By “breakout,” I mean the idea, most famously advanced by New York Times columnist Frank Rich, that the movie would do well in the “heartland,” and that this, in turn, would signal an increased acceptance of same-sex relationships.
As USA Today summarized it, the film would change “how Hollywood portrays gay characters [and] also how gay men and lesbians are accepted by mainstream America.”
Well, it turns out that the reports of a breakout were greatly exaggerated. While admittedly, Brokeback did well at the box office, its audience was exactly whom you would have predicted all along: people in the Northeast and on the West Coast. The film made far more money in Canada than in the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountain states.
There’s nothing new in this pattern. As Mickey Kaus of Slate pointed out, it’s the same pattern we saw with Fahrenheit 9/11, the anti-Bush documentary. Then, as now, reports about the film’s alleged popularity in middle-America were treated as harbingers of a cultural shift. Then, as now, these reports were shown to be equal parts wishful thinking, spin, and propaganda.
But even if we concede that Brokeback’s $70 million-plus at the box office “is a sign of American mainstream status,” we are still left with another question. “What is $288 million or even . . . $370 million” a sign of?
This question was posed by columnist Terry Mattingly. The numbers he’s citing are the comparable box-office takes for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Passion of the Christ, respectively. These films not only made many times what Brokeback did, they did well in every part of the country. By Rich and company’s logic, this would place them and their Christian messages squarely in the “mainstream.” But don’t hold your breath waiting for such an acknowledgment.
The truth is that, as Mattingly writes, “Brokeback Mountain is a solid, artistic niche movie for the hard left in American life.” This group is “dominated by Oscar voters and Hollywood’s most loyal supporters in blue zip codes.”
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