The cowboys-in-love drama "Brokeback Mountain" received a leading seven Golden Globes nominations, yet the critical favorite has an uphill trail for the Academy Awards, where a gay-themed film has never won top honors.
Also nominated for dramatic picture were the murder thriller "The Constant Gardener," the Edward R. Murrow tale "Good Night, and Good Luck," the mobster story "A History of Violence" and "Match Point," a drama about infidelity.
Chosen as 2005's best film by critics groups in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, "Brokeback Mountain" stars Ledger as a husband and father carrying on a secret affair with an old sheepherding companion (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Lee, who won the best-director Golden Globe for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," said he does not worry the gay subject matter will turn off audiences or Oscar voters. But he said he does hesitate to call it a movie about gay cowboys because "it sounds a little funny to me in its connotation, like we're doing 'Blazing Saddles.'
"That's what's bothering me, because it's a serious love story," Lee said. "Given the Western macho aura ... the more difficult, the more love is hindered, the more grand the love is."
Joining Lee as Globe directing nominees were Woody Allen for "Match Point," George Clooney for "Good Night, and Good Luck," Peter Jackson for "King Kong," Fernando Meirelles for "The Constant Gardener" and Steven Spielberg for "Munich." Clooney also earned a supporting-actor nomination for the oil-industry thriller "Syriana."
Felicity Huffman received two nominations -- best dramatic actress in a film for her role as a man preparing for sex-change surgery in "Transamerica" and best actress in a TV musical or comedy for "Desperate Housewives." Her "Desperate Housewives" co-stars Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher and Eva Longoria also were nominated, and the ABC show earned a best TV comedy bid.
Despite the acclaim and an impressive debut last weekend, when the film took in $550,000 in just five theaters, "Brokeback Mountain" may prove more off-putting to Oscar voters than to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Golden Globe organizers who have traditionally been more receptive to gay themes.
"It's going to be a front-runner, but it really has a mountain to climb, because never have we seen a gay romance in the best-picture race before," said Tom O'Neil, who runs theenvelope.com, an awards Web site.
Movies with gay angles have earned acting honors, Tom Hanks winning for "Philadelphia," Hilary Swank for "Boys Don't Cry," but those movies did not break into the best-picture pack. "Kiss of the Spider Woman" won an Oscar for William Hurt as a gay man and earned a best-picture nomination, losing to "Out of Africa," and best-picture winners "American Beauty" and "Midnight Cowboy" had homosexual subtexts. But "Brokeback Mountain" looks to be the biggest test yet for gay-themed films come Oscar time.
Conservative critics have assailed "Brokeback Mountain," saying it markets gay lifestyles.
"By utilizing two of the most attractive and popular young Hollywood actors for these roles in such a compelling story, they have created characters people can identify and sympathize with to sway the public into believing this is natural behavior," said David Kupelian, author of "The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom."
Novelist Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana -- who shared a screenplay nomination for "Brokeback Mountain," adapted from Annie Proulx's short story -- said the film was a broader story of tragic love, not a homosexual romance.
"People come in with preconceived notions about the film, I guess because it's acquired that tagline, 'a story about gay cowboys.' We've had people at screenings refer to it as that," Ossana said. "One person who saw it said afterward, `I came in calling it that but will never call it that again."'
"It's a tragedy, not a success story," McMurtry said. "It doesn't wave the banner of triumph over the homosexual lifestyle or any lifestyle. It's a story about life itself. This is a realistic story and a sad story."
The Globes were a triumph for smaller budgeted films over big studio productions. Philip Berk, head of the foreign press group, said it was the first time all nominees for best dramatic film were independent movies shot for less than $30 million.
The Globes have a separate category for musical or comedy films. Nominated were the theater tale "Mrs. Henderson Presents," the Jane Austen costume pageant "Pride & Prejudice," the Broadway musical "The Producers," the divorce story "The Squid and the Whale" and the Johnny Cash film biography "Walk the Line."
Along with Ledger, dramatic lead actor contenders included three performers playing real-life figures: Russell Crowe as Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock in "Cinderella Man," Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote in "Capote," and David Strathairn as newsman Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck." The fifth nominee was Terrence Howard as a pimp-turned-rap singer in "Hustle & Flow."
Besides Huffman, dramatic actress nominees were Maria Bello as a wife learning painful secrets about her husband in "A History of Violence," Gwyneth Paltrow as an unstable math genius' daughter in "Proof," Charlize Theron as a woman leading a sexual harassment lawsuit in "North Country" and Ziyi Zhang as a poor girl who becomes the belle of Japan's geisha houses in "Memoirs of a Geisha."
For best actor in a movie, musical or comedy, Globe voters nominated Pierce Brosnan as a burned-out hit man in "The Matador," Jeff Daniels as a husband unglued by divorce in "The Squid and the Whale," Johnny Depp as candyman Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Nathan Lane as a Broadway con man in "The Producers," Cillian Murphy as a cross-dressing Irishman in "Breakfast on Pluto," and Joaquin Phoenix as country legend Cash in "Walk the Line."
Best musical or comedy film actress nominees: Judi Dench as a 1930s British dame who opens a nude theatrical review in "Mrs. Henderson Presents," Keira Knightley as the romantic heroine in "Pride & Prejudice," Laura Linney as a divorcing wife in "The Squid and the Whale," Sarah Jessica Parker as a woman hated by her fiance's relatives in "The Family Stone," and Reese Witherspoon as country singer June Carter in "Walk the Line."
Golden Globe winners will be announced Jan. 16, five days before polls close for Oscar voters. Oscar nominations come out Jan. 31, and the awards will be presented March 5.
The Globes generally serve as a solid barometer for Oscar nominations, though contenders typically say they try not to think ahead to the Oscars.
"But it certainly crosses my mother's mind," said dramatic actress nominee Bello. "She told me, 'I'm saying a novena for you. I'm sure you'll be nominated."'