I Wish I Knew How to Quit You: Secrets From the Set of Brokeback Mountain

When “Brokeback Mountain” hit movie theaters in 2005, the film lit up the world of cinema for more than one reason. Telling the story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and comfort in each other’s arms, the film drew comments and acclaim from the press and public.
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Though it may seem like we’ve learned all there is to learn about this creation, there are some behind-the-scenes facts that may surprise even the biggest “Brokeback Mountain” fans.

Finding the Perfect Ennis

Though the late Heath Ledger is now synonymous with “Brokeback Mountain,” the process of finding an actor to play Ennis wasn’t as simple as we may have thought. In a 2015 interview with SiriusXM Progress, the film’s screenwriters expressed the struggles they faced when casting the 19-year-old Ennis Del Mar. Though they had another actor committed to the part, the filmmakers had their hopes set on Heath Ledger – against the wishes of  Focus Features studios.

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Diana Ossana, the film’s screenwriter and producer, explained that the studio didn’t feel like Ledger was “macho” enough – though she strongly disagreed. When the original actor backed out of the project, Ossana was able to call up Ledger’s agent and get him involved again.

A Controversial Film

“Brokeback Mountain’s” release was controversial in some parts of the world. In China, for instance, film censors refused to screen the movie in cinemas – even though same-sex relationships are legal in the country. If you wanted to see the feature film in China, you’d have to make do with bootleg DVDs or watching it online. Interestingly enough, the film’s director, Ang Lee’s Oscar win, was widely celebrated across the country.

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The Taiwanese American film director was all over the headlines. “Daily China,” wrote, “Ang Lee is the pride of Chinese people all over the world, and he is the glory of Chinese cinematic talent.”

GLAAD Got Mad

No film is exempt from critics upon its release, “Brokeback Mountain” was no exception. “Today’s” film critic, Gene Shalit, gave the film a poor write-up. That’s when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) got angry; they were upset with Shalit’s description of Jack.

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Shalit issued a lengthy apology, saying, “I regret any emotional hurt that may have resulted from my review of  ‘Brokeback Mountain.’” GLAAD accepted the apology.

Jake Gyllenhaal Was Nervous

In a 2005 interview, Jake Gyllenhaal revealed nervousness he’d experienced on set. When it came to the intimate scenes, both he and Heath Ledger “dove off the boat into the deep end.”

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He continued, explaining how it was new to him, “but at the same time when we were there, we really went for it.”

A Part of Something Big

The love was felt between Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s characters, and these scenes gained public attention. Ledger and Gyllenhaal understood they were a part of something groundbreaking. Gyllenhaal spoke of it at the “New Yorker” Festival back in 2010, “We were the instruments for something much bigger than both of us.”

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And what did Ledger think? The late actor gave an interview in 2006 saying, “It was certainly a surreal moment the first time I had to kiss Jake.”

Telling Lies to Get Cast

Actress Anne Hathaway really wanted to take part in “Brokeback Mountain,” she really wanted to play Lureen. The only problem was, she didn’t know how to ride a horse. When Ang Lee asked if she could, she said she was actually very good at it. The truth? She’d never ridden a horse in her life.

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Hathaway quickly started teaching herself before filming stated, though, in the end, her lessons weren’t enough. She remembered, “I went to a rehearsal in front of 300 extras, all of whom work in rodeos, and the horse wouldn’t do a damn thing I wanted it to. And in the end, it threw me — in front of everyone.

Randy Quaid Sued Producers

Randy Quaid, who played the sheep farmer Jack and Ennis, ended up suing the “Brokeback Mountain” producers in 2006.

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He claimed that the filmmakers had sold the film to him as a low-budget endeavor to convince him to accept a smaller salary when, in reality, they knew they were about to make millions of dollars. That being said, Quaid dropped the lawsuit shortly after.

Ian McKellen Was Ambivalent

Though Ian McKellan doesn’t appear in the film, he did have some things to say about one of its main actors. When asked about the film, he took issues with something Gyllenhall had said.

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McKellen, an openly gay actor, was upset that Gyllenhall said that the job was terrifying because it involved him kissing another man. In general, the actor was rather ambivalent when it came to the film; he didn’t feel like it was as groundbreaking as most.

Falling in Love With Heath

Heath Ledger was a rising star in Hollywood around the same time “Brokeback Mountain” was being adapted for the big screen. Screenwriter Diana Ossana explained that it was her daughter who had suggested Ledger for the role.

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She and Larry McMurty watched “Monster’s Ball,” a film Ledger starred in. The moment they saw the film, they both knew they had found their Ennis.

Ang Lee Was Half-Asleep

Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain’s director, won an Academy Award in 2006 for the picture. However, he’s humble about his success, to say the least. In 2019, he revealed he was “half-asleep” while making the film.

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He said, “I just secured the actors and got them to perform. The shots are boring, fundamental.” He explained that he had limited time and that the actors were great. He didn’t think many people would see the film, though as we now know, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

A Familiar Movie Poster

If you’re selling a love story, the movie poster needs to be instantly recognizable as something romantic, right?  The poster-designers of “Brokeback Mountain” decided that they needed inspiration from movie posters of the past to convey their film’s themes.

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There is one romantic film that stands out. If you look at the poster, you can see traces of their main inspiration, “Titanic.” The two lovers looking away from each other as if to hint at an unhappy ending – the film posters do bear similarities, both in concept and aesthetic.

The Horse Whisperer

One thing Jake Gyllenhaal remembered about “Brokeback Mountain” is how good Heath Ledger was with animals. Gyllenhaal recalled how Ledger would walk up to a horse, silence it, soothing it, and then he’d get on the horse. Ledger explained how he grew up in Australia, surrounded by farm folk.

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He went on to say that he felt that there was something universal about someone who spends all day on a horse. Even when they get off, they continue to talk like they are still on the animal. Ledger loved horses and horseback riding.

Heath Ledger Almost Broke His Hand

If you remember the film, you’ll recall one scene in which Ledger’s character punches a wall in desperation. But that wasn’t scripted. In 2015, Anne Hathaway revealed, “the plan was for him to put his face against the wall — that’s what the shot was supposed to be — and he just wound up punching the brick.”

 

When it happened, everyone was freaking out as it was a real wall, not a movie brick wall. Luckily, they caught the moment, so the tragic episode wasn’t for nothing.

Diana Ossana Couldn’t Watch the Film

In 2008, the world lost Heath Ledger. His loss was felt in the movie-making industry, fans and strangers, and of course, by those who knew him. That includes the film’s screenwriter, Diana Ossana.

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After hearing the news of his death, she was shocked. Moreover, she wasn’t able to watch the movie following his death. She claims to have watched it 150 times before, but since his passing, she couldn’t get through it.

The Sheep Caused Problems

One interesting problem that the “Brokeback Mountain” set faces was sheep. There were many of them, and getting them from place to place wasn’t as simple as they had expected.  The wildlife authorities wouldn’t permit the filmmakers to take the sheep into the mountains.

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They eventually agreed if the filmmakers followed strict rules. They had to stick to one isolated mountain, count and check the sheep every day, and have a biologist oversee everything. Of course, the movie crew agreed.

No One Wanted to Act in the Film

Before Ang Lee took on the role of director, Gus Van Sant was supposed to helm the project. Like Ang, he planned to get an A-list team of actors on board. In 2018, Van Sant said that there were few interested.

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He asked the usual lineup of actors, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no. Ossana confirmed, all those men turned down the project for various reasons. The lack of enthusiasm from the actors discouraged Van Sant from remaining on the project.

True Love on Set

Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams played husband and wife in the film, and while falling in love on screen, they fell in love off-screen as well. When Williams had to go to the hospital for a twisted knee, Heath went with her.

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Ossana vividly remembered the way he looked at her and the way she looked up at him with wide eyes. For him, it was love at first sight. The two went on to have a daughter together but unfortunately split in 2007.

Heath Would Never Joke About the Movie

Heath Ledger wasn’t up for jokes about “Brokeback Mountain’s” big love story. Jake Gyllenhaal explained that his late costar would never joke.  Whenever anyone wanted to make a joke about the story, he would simply say, “No. This is about love.” And that was that. No meant no.

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Ledger took the matter very seriously and even declined the invitation to present the 2007 Oscars because he thought homophobic jokes might be involved.

The Film Was Inspirational for Many

“Brokeback Mountain” was a significant film for many people. In 2018, Writer and journalist Dave Cullen revealed that when watching the film, he thought to himself, “This is Me.” He felt that he was deprived because he was just as scared as Ennis and Jack.

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Interestingly enough, even members of the film’s production team were inspired. Ossana revealed that two crew members came up to her to tell her that they, too, were gay and that the film was a powerful thing to be a part of.

Dependent on Each Other for the Role

Had either Gyllenhall or Ledger declined the part, the other may not have been cast. Interestingly enough, he and Ledger were cast as complementary costars, as opposed to individual actors. “When I first met with Ang, there were a number of different combinations of actors he had in mind – and each combination of actors was different,” Gyllenhaal explained.

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The truth of the matter was, Ang was thinking about Heath Ledger and Gyllenhaal together, and if Heath didn’t want the part, it was going to be somebody else.

Princess Diaries Audition

Anne Hathaway’s audition for the role coincided with the filming of “Princess Diaries 2.” They were shooting the coronation part of the movie, so the actress was dressed in a ball gown, wearing a large headpiece that was way over the top. Hathaway wanted the part so bad, she put on jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and drove across the lot with her princess hair and heavy makeup.

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Ang Lee said that he was unacquainted with Hathaway before her audition, and he was told by the casting director that “the next actress coming in to read was going to apologize for her clothes and make-up, but just to let her do that, and go into the reading.”

Working With Ledger Was “a Gift”

In the film, Linda Cardellini plays a waitress who has a fling with Ennis. In 2013, Cardellini recalled feeling nervous about whether she was going to get the part but ultimately felt thankful for the opportunity to work with Ledger. She was a huge Ang Lee fan and fell in love with the script immediately.

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Her audition took 45 minutes, and even though she knew she might not get the part, she didn’t care because she was getting directed by Ang Lee. After accepting the part, she said that working with such talent was a gift and a privilege.

“Brokeback Mountain” Nurtured Ang Lee

Two years before the release of “Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee directed a completely different sort of film, “The Hulk.” After “The Hulk,” Ang thought about retirement, his father had just passed away, and he was exhausted. “Brokeback Mountain” brought him back to filmmaking and nurtured him as a person.

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He didn’t feel like he was the creator of the movie; he thought of himself as a participant. To him, it was meant to come out and affect people, and everyone involved felt that way; they felt blessed.

The Author Has Her Regrets

“Brokeback Mountain” was released as a short story in the Oct. 13, 1997, edition of “The New Yorker.” The story’s author, Annie Proulx, then included it in “Close Range: Wyoming Stories,” a collection of stories she published in 1999.

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Following the success of the film, Proulx revealed that she received an abundance of revisions and expansions of the story by fans who somehow managed to miss the point of the literature. She said that fans thought they understood the story better than she did, and it made her wish she had never written the story.

Proulx Loved the Film

That being said, Proulx loved the motion picture version. She called the film “huge and powerful.” She felt as though she was the first writer in America to have a piece of writing to make its way onto the screen exactly the way its author had imagined.

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When she saw the film for the first time, she was astonished that the story’s two main characters came surging into her mind after she thought she had successfully dismissed them in the years after releasing the story.

A Kissing Scene That Could Have Ended Badly

Before filming started, Ang Lee gave Gyllenhaal and Ledger two copies of Will Fellows’ book “Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest” as a reference guide. Both Annie Proulx and Diana Ossana, the script’s co-writer, recommended it.

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Reportedly, while the two stars were filming one of the kissing scenes, Ledger accidentally came close to breaking Jake’s nose in a moment of passion.

Not Much of an Inspiration

“Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest” was given to the two actors as a reference source to help them better understand their characters.

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After production ended, Gyllenhaal remarked on “all” he had learned from his reading, saying, “I don’t think that these two characters even know what gay is.”

A Few Crew Members Unknowingly Used the Same Book

The costume designer working on the film used a book of Richard Avedon’s photographs of the American West from the 50s and 60s for inspiration. Coincidentally, she wasn’t the only one who consulted the book.

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Without having spoken to one another, several crew members used the book as a reference. Moreover, during the production prep, the film’s screenwriters suggested using the book as a visual reference, only to discover that it was, in fact, used by the production design and makeup crews as well.

The Shirts Were Worth a Pretty Penny

One of the most prominent features in the film was Ennis and Jack’s shirts. How these shirts were arranged in the characters’ wardrobes is a key component when it comes to the film’s visual storytelling. After the film’s debit, film historian Tom Gregory purchased the shirts used on set for a staggering $101,100 on eBay.

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According to Gregory, Jack and Ennis’s shirts are this generation’s version of the ruby slippers from the infamous “The Wizard of Oz.”

Michelle Williams Was Sure She Was Right for the Part

Actress Michelle Williams, who portrays Alma, Ennis’s wife, told Ang Lee that she was right for the part because she grew up in Montana. She tried selling him on the notion that landscapes are inherent in your character and that her Montana upbringing made her the right choice for the role.

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Some people believe this is how she swayed Ang Lee to give her the role. After seeing her play Alma, we know she was completely right.

Kate Mara Had Her Doubts

Kate Mara, who landed the supporting role as Ennis’s daughter, brought her widespread critical notice in 2005, though she had reservations about the part. She explained that she was concerned that she wasn’t that much younger than Heath Ledger, even though she was playing his daughter.

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She thought it was a horrible mistake, believing she didn’t look young enough to play Ledger’s daughter, but she decided against bringing it up.

Heath & Jake Had Their Differences

Though they looked like they were a match made in Hollywood heaven, Heath and Jake had their differences. Gyllenhaal is a fan of improv; Ledger, to put it lightly, was anything but.

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The night they filmed the scene by the river where they talk about Ennis’s childhood, Gyllenhaal was in the mood to improvise a bit and stray from his lines, but that didn’t go so smoothly by Heath. Heath got very – very upset as if his whole process was disrupted.

The Line That Made the Production Crew Cry

If you’ve seen the film, you know that there is one line that sticks out above the rest. It’s a line that has become synonymous with the film, and for a good reason. That line, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” has influenced and been parodied, and everything in between, but its origins are moving.

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Gyllenhaal has explained that coming out of that scene, the number of crew members, some of which didn’t even know what the premise of the film was about, that was crying, was a sight like no other.

David Harbour Was Told to Act “More Handsome”

David Harbour, who has gained recognition for his role in “Stranger Things,” had a supporting role in “Brokeback Mountain.” In an interview with “Variety” magazine, he said that one of the worst notes he had ever received was from Ang Lee. He said that in one scene, he came in on coverage, and Lee told him to act “more handsome.”

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Harbour was shocked and felt as though that was a note that should have been directed towards the casting director as opposed to him.

A Part of the Family

The result of Michelle Williams and Heath Ledger’s big on-screen/off-screen love was the birth of their daughter, Matilda Rose Ledger. Not only did Williams and Ledger find love off-screen, but they also found themselves a godfather, none other than their co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal.

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Following Matilda’s birth, Gyllenhaal joked that Heath and himself had fallen in love, and they (Williams and Ledger) got a baby out of it.

“Brokeback Mountain” Without Heath?

When we hear Heath Ledger’s name, the first thing that comes to mind is “Brokeback Mountain,” though he almost passed on the part. Uncertain about the role when he was first offered it, Ledger was encouraged by his then-girlfriend, actress Naomi Watts, to take it.

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After they had both finished reading the script, Watts insisted he takes part and good thing she did. After a lot of contemplation, Ledger flew to Taiwan to meet Ang Lee and accept the role of Ennis.

To Ennis

The author of the short story, Annie Proulx, sent both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal an autographed copy of her story. When she signed Jake’s copy, she wrote, “To Jake.” But when she signed Ledger’s copy of the story, she signed it “To Ennis.”

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After writing them both a personal message, she had realized what she had done but decided to let it be. She reflected that Ledger really was Ennis and left the signed copy that way. She felt that the actor embodied Ennis in every way she had envisioned him.

In Ledger’s Memory

Heath Ledger’s performance in the film reached millions of viewers and touched the hearts of many, including fellow actors. “Brokeback Mountain” is one of Daniel Day-Lewis’s favorite films and the reason for this? Heath Ledger’s performance.

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After Ledger’s death, Day-Lewish dedicated his SAG award for his performance in “There Will Be Blood” to the late actor’s memory. The final scene in Ennis’s trailer, according to Day-Lewis, is “as moving as anything I have ever seen.”

Michelle Williams’s Strange Request

To get into the right emotional place for her character, Alma, Michelle Williams requested that the film’s two mail leads kiss in front of her. Seeing as she was romantically involved with Ledger in real life, she felt the kiss would help with her portrayal.

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The embrace took a couple of attempts, and Williams had to encourage them to get into character, as their first few attempts were too half-hearted, in her opinion.

A Clean Start

The casting director was afraid that Anne Hathaway’s previous performances in “The Princess Diaries” and “Ella Enchanted” would work against her favor during auditions.

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In order to ensure she had a fair chance, Hathaway was introduced to Lee as “a New York City Broadway actress.” It wouldn’t have mattered, either way, seeing as Lee hadn’t seen any of Anne’s previous work.

The Greatest Disappointment

On the night of the 2006 Oscar Awards, Ang Lee openly expressed his disappointment that the film failed to win Best Picture even though he had won Best Director.

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He added that he was distraught that Heath Ledger did not win Best Actor, as he was convinced Ledger had delivered one of the greatest on-screen performances of all time.

CGI Sheep

Interestingly enough, there were 75 visual effects shots created for the film – which is surprising considering it was a romance/drama. Of these, fifteen were of CGI sheep. The film called for 2,500 sheep, but only seven hundred were on-set.

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This meant they were in need of an additional herd (or two) of sheep. Also designed for the film were sky replacements and set additions.

Predictions On What Could Have Been

Ange Lee shared his thoughts on what could have been if the movie had been made during the 1960s (the time period during which it is set). The director would have cast Paul Newman as Ennis and Montgomery Clift as Jack.

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Interestingly enough, both Paul Newman and Robert Redford were asked to play a gay couple in a film, though they both declined.

Brokeback Comic Book

As of 2020, five members of “Brokeback Mountain” have appeared in films portraying iconic comic book characters. Heath, in one of his most memorable roles, as “The Joker” in “The Dark Night,” Kate Mara as “Sue Storm” in “Fantastic Four,” and Jake Gyllenhaal as “Quentin Beck/Mysterio” in “Spider-Man: Far from Home.”

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In 2019, David Harbour was cast as “Hellboy” in “Hellboy” and “Red Guardian “in “Black Widow.” And finally, Anne Hathaway as “Selina Kyle/Catwoman” in “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Cowboy Bootcamp

As previously mentioned, Heath Ledger had a way with the horses. So much so that he refused to go to a one-month cowboy camp that had been organized for him and his co-star.

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He had grown up on farms in Western Australia and thought there was no point in him attending. Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, was required to attend, as he needed “roughing up.”

Trouble Directing Sheep

Though he won Best Director, Ang Lee struggled continually with the sheep during production. It turns out, sheep don’t drink from running water, only still, like that of a pond.

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Ang tried to get them to drink from a stream, but they simply wouldn’t. It was a shot he so desperately wanted but ultimately had to give up on.

A Hated Scene By All

There was a scene in the film in which Jack and Ennis help some hippies get their vehicle out of a river. According to Ledger, the sequence took three days to shoot and was hated almost instantly by everyone involved.

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The scene was written as an attempt to show Ennis and Jack in a heroic situation, but it does not appear in the original short story, the published screenplay, or even the final cut of the movie.

Pushing Boundaries & Making History

“Brokeback Mountain” was released at a time when mainstream Hollywood was only just beginning to explore the idea of same-sex relationships. The film not only managed to gain commercial and critical success but grossed a whopping $178 million worldwide, not to mention the film bringing home three Oscars.

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The film paved the way for filmmakers and actors to explore a world that hadn’t yet been touched – marking a turning point in Hollywood history.