'Brokeback Mountain' adaptation to star all-transgender cast

A virtual staged reading of the Oscar-winning screenplay will be performed as part of NewFest, New York’s annual LGBTQ film festival.
Brian Michael Smith, Jen Richards, Leo Sheng, Alexandra Grey.
Brian Michael Smith, Jen Richards, Leo Sheng, Alexandra Grey.Getty Images

When “Brokeback Mountain” hit theaters in 2005, it was a hallmark moment for LGBTQ cinema. The story of two lonesome cowboys finding love against the backdrop of the repressive early 1960s was seen by millions of moviegoers, earning critical praise and three Oscars.

What wasn’t discussed much at the time, though, was that none of the film’s principals identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Not co-stars Heath Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal, and not director Ang Lee or screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.

Fifteen years later, as authentic representation is a greater part of the cultural conversation, “Brokeback Mountain” is returning to (computer) screens — this time with an all-transgender cast.

A virtual staged reading of the film’s script is set to stream online on Sunday, Oct. 18, as part of NewFest, New York’s annual LGBTQ film festival.

The cast includes Brian Michael Smith (“Queen Sugar,” “911: Lone Star”) as Jack Twist and Leo Sheng (“The L Word”) as Ennis Del Mar, with Jen Richards (“Tales of the City,” “Mrs Fletcher”) as Alma Beers and Alexandra Grey (“Empire”) as Lureen Newsome. Other cast members include Mal Blum, Jes Tom, Mars Dixon, Theo Germaine, Jordan Gonzalez, Drew Gregory and Vico Ortiz.

“‘Brokeback’ to me is so much about masculinity. I thought the only way we could do it is to make it specifically trans,” said Gaby Dunn, who’s producing the live reading with Karl Saint Lucy. “These characters are so trapped by the gender roles.”

Dunn, a Los Angeles-based writer, actor and comedian, has been organizing #MakeItGay virtual live-reads throughout the pandemic, reimagining Hollywood studio films like “The Breakfast Club,” “Clue” and “Oceans 11” with diverse, queer casts.

“I’m such a fan of film, but often when I watch the big budget stuff, like the Marvel movies, there’s no one gay,” she told NBC News. “I wanted to find a way to give people a chance to excel in roles they’d never be given the chance to do.”

That’s especially true for trans actors, who are often overlooked or shunted into niche projects.

“I get frustrated when people say, ‘Oh, we can’t find a trans actor to cast.’ Here they are — here’s an entire screen full of them,” Dunn said. “They can be in these big, Oscar-bait movies, too. Or in genre movies — or comedies. Where is my trans ‘The Hangover,’ my trans ‘Gravity’? There’s so much missed opportunity.”

Gaby Dunn.Robyn Van Swank

Dunn said she’s eager to provide that opportunity and to work with so many of her friends.

“We all know each other,” she said. Brian Michael Smith is "so talented. He just had to play Jack, because he has so many monologues and so much to chew on. The ‘I wish I could quit you’ line was so good. That speech had everyone just silent.”

Jen Richards, a transgender writer, actress and producer, has participated in a number of Dunn’s readings and calls them liberating.

“Ninety-nine percent of everything that comes my way is about being trans. And that’s fine,” she told NBC News. “But it’s thrilling to play characters that have nothing to do with it.”

Still, she said, putting transgender actors into “Brokeback Mountain” allows for a more “generous and fertile” interpretation of the script.

“Beyond being a gay film, it’s very much a male movie. It’s all about masculinity and the trap it was for Ennis and Jack,” Richards said. “When you see it performed by trans men, the gender performance is so obvious. It’s definitely implied in the film, but we’re kind of bringing that element out more into the light.”

The 134-minute movie has been pared down to a tight 90 minutes, with documentary filmmaker Sam Feder (“Disclosure”) serving as narrator. And while it is a reading, “there are accents and costume changes and Zoom backgrounds,” Dunn teased. “People went all out.” But don’t expect a parody.

“We have a certain reverence for the material and wanted to definitely approach it earnestly,” NewFest Executive Director David Hatkoff said. “It’s definitely not done with a wink.”

Hatkoff said that, in 2005, it was meaningful to see a queer romance on the big screen, but he points to the cisgender, masculine identity infused in both the story and the people making it.

“It’s not an indictment of the film, but I think times have changed, and we’re a lot more aware of who is at the table,” he said. “Three of the lead actors are people of color, which also subverts the ‘white energy’ of the original.”

Like Hatkoff, Dunn has a complicated relationship with “Brokeback Mountain,” which is based on a 1997 short story of the same name by Annie Prouix.

“It’s a beautiful film, but it didn’t feel like queer cinema,” she said. “It’s alarming how many of these large tentpole movies about our community are not by us or for us. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be made; I just wish they weren’t the most visible films out there.”

And perhaps “Brokeback Mountain” wouldn’t be made in 2020 — at least not the way it was 15 years ago. “We’re having different conversations as a community, and there’s a sense of accountability about who is telling whose stories,” Hatkoff said.

With space for prestige arthouse movies at the cineplex shrinking by the year, it’s not even clear “Brokeback Mountain” could get greenlighted today.

“NewFest is proof positive that queer stories are being told — beautiful, nuanced, well-acted and well-directed films are being made,” Hatkoff said. “But they’re primarily independent features and foreign films. I don’t know if it could be made at the same scale if it was made today. Or if it had an out cast.”

While the reading is free, suggested donations benefit the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the NewFest Future Fund, which supports filmmaker resources, year-round screenings and programs for LGBTQ youth.

The "Brokeback Mountain" virtual live-read will stream on NewFest’s Facebook and YouTube channel Sunday, Oct. 18, at 6 p.m. ET. This year’s festival runs from Oct. 16 to 27.

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