This is a rather surprisingly traditional bio-pic. I say surprisingly given Gus Van Sant’s tendency to experiment, with results sometimes intriguing (Elephant) and sometimes disastrous (the horrible Gerry, and the loathsome Psycho remake). It avoids tracking Harvey Milk from his no-doubt awful childhood. You all know what that was like, you either knew somebody who everybody called a queer and liked to either humiliate or beat up on, or maybe you were that queer. Either way, I prefer it this way, taking up his life story pretty much when he began his political activism, at a time when being “out” was very rare, and very brave. Even the gay haven city of San Francisco was not able to vote in a gay councilman until they began elections by district instead of at large. I lived there during a lot of that time, and remember that even some hippies didn’t care much for faggots. (To brag about my own non-judgmental credentials, my wife and I rented a room for a while in the Haight-Ashbury to a man who called himself Tinkerbell, and was about as swish as anyone I’ve ever seen. And as nice a guy as you’ll ever meet. He had only a few teeth left, the rest having been knocked out by one gay-basher or another.)
The movie takes us down some very unpleasant memory lanes, beginning with B&W pictures of police raids on gay bars. They used to cover up their badges and just wade in with their nightsticks. Then there was the sad fact that even Eugene, Oregon, as liberal a place as you’ll ever find (I lived there for years) voted to repeal a gay rights ordinance approved by the city council. I mean, you expect it in Dade County, Florida, and in Kansas, but Eugene? Minneapolis, too. How sad. And it was a real struggle to get a majority in California to vote against repeal of a gay rights law there. They just squeaked by. (It was one of the things that set off that moral pipsqueak and coward, Dan White.) Hell, here it is 2009 and last year California voters were panicked yet again by that outrageous sophistry that “it will destroy the family,” and voted against gay marriage.
And how could I have forgotten about Anita Bryant? Lee and I both asked ourselves that question when we left the theater, and the fact is, we had forgotten about her. I guess that’s good, in a way, in that she’s now ancient history, but I had forgotten just how powerful she was for her brief moment in the spotlight of bigotry. (Gays haven’t forgotten. If I were gay—but I’m not gay, as they sing in Avenue Q—I wouldn’t forget, either.) I’m happy to tell you that she’s in retirement, basically broke, and forgotten by pretty much everyone.
The City of San Francisco really rolled out the red carpet for Gus and his crew, as you might expect. There is a lot of grainy historical footage of events, but even more new stuff in and around City Hall, and on Castro Street. And in a bit part was my friend Frank Robinson, the writer. I didn’t know it, but Frank was a speechwriter for Harvey Milk. His account of the filming can be read here. IMDb.com
2008 OSCAR WATCH: We’re trying to see as many of the nominated pictures and performances as we can before the Big Night, and Milk is a Best Picture nominee and has two nominated performances. So far we’ve only seen two of the Best Pictures, and my pick is still Slumdog Millionaire, which is not to say anything against Milk, which is excellent.
Josh Brolin is in the running for Supporting Actor, and this one is not even close, of the four I’ve seen. Brolin is okay, but I think he benefits from the “piling on” we always see at the Oscars, where a picture that was very good gets extra nominations it may not actually deserve, especially in the technical categories. (I mean, Best Costume Design? Best Editing? I doubt it, but that’s how the Academy works.) Robert Downey, Jr’s nomination for Tropic Thunder is, frankly, inexplicable. Sure, he was funny, but he’s had much better performances, and there were dozens, if not hundreds, of other performances this year better than his … including his own performance in Iron Man! Heath Ledger’s star may have faded a bit, though my guess is that he’s still the front runner … but not in my book. It was a great performance, no question, but I wouldn’t vote for him. I haven’t seen Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt. He’s sort of becoming the Meryl Streep of male actors, isn’t he? There he is, on the ballot every year. And I love him and Meryl, both, but I sort of root for other people. That leaves Michael Shannon, in Revolutionary Road, and his performance outclasses these others.
So we come to Sean Penn. There is something abrasive about him that I don’t like. Purely on instinct, I feel that if I met him, I wouldn’t care for him. I could be totally wrong. And, when all is said and done, in the right part he may be the best actor working today. My prejudice doesn’t affect my opinion on this one little bit. He is brilliant here, in what I think is a very touchy part. You know, every two-bit comic can do “gay,” usually as caricature (and yes, I’ve met many gay men whose lives are living caricature, including my old friend Tinkerbell). In my experience, the majority of gay men are not effeminate. You see them all over West Hollywood, and they mostly act perfectly normal, perfectly masculine. Then there are those, like Harvey Milk, who sashay only a little bit. You can see it in films of him: a way of holding the arms, a little catch in the step, the hint of a lisp. It would be so easy to exaggerate these mannerisms and come off comic, but Penn navigates these treacherous waters perfectly. He becomes Harvey Milk. That’s merely the physical part of the role; he is equally up to the emotional side. He makes us feel the passion, both political and sexual, the joy and the long string of defeats. What a tragedy that this good man was taken from us by a whining piece of shit like Dan White.