The buzz that has been gripping Hollywood for weeks - that the best route to Oscar glory may lie in straight actors playing gay roles - is looking closer to reality with early awards and outstanding initial word-of-mouth for Brokeback Mountain, the cowboy epic with a same-sex twist.
Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two ranch hands who, in 1962, form more than just a platonic bond in the craggy landscapes of Wyoming, Brokeback Mountain was named best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association at the weekend. Ang Lee won best director.
Lee, the Taiwanese director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and his two stars could hardly have hoped for a better launch for the film as the awards season gets under way in Hollywood, notably with the unsealing of Golden Globe nominations today and the Oscar nods not far away.
Also stirred by the film's early omens have been the hearts of America's gay and lesbian community, which is agog to see whether, with its two box-office stars and almost universal critical approval, it can break the mould of on-screen gay caricature and attract a truly mainstream audience.
Nor is Brokeback Mountain alone on cinema screens in exploring gender themes. Philip Seymour Hoffman was named best actor at the critics' awards for his mesmerising portrayal in Capote of the gay writer Truman Capote.
In limited release in the US today, meanwhile, is TransAmerica, starring Felicity Huffman - who appears in Desperate Housewives - as a man striving to become a woman through surgery and hormone treatment. That film too has drawn warm critical praise from almost every quarter.
Also playing to US audiences are The Dying Gaul, starring Peter Sarsgaard as a grief-stricken gay screenwriter seduced by Hollywood, and Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, the tale of a young transvestite in Northern Ireland who becomes ensnared in Republican terrorism while pursuing his identity as a man living as a woman.
That there should be such a landslide of gay-themed films seems almost obtuse given the political landscape in the US, which is experiencing a conservative backlash to recent progress made - at least in one state, Massachusetts - towards gender rights and gay marriage. But the fact of it becoming such an important socio-political controversy may explain why directors have been attracted to it.
By far the most ambitious of these films is Brokeback Mountain. While its studio, Focus Features, describes it as a love story that happens to play out between men, it remains remarkable because it dares to show the physicality of the love, even if the sex scenes are brief and relatively discreet.
It is not that Hollywood has been eschewing gay roles. Since the same-sex sitcom Will & Grace hit network television, there has been no shortage of them in films. Almost never are they leading protagonists, however, and they often serve as comic relief.
So the big question is: how will Brokeback Mountain fare? If middle America is as conservative as some assume, could such a film - however stunning its cinematography and exceptional its acting - do anything more than attract the art-house crowd, women, and of course, gays and lesbians? Aware of the challenge, the studio has adopted almost a stealth strategy in distribution. The film opened in just five cinemas at the weekend and will not go on general release in the US until the new year.
Early estimates show Brokeback Mountain achieved a higher per-screen box office take than any other film this year. The combination of hot ticket sales and rapturous reviews could catapult it to mainstream audiences. "I hope 'the heartland,' so to speak, is more mature than it's made out to be," remarked Ledger of the film.Reuse content