When I first began to read and hear the hoopla about Brokeback Mountain, an oft heard comment that struck me was that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were to be congratulated for assuming the parts of two gay men and having scenes of love making. There were also indications that this was a first in a major production. I remember having seen Making Love in 1983 in which Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin (two well-known stars of the time) had several love scenes. This was ground-breaking stuff for the time, so Ledger and Gyllenhaal were not the "originals" as so often depicted.
One can't justifiably make a comparison of the two films. Brokeback Mountain is a superior film with a sobering message that can easily be applied to a universality of relationships while Making Love is a somewhat Pollyanna view of a more specific relationship of a gay man coming out to his wife. Perhaps the happier, more resolved ending of Making Love comes from the difference in time periods of the two films. The events in Brokeback Mountain take place twenty years earlier than the events in Making Love, and the political and social attitude toward gay persons matured considerably between 1963 and 1983.
I believe, however, that the characters and effective performances of the four lead actors should be examined. Without considering the time differential, the lifestyles and backgrounds of the leading characters make a difference in the way they were depicted and the eventual outcomes of their relationships. Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Gyllenhaal) play two working class guys totally immersed in a macho homophobic world whereas Zack (Ontkean) and Bart (Hamlin) play two college educated professionals living in a sophisticated environment. Even though these pairs of characters spring from two different time periods and cultures, there is a striking similarity between their emotional interaction. Jack and Zack are more open, more willing to further the relationship while Ennis and Bart are fearful of full expression of the love each feels for his partner. All four actors give impressive and totally believable performances that give the viewer full insight into the emotional trials of the men. These performances make viewing both films an enlightening experience.
As stated earlier, Brokeback Mountain is all-in-all a far superior film when compared to Making Love, but I recommend also viewing the latter for a realistic portrayal of two men facing life changing emotional incidents.