It’s been 14 years almost to the day since Ang Lee smiled down on the earth and said “let there be homos on the range”. And what do we have to show for it? Absolutely nothing. Frankly I’m embarrassed, and I knew if I continued living like this I wouldn’t even be able to look Ang in the eye the next time we had our semi-weekly brunch. Which would leave all the conversational weight on Jeff Bridges, and that’s hardly polite.
So I resolved to fix this problem myself, and – heavy with the weight of picking up all of your collective slack – I turned to one of our generation’s leading minds: Anneka. Together we turned my short feverish ramblings on the subject into a longer still very notably feverish and rambling movie pitch, which I now present to you. And by “you” I mostly mean the executives at Focus Features, or any other production company with a name I could easily google.
Before we begin, however, I should note that this project isn’t a standalone concept! In fact – as with so many of the stories I’ve written and crimes I’ve committed – it started with a playlist and then spiraled out of control. The playlist can be found here, and yes it is meant to be sequential. Even better, however, the short and rambling version inspired some really amazing art! All of which will be posted below – with links to the artist’s blogs – and updated if any more comes in.
Alrighty, enough dawdling, let’s get into it:
We open on sprawling fields at dawn, mist clinging to the backs of cows and mountains looming in the distance. It looks ambiguously like Wyoming, because that’s the only cowboy state I’m familiar with. The setting is a large and clearly affluent ranch, and the figure riding his horse in from the distance wouldn’t seem to fit there. He’s well groomed but poorly dressed, as if he’s done everything for his looks that he can afford and can go no further. Most importantly, he is wearing a white cowboy hat. This is Jim.
He dismounts and hitches his horse near the ranch hand’s barracks, and is greeted at the door by a man in similarly poor clothes, although his grooming reflects a different nature. Their conversation indicates that Jim has been hired as an extra hand around the ranch, that he can handle cattle just fine, and that for reasons that Mr. Hayworth – who runs the ranch – won’t disclose, they’ve been wanting more guns around. Jim confirms he’s a crack shot when he’s in a situation that calls for it, but he rarely finds one. He’s a real Mr. Rogers motherfucker.
He goes about his daily tasks efficiently and seems to settle in. One of the days, very early on, he walks into the barn and finds his employer’s daughter (Rita Hayworth) smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper upside down. They exchange pleasantries that turn into the kind of non-threatening banter only two gays can share. There’s absolutely no sexual tension. She tells him that she’s hiding in the barn because her mother (Juliet Stevenson) is throwing a party that night and wants help in the kitchen. Rita absolutely doesn’t do kitchen work, unless she sees it as a venue to flirt with her girlfriend (Lucille Ball). Homophobia doesn’t exist in this universe, but unfortunately straight people still do. (As does repression, it’s a surprise tool that we will use later). She and Jim talk about horses and guns and politics, and it’s clear they both know increasingly little about each passing topic. A little further into the conversation, Lucille Ball enters and she and Rita kiss. Jim thinks nothing of this, except to be happy for them. He’s self-repressed, he doesn’t make it other people’s problem…. But what is that feeling in his heart? It’s nothing, best ignore it.
A longer period of time passes, and Jim and Rita become good friends. They can often be found sharing a lunch break together, trying to scarf down Lucy’s somehow burnt cold-cut sandwiches without pulling any faces. It also becomes clear that Rita has a suitor, Orson Welles, son of the wealthiest rancher in the county. She has communicated to him before that she’s not interested but he’s persistent…..and he’s bought her a lot of hats, which she loves. So what’s the harm in leading him on indefinitely? She also can’t full out say she’s a lesbian to get him off her back, because while I mentioned that homophobia doesn’t exist in a large and cosmically painful and unfair way, it does exist in small portions when it makes our story funnier.
One day, Jim is out riding the range and checking the fences when he spots a campfire off in the distance. Figuring this probably falls under his additional duties as security, he heads over to take a look. There he finds a dashing and well-dressed gentleman in a black hat, cooking a can of beans and a pot of coffee. Both look disgusting, but the gentleman does not, he’s quite handsome. He’s also dressed in working clothes, but nice ones. Like when you go on a hike and pass some rich people sweating all over their $200 LL Bean shirts. Jim is overcome with… something… at seeing the dashing good looks of the man – who casually introduces himself as Hank (Henry Fonda), as if he wasn’t just caught making a fire on someone else’s property. That something that Jim was feeling translates into suspicion, and they argue for a moment. Or more specifically: Jim argues, while Hank keeps making his beans and replying casually. By the end of the conversation none of Jim’s questions were answered, but they’re sitting next to each other eating beans with the same fork and making little sarcastic jokes with each other.
It soon becomes part of Jim’s routine to visit Hank’s camp. He couldn’t say why he does it, and more importantly why he hasn’t ratted him out. But they’re getting along well. He talks to Rita about it quite a bit and she always rolls her eyes to Lucy, but he has no idea why.
Meanwhile, Rita is still being bothered by Orson, and one day in particular she tells him she’d absolutely love to marry him – really she would – but she can’t because she’s already engaged. She just remembered. So very sorry. Deeply sad. When he pushes for details, she says this guy he’s never heard of…..Jim…. just asked her last night and she completely forgot about Orson’s interest so she said yes. Who is Jim? Oh, he’s a ranch hand. Very polite, very funny. Deeply repressed, but don’t tell him I said that. Orson is dejected, and leaves, heavy with the knowledge that his role as a plot device has ended. But wait! Not quite yet. Offscreen, while Rita rode the range on her horse and smoked a cigar from the wrong end, he was whining and gossiping, and by the time she gets home her mother, Juliet Stevenson, already has half the wedding planned and has three different cakes for her to form an opinion on. She’s very excited, because she was a bit worried with all the pants wearing and cigar smoking and Lucy kissing that Rita was… chasing a different horse, if you know what I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
So Rita pulls Jimmy aside and tells him everything and asks if he wouldn’t mind terribly if he’d just marry her real quick. It’s not a love thing, she’s still very much with Lucy. But he and Hank haven’t boned yet and they’re not moving forward all that quickly anyway, so this would just be a quick detour. Jim is a gentleman, and seemingly didn’t hear the thing about Hank even though she said it right out loud, and his friendship with Rita IS the most he’s felt about a girl anyway… so he accepts her proposal.
The wedding itself is everything Juliet Stevenson dreamed. Except the part where Rita was very clearly wearing a denim suit underneath her dress. And did she actually even dance with Jim? He spent most of the night talking to that mysterious stranger with the dark hat, as she recalls. But the cake was great, and the neighbors were all jealous of their decorating, and her little girl is all grown up. Ah, to be young and in love again. Just like her and Rita’s father. What’s his name… He hasn’t made an on screen appearance yet. But she’s sure she loves him.
Weeks continue to pass, and it’s beginning to get colder now. Jim still doesn’t know what Hank is up to with that campfire of his, but he continues to visit. They talk about all sorts of stuff. The incompetence of the rich. How they’d run their own ranch better. That sort of thing. They disagree on most subjects of ranch handling, but the key point they agree on is they’d both want a spot with a lake. Maybe they could have adjoining lots that split the lake. Then they’d always be next to each other, wouldn’t that be something. One day, while Rita and Lucy and Jim are all hanging out in the barn quoting Gone With The Wind incorrectly, Lucy seems to disagree with Rita about something at a whisper, and then says “no, I’m going to try anyway. This is ridiculous.” She then asks Jim what he’d think if he was gay. He says that Jesus would hate that. She asks then if Jesus hates her and Rita, considering they’re gay. He laughs and says no, that’s ridiculous. Why would Jesus care what they do. She then says “why don’t you just apply that thought to yourself then?” This only confuses him, and Rita gives her an “I told you so” look while Lucy pulls one of those classic Lucy faces.
Later on, in town, we see Hank left his bean stash for the night and is visiting a saloon to drown the sorrows he is also unaware he has. He only gets a few drinks in before a fellow cowboy sits down at the bar and calls him gay. Very much in the random and unexplainable way straight people think homophobia occurs. Hank beats the tar out of him in a fight, all the while exclaiming “I’m not gay! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” He is constructing intricate rituals which allow him to touch the skin of other men.
That night, Jim stops by his camp for a visit, and sees that Hank has a black eye. He’s overcome with a worry he can’t understand, and demands to know what happened. Hank is vague, but asks Jimmy if he’s ever thought they could have something better than what they’ve got now. Together even. Jim is confused. Hank then explains in as non-specific terms as possible that he’s a bandit, and that he heard the unseen rancher that Jim works for is about to come into a load of cash because of a land deal he’s got worked out. That’s what all the extra security was for. Hank plans to rob him blind as his last big heist and get started on the straight and narrow, with a ranch of his own. And he’ll cut Jimmy in on that deal if he was interested. Jimmy is at first offended at the lawbreaking, which goes against his nature, then intrigued at the idea of them making their own life together in whatever way Hank means. He’s a bit confused by that. He tries a few sentences before eventually just giving up on the conversation and saying he’s got to think about it. As he retreats, Hank yells “well you better think fast!” …It’s not their best parting.
The next day Jim is awoken early by the poorly dressed ranch hand we met at the beginning. It’s cheaper if we just give one of them all the lines, something about the Actors Guild I think. The hand says Mr. Hayworth has asked them to move all the cattle out to the far pasture for the week, for grazing and plot reasons. Jim asks where Mr. Hayworth is, and the hand says “He’s…. Well that’s weird, he was just here a second ago.” Jim just shrugs and gathers his things. He makes a few attempts to slip away quickly to leave a note with Rita for Hank, to tell him that he’d be gone for the week and not to do anything rash until they could talk. But he never gets the chance, and before he knows it he’s got his horse saddled and he’s on his way out into the middle of nowhere with only a bunch of cows and some strangely mute ranch hands for company.
The week passes uneventfully for Jim and the extras, but their return more than makes up for it. They find the main house riddled with bullet holes and partially on fire. At first they just assume it was Lucy’s turn to cook again, but upon further inspection they find the few hands who had been allowed to stay behind are regrouping and telling tales of a bandit with handsome eyes under his mask who robbed the house blind just after Rita and Lucy left for town to go look at ribbons all afternoon, or whatever ladies did back then. Everyone begins to scramble around making plans for a manhunt and loading themselves up to the teeth with ammo. Jim, however, has put two and two together, and for the first time in his life makes the choice he wants to instead of the one he thinks he should. He leads his horse silently away from his colleagues until he’s sure he can ride away unnoticed, and gallops off into the night.
Luckily, skilled trackers and frontiersmen are no match for one single gay in love, and he manages to find Hank by nightfall, holed up in a small abandoned cabin halfway up the mountain. He barges in, where he finds Hank clearly surprised to see him, although certainly not unhappy about it. He begins what he expects to be a long tirade about Hank’s carelessness and foolishness and how he can’t just have whatever he wants in life, but he has a difficult time getting into the rhythm of it because Hank frequently interjects with little jokes. Which of course makes Jim even madder, which makes Hank even happier to see him because he really does care doesn’t he? Somehow, without Jim being aware of the lead in to it, the argument becomes kissing, which turns into Hank making promises about how they can live like kings now and how they can have everything they never even knew they wanted, which of course turns into more kissing again. Jim is at first hesitant, but at some very visible and unspoken point he allows himself to fall headfirst into the chaotic risk that comes with letting yourself be happy. It’s probably the scene they’ll use at the Oscars. Anyhow, the thrill of it all obviously leads to sex, and we cut to some tasteful landscapes and beautiful scenery. Or not, you’re the one imagining this.
The next morning they wake up in each other’s arms, and they seem almost bashful about the fact that they’re really letting themselves do this now. It’s a small moment of contentment and tenderness, and they share what they joke will be their last can of those damn beans together. However, over the course of the meal they slowly seem to realize that they live in the real world, where they have real obligations and real fears and one of them is married to a real lesbian who’s pretty nice. And before they even get the chance to get all worked up about the reality of their situation, they hear the thundering of horse hooves outside, and a warning shot. As it turns out, while one gay’s heart will always lead him to the outlaw he loves, horse tracks end up doing the job just as well. The two look at each other silently for a moment, and each come to their own wildly different conclusions. Hank tells Jim to sneak out the back while he distracts the posse, since they don’t even know he’s there. Jim can get away, and that’s enough for him. Jim, of course, says no. Hanks begs him, and his answer doesn’t change. Hank then says he doesn’t love him, and he wants him to fuck off, but the look on his face isn’t selling that at all. Finally, Hank kisses him, and uses Jim’s shock at the inappropriate timing of it all to push him out the back door. When Jim takes a step forward, Hank punches his lights out for a moment, and yells at him to stay down, then runs back and out the front door. We hear the sound of gunfire, and for a second we only see a freeze frame. Hank, as with any good repressed cowboy character, gets an offscreen death.
Jim meanwhile sits up, shocked for a moment, before his instincts kick in. He limps off into the woods, which is odd because Hank punched him in the face. As the gunfire continues, he whistles for his horse and together they ride higher up the mountain. They continue for hours, and at some point Jim gets off the horse and walks it instead, letting it rest but not willing to stop because if you stop you have to think. Finally, after a long montage, he lays down on a rock, ostensibly to stay there forever with only his depression and dehydration for company (a la Jane Eyre).
Luckily, just then a grizzled mountain man emerges from the trees, and tells him he looks like shit. Jim tells him he doesn’t care. The mountain man says that’s fair enough, but if Jim dies this close to his cabin he’s going to attract wolves, which is highly inconvenient for him. And since Jim’s not allowed to die, he looks like he’s definitely going to need to eat soon, so the man offers him a meal at his cabin. Jim accepts, given that his cowboyish wariness of strangers has up and left him to make room for all the depression.
It will become clear to all the Academy Award voters at this point that the mountain man is of course an allegory for Jesus.
They arrive at his cabin at the peak of the mountain, and share some conversations over soup that all end up being metaphors for the current situation. The mountain man tells Jim that Love is Love is Love is Love, and he was Born This Way. Which seems to baffle Jim in the best way. He then gets a bit less vague about his situation given this mysterious stranger seems to be a real ally, and really dumps all of his feelings on the table, as well as all the details of Hank’s death. The mountain man then gets all mysterious and asks if he might just mean the young cowpoke he found a few miles down the mountain, wandering around near dead from all the blood loss and muttering about some fella named… Jam? Jem? He seemed like he was losing it. Anyhow, as it happens he’s laying there fast asleep only one room over, not quite a goner just yet.
Jim of course nearly dives over the table to get to the door, and rushes in to find Hank asleep and looking like hell, but alive. He checks his wounds and wonders at how at least 4 of them should’ve killed him. The mountain man just shrugs knowingly, as he is a Jesus allegory and therefore aware that gays can’t die.
We now jump forward in time to a few short months later. We find Jim and Hank living together just like they dreamed. They can say “I love you” easily now, but never like it’s nothing. And, as it turns out, though the majority of Hank’s money was stashed up in the cabin and therefore returned to the faceless Mr. Hayworth, he managed to escape with a small amount. Not enough for them to live like kings, but enough to have bought themselves a nice little spot with a few acres, right next to a lake.
Only a month after that, Rita and Lucy come to visit. Rita is loving this mourning period for her husband who has supposedly gotten himself lost in the wilderness, the moron. She’s bought herself an assortment of black denim suits to last her at least a year or two, until the local shopkeepers stop giving her pity discounts. After which, they reveal, she and Lucy plan to get hitched. They decide to cook a cake to celebrate, and Lucy nearly burns Hank and Jim’s new home down while preparing the icing.
Hank and Jim, and Lucy and Rita (both by the very talented and lovely Bob)
Hank and Jim (by the wonderful and aesthetically-minded Tony)
A very tender Hank and Jim (by the very talented Francis)