Sean Penn amazes me. Not long before seeing "Milk," I viewed his work in "Dead Man Walking" again. Few characters could be more different, few characters could seem more real. He creates a character with infinite attention to detail, and from the heart out. Here he creates a character who may seem like an odd bird to mainstream America and makes him completely identifiable. Other than the occasional employment of Harvey Milk's genitals, what makes this character different? Some people may argue there is a gay soul but I believe we all share the same souls.
In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Yes, but I have become so weary of the phrase "openly gay." I am openly heterosexual, but this is the first time I have ever said so. Why can't we all be what we prefer? Why can't gays simply be gays, and "unopenly gays" be whatever they want to seem? In 1977, it was not so. Milk made a powerful appeal to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends and co-workers, so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. But so powerful was the movement he helped inspire that I believe his appeal has now pretty much been heeded, save in certain backward regions of the land that a wise gay or lesbian should soon deprive of their blessings.
Gus Van Sant's film begins with Harvey Milk at 48, reflecting into his tape recorder about a personal journey that began at 40. At that watershed age, he grew unsatisfied with his life and decided he wanted to really do something. A researcher at Bache & Co. and a Goldwater Republican, Milk became involved with a hippie theater company in Greenwich Village and began to edge the closet door ajar and wave out tentatively. He was in love with Scott Smith (James Franco), they moved to San Francisco, they opened a camera shop in the shadow of the Castro Theater and saw that even America's largest and most vocal gay community was being systematically persecuted by homophobic police.
Milk didn't enter politics as much as he was pushed in by the evidence of his own eyes. He ran for the Board of Supervisors three times before being elected in 1977. He campaigned for a gay rights ordinance. He organized. He acquired a personal bullhorn and stood on a box labeled "SOAP." He forged an alliance including liberals, unions, longshoremen, teachers, Latinos, blacks and others with common cause. He developed a flair for publicity. He became a fiery orator. Already known as the Mayor of Castro Street, he won public office. It was a bully pulpit from which to challenge rabble rousers like the gay-hating Anita Bryant.
"Milk," from an original screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, tells the story of its hero's rise from disaffected middle-aged hippie to national symbol. Interlaced are his romantic adventures. He remained friendly with Scott Smith after they drifted apart because of his immersion in politics. He had a weakness for befriending wet puppies: at first, Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who became another community organizer. Then Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a Mexican American who became neurotically jealous of Milk's political life. The prudent thing would have been to cut ties with Lira, but Milk was almost compulsively supportive.
His most fateful relationship was with Dan White, a seemingly straight member of the Board of Supervisors, a Catholic who said homosexuality was a sin and campaigned with his wife, kids and the American flag. An awkward alliance formed between Milk and White, who was probably gay and used their areas of political agreement as a beard. "I think he's one of us," Milk confided. The only gay supervisor, Milk was the only supervisor invited to the baptism of White's new baby. White was an alcoholic who all but revealed his sexuality to Milk during a drunken tirade, became unbalanced, resigned his position and on Nov. 27, 1978, walked into City Hall and assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
"Milk" tells Harvey Milk's story as one of a transformed life, a victory for individual freedom over state persecution, and a political and social cause. There is a remarkable shot near the end, showing a candlelight march reaching as far as the eyes can see. This is actual footage. It is emotionally devastating. And it comes as the result of one man's decisions in life.
Sean Penn never tries to show Harvey Milk as a hero, and never needs to. He shows him as an ordinary man, kind, funny, flawed, shrewd, idealistic, yearning for a better world. He shows what such an ordinary man can achieve. Milk was the right person in the right place at the right time, and he rose to the occasion. So was Rosa Parks. Sometimes, at a precise moment in history, all it takes is for one person to stand up. Or sit down.
Note: What Harvey Milk helped make possible: a very brief, extraordinary speech by current San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rfea8iEGNw
Correction Appended: December 3, 2008
Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay activist who was murdered 30 years ago tomorrow, has a New York City public school, a Georgia rock band and, as of this week, a Bay Area civil-service building named for him. The first openly homosexual city supervisor in the U.S., he organized gays into a potent political force. Then there are the movies. Bryan Singer, director of X-Men and Superman Returns, is completing a Milk documentary, The Mayor of Castro Street. Today we get Milk, a hurtling, minutely researched, close-to-irresistible biopic starring Academy Award winner Sean Penn, whose performance is likely to be nominated for another Oscar, as is this film. That makes it official: Harvey Milk is the gay Joan of Arc.
A lot of kids today, especially the most conservative, may think of gays as belonging to some vague outlaw culture. But they might be surprised to learn that when Harvey Milk was a young adult, gays were outlaws. The new movie begins with newsreel clips of men hiding their faces from the paparazzi's flashbulbs as police remove them from some furtive gay bar of the 1960s the decade when practically every underclass of society but theirs got liberated. Vicious assaults of gays were common, and the law rarely pursued the perpetrators. If, as you watch Mad Men, you wonder why the gay art director is so timid about declaring his sexual needs to his colleagues, prospective lovers or, for that matter, himself, it's because he'd like to keep his job and his police record clean. (See TIME's 1978 feature story on the killings of George Moscone and Milk.)
The dominant pop culture certified homophobia. Gays and lesbians were depicted as predators in best-selling novels (A Walk on the Wild Side) and respected plays (The Killing of Sister George), and the films based on them. The plot dilemma of that age's serioso movies was often just the threat of being accused of homosexuality, as in Tea and Sympathy, The Children's Hour and Advise and Consent. The tone was sensation dressed up as sympathy.
And when a film did take a compassionate approach to homosexuality, the mainstream press could pounce on it with cavalier ignorance and captious contempt. A review of the British drama Victim, about a barrister fighting the law that made homosexuality a criminal offense, took offense at the movie's "implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice ... Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself. 'I can't help the way I am,' says one of the sodomites in this movie. 'Nature played me a dirty trick.' And the scriptwriters, whose psychiatric information is clearly coeval with the statute they dispute, accept this sick-silly self-delusion as a medical fact." The review, headlined "A Plea for Perversion?", appeared in the Feb. 23, 1962, issue of TIME magazine.
The medical nonsense spouted here which was also the stated position of the American Psychiatric Association underlined a conformist culture's fear of the Other. They're different. They dress and talk funny. They're a threat to our spouses and our kids. The arguments against homosexuals, like those against blacks, meant to turn irrational suspicions into punitive legislation. To counter the know-nothing majority, members of the afflicted minority needed a righteous, urgent spokesman. Blacks had MLK Martin Luther King Jr. Gays had MiLK Harvey Milk.
The Harvey Milk story needs little Hollywood embellishment; it's already the perfect outsider fable. A Manhattan investment banker raised on Long Island, Milk arrived in San Francisco in the early '70s. He opened Castro Camera in the run-down Castro district, which was fast becoming an enclave for the not-yet-outspoken gay culture. With the aid of an unlikely ally, the Teamsters, he organized a boycott of Coors Beer, which at the time refused to hire gays. After three losing runs for a city supervisor seat, he won in 1977, and a year later he helped defeat Proposition 6, which would have banned gay men and women from teaching in public schools. Through his efforts, gay society, high and low, coalesced into a politically effective movement. (You'll be reminded of a more recent band of outsiders who got an unlikely, charismatic candidate elected President.)