Gay-rights leaders are elated that a tale of same-sex love and heartbreak is reaching mainstream filmgoers in the form of acclaimed "Brokeback Mountain," while some conservatives are dismayed by the film's glowing reviews and rooting for it to fail at the box office.
The story of two Wyoming cowboys in the 1960s has drawn capacity crowds in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its big test, though, starts Friday when — on the heels of seven Golden Globe nominations — it expands to more than 20 other cities.
"This film has tremendous potential to connect with audiences gay and straight alike," said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"What `Brokeback Mountain' does," Giuliano added, "is allow audiences to experience, on an intensely emotional level, how ignorance and intolerance can force people to deny their love and deny who they are."
But Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute, hopes the film flops.
"I can't think of a more effective way to annoy and alienate most moviegoing Americans than to show two cowboys lusting after each other," Knight said on his group's Web site. "It's a mockery of the Western genre embodied by every movie cowboy from John Wayne to Gene Autry to Kevin Costner."
Knight contrasted "Brokeback Mountain" with "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a family-oriented film with underlying Christian themes.
"That's why it will make zillions while `Brokeback' will impress the critics and some fringe audiences in urban centers, but that's about it," Knight said.
The men in "Brokeback Mountain" are played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Another Hollywood star, Felicity Huffman of "Desperate Housewives," plays a transsexual in the new movie "Transamerica."
Susanne Salkind of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group, urged gays to take straight friends, relatives and co-workers to both movies, which she said were capable of shattering stereotypes.
"The more people who are exposed to authentic stories about our lives, the more support we'll get throughout the fabric of American culture," Salkind said.
There has been vibrant discussion in gay-oriented media about how "Brokeback Mountain" will fare in the U.S. heartland.
Ryan James Kim, writing for Advocate.com, likened the film's romantic appeal to "Titanic" and predicted young straight women will flock to it.
"Most viewers will remember `Brokeback' not as a movie in which cowboys kissed but as a love story they cannot forget — straight guys included, if they're mature enough, or at least smart enough, to follow the lead of the women they love," Kim wrote.
However, Matt Hennie of the Atlanta-based gay weekly Southern Voice predicted the film will be a box-office bust.
"Don't misunderstand, I'm a big fan of the movie," he wrote. "But America isn't ready and willing to flock to theaters to watch a two-hour film about two gay cowboys. ...a movie that will put faces on issues that silently make them shudder."
Tom Neal, former editor of a gay monthly in Tulsa, Okla., said he was pleased that a local theater operator has pledged to show "Brokeback Mountain," apparently undeterred by denunciations of the film on a Tulsa radio talk-show.
"The issues in the film would resonate in a place like Tulsa," said Neal, a descendent of Oklahoma Land Rush settlers. "That model of men who fall in love with each other but get married to women — I know a lot of people who went through that."
Seattle filmmaker Michael Culpepper, who recently completed a documentary about gay couples in a tiny Idaho farming town, believes rural audiences will be receptive to "Brokeback Mountain."
"The honesty of it — that's something these people will respect, though it's definitely a struggle for some of them to understand what a gay relationship is like," Culpepper said.
Those upset by "Brokeback Mountain" include men who say they moved away from homosexuality through prayer or therapy and are now active in what is known as the "ex-gay movement."
Alan Chambers, president of an evangelical network of former homosexuals called Exodus International, said the film portrays emotions "that I and thousands of others who have left homosexuality are well familiar with."
"We hear from thousands of individuals who are grappling with the same problems and are tired of messages, such as the ones presented in this film, that only further add to their confusion and desperation," Chambers said.
The Christian group Focus on the Family has an article about the film on its Web site — headlined "Gay Love Story Carries a High `Ick' Factor" — that summarizes opinions of several conservative critics.
One, Ted Baehr of a Web site (movieguide.org) aimed at pointing out family fare, called the film "boring neo-Marxist homosexual propaganda" and predicted its scenes of gay sex would repel audiences.
And Dick Rolfe of the Dove Foundation, which encourages production of family-friendly films, cautioned: "If Christians protest too loudly, they can end up making the mistake of calling attention to a movie that otherwise may not do very well at the box office. We have to be very careful not to use our anger strategies to a point where they boomerang on us."