On this day in 2005, Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as a pair of cowboys who meet as sheep herders in Wyoming in 1963 and begin a romantic relationship that endures for two decades, premieres in New York City. Helmed by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee, the movie earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Ledger) and Best Supporting Actor (Gyllenhaal), and took home three Oscars, including Best Director. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, which was based on a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx. In addition to its awards, the film did well at the box-office. However, some groups criticized Brokeback Mountain for its portrayal of a same-sex relationship, and one theater owner in Utah backed out on an agreement to show the film.
Brokeback Mountain marked Heath Ledger’s first Academy Award-nominated performance. The actor, who was born on April 4, 1979, in Perth, Australia, appeared in Australian television shows and films as a teenager and had his first Hollywood hit with 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. Ledger followed up on that film with roles in The Patriot and Monster’s Ball (both 2000) before headlining a string of poorly reviewed box-office duds, including A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Four Feathers (2002), Ned Kelly (2003) and The Brothers Grimm (2003). Following the breakout success of Brokeback Mountain, Ledger went on to play one of several incarnations of the music icon Bob Dylan in 2007’s I’m Not There. On January 22, 2008, Ledger, then only 28 years old, was found dead in his New York City apartment from an accidental prescription-drug overdose. He had recently completed filming on The Dark Knight, the fifth film in the big-screen Batman series. That film opened in theaters on July 18, 2008, beating out the previous record-holder, 2007’s Spiderman 3, to score the highest-grossing weekend of any movie in history (some $158 million). Critics specifically singled out Ledger’s portrayal of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, as one of the film’s strongest aspects.
Ledger was survived by his young daughter Matilda, who was born in 2005 to Ledger’s then-fiancee, Michelle Williams, who played the wife of his Brokeback Mountain character Ennis Del Mar. Matilda’s godfather is Jake Gyllenhaal. Brokeback Mountain also marked the first Oscar nomination for Gyllenhaal, who was born on December 19, 1980. The actor made his big-screen debut in 1991’s City Slickers, in which he played the son of Billy Crystal’s character, and went on to appear in such films as October Sky (1999), Donnie Darko (1999), The Good Girl (2002), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Jarhead (2005), Zodiac (2007) and Rendition (2007).