Posted: Mar 03, 2006 12:05 AM
If all goes as expected at this Sunday’s Academy Awards, Brokeback Mountain will win in the “Best Picture,” “Best Director,” and perhaps even “Best Actor” categories. Even if it doesn’t do as well as expected, the film is already being hailed as a “breakout” event, a kind of cultural watershed of sorts—which it almost certainly is not.

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.”

The insular worldview of this group is why the “Best Picture” nominees are, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “five movies most people haven’t seen.” This year’s Oscars are a celebration of one particular group’s ideals and tell us little about what constitutes mainstream American attitudes.

That’s why we need to ask ourselves another of Mattingly’s questions: Who will make commercially successful movies that “force Hollywood people to grit their teeth when it comes time for the Oscar voting?”

For Mattingly, whose new book Pop Goes Religion looks at the relationship between faith and popular culture, the obvious answer is “Christians.” If we can learn how to make good films—and we’re beginning to do so—that people will want to see, we could then witness a real breakout: one that leads away from Hollywood’s insular worldview and in a much more positive direction.

For further reading and information:

Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith by Robert K. Johnston and Catherine Barsotti.

Terry Mattingly, “American tribes go to different movies,” Get Religion, 1 March 2006.

Terry Mattingly, Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture (W Publishing, 2005). (now on sale at for 20% off the cover price)

Scott Bowles, “‘Brokeback Mountain’: Milestone or movie of the moment?USA Today, 21 February 2006.

Mickey Kaus, “Stix Nix Crix Pix!: Plus—The NYT’s Sacred Rattner,” Slate, 22 February 2006.

Mary McNamara, “5 Films with Depth, if Not Breadth,” Los Angeles Times, 1 February 2006.

Chad Thompson, “Breathing humanity into Brokeback,”, 31 January 2006.

Rod Dreher, “The real message in Brokeback,” Dallas Morning News, 29 December 2005.

Regis Nicoll, “On-Screen Romance: Love, from Casablanca to Brokeback,” BreakPoint Online, 7 February 2006.

Alex Wainer, “Light of the World, Camera, Action: Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture,” BreakPoint Online, 6 January 2006.