of an admirable character. This is the behavior of a man enslaved by his sex drive. Oh sure, Jack stands up for his wife (Anne Hathaway) when his father-in-law behaves badly… but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s defending the dignity of a family that he himself is undermining.

Ennis isn’t so honorable either. In the family, he had a chance to make something meaningful of his life. By restraining his reckless homosexual urges, he was able to make a marriage that filled Alma’s life with joy, and brought beautiful girls into the world. It was a foolish choice, if he was continuing to indulge homosexual fantasies, and if he wasn’t going to be able to control himself when Jack returned to his life. But if he could have tamed those instincts and made himself an honest husband and a respectable father, becoming a man of responsibility and trustworthiness, his life might have been much richer and more fulfilling. But alas, he let nostalgia and his sex drive — which is apparently uncontrollable, according to his own words — destroy that family. (Meanwhile, men and women prove him wrong all the time by learning to control their own sexual appetites, whether they crave pornography, one-night stands, or whatever. People with uncontrollable appetites of any kind should be seeking serious help.)

It was Alma (Williams) who was innocent in the matter, and whose world was fractured by lies and infidelity. I appreciate Ang Lee’s mixed-bag-of-a-film because Alma’s story is so heartbreaking, true, and tragic. And Williams’ work is a gentle and subtle performance. No, she’s not perfect… but in this film, she’s the one who’s nature is to trust, to serve, and to love. Her decision to leave Ennis, well… who can blame her?

And the kids? The film portrays Ennis’s daughter as compassionate and forgiving. But earlier in the film, we’re led to believe that Ennis and Jack are damaged because of their upbringing. Why look critically upon their parents when Jack and Ennis can’t fulfill their own family commitments?

Anyway, I didn’t start into this post intending to summarize my review yet again, but the more I look at this film, the more it collapses like a house of cards.

So I guess I’ll just call this “my Oscar speech,” since the film is bound to win tonight, sending Hollywood into another orgy of self-congratulation, that they have once again stood up for “true love” and “tolerance” and “compassion” … at the expense of the mind, the heart, and those who will accept their ethic of favoring impulse over integrity.

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  • DanBuck

    This is probably a dead horse, but your right Chris.

    The headmaster is probably guilty of saying one or two sentences too many.

    It is woth noting that he probably didn’t even know Michelle.

    She stopped going to the school in ninth grade to play the “girl with a bad reputation” on Dawson’s Creek.

    That of course, makes me wonder even more at the intentions of the author of the article. I wonder if he interviewed any Christian tollbooth operators whom Michelle has patronized to see what they think of her gay movie. :)

  • Chris Durnell

    The sad fact is that too often the first response of such “Christian” organizations is to descend to tribalism rather than the gospel.

    Regardless of what motives Jeff may have attributed, the headmaster clearly derogated his former student with accusations of his own.

  • DanBuck

    Your humble response is inspiring.

    I probably would’ve been fuming at you for a day or two if the roles had been reversed.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Very well. Perhaps I fell for the reporter’s bait. I’ll go back and edit my response.

    Thanks, Dan. I appreciate you being willing to come after me on this one.


  • DanBuck


    You know I love ya. But I think this is a pretty broad handed swipe. While the school may be limited in their understanding and compassion toward homosexuals, this is hardly an opportunistic move on their behalf to garner attention.

    In fact, it’s quite the ooposite. They could very well have cashed in on having a “Hollywood Star” as an alum, but instead they declined a day that would have been a publicity field day for them. Note this paragraph from the article:

    “Not so proud is Santa Fe Christian headmaster Jim Hopson. “We don’t want to have anything to do with her in relation to that movie,” said Hopson, who turned down a request from a Union-Tribune reporter to visit the school and chat with students about the movies and one of their own being up for an Academy Award.”

    It looks to me as though the school was approached, and maybe even baited by a reporter who thought it interesting that a girl in a “gay movie” came from Christian roots.

    The headmaster said no, and that he wasn’t interested in being associated with her in the context of this movie.

    If the school holds to the idea that homosexuality is in fact a sin (as they probably do) they actualy held to their beliefs despite the oppportunity for a national spotlight.

    I’m not defending their “disowning” (although those are reporter’s words that seem unfair), but I will protest your speculation that they were looking for the chance to get theuir name in lights as anti-homosexual.

    Knowing a bit about the media and how they work, I think they had two roads to take here, the easy road that would’ve embraced the film and gotten them some great publicity but compromised their values, or they could pass and be villianized by this newspaper and subsequent bloggers looking for a fixed fight. They chose the latter.

    Maybe they’re heroes.