Sean Penn in “Milk.” Sorry, Leo, Hugh, Clint, Benicio, Philip, and any of you other guys who thought you had a chance to walk down the aisle of the Kodak Theatre next February. You don’t…so just be happy if you get nominated and don’t bother drafting that speech. Hey, don’t sweat it—there’s always next year.
We saw “Milk” over the weekend and thought it was extraordinary. I can’t remember a Gus Van Sant film that I didn’t love (well, I guess I could have lived without the shot-by-shot remake of “Psycho”) and this film, probably his most accessible and mainstream to date, is certainly among his best work. The direction, the script, the recreation of 1970s San Francisco, and the ensemble cast are all superb, but Sean Penn has to be singled out for channeling the spirit of Harvey Milk even though he looks nothing like the slain leader. Penn morphs into Harvey Milk in a way that is so complete, so pure that we’re completely engrossed in the story—we're never sitting there thinking, “Wow, Sean Penn is doing a great job, what a good actor.”
I urge everyone to see “Milk,” the story of a flawed but extremely courageous and inspiring man, the first openly gay person ever elected to public office in this country. The film begins with newsreel footage of Dianne Feinstein’s chilling announcement from 30 years ago last week that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had just been shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. Another framing device uses the prophetic words Harvey actually recorded in the event of his assassination. The film then flashes back to Milk’s closeted life in New York, his move to the Castro district in San Francisco, and his ultimate rise to power as a community organizer. Yes, COMMUNITY ORGANIZER, one of the most important and valuable political roles in the history of this country, Ms. Sarah Palin. I’m still not over Palin and Giuliani’s obnoxious sneering over this term at the Republican National Convention last summer. I think both of them should publicly apologize for their attempts to ridicule community organizers and they should acknowledge that if it weren’t for such people, we’d probably still have separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites and neighborhoods with restrictive covenants against Jews.
I’ll never forget the day that Milk and Moscone were gunned down. I was living in Paris at the time and read every bit of the coverage. Coming less than two weeks after the horrific Jonestown massacre in Guyana, and remembering that Jim Jones’ People’s Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco, I remember wondering what the hell was going on in that city.
Dan White murdered George Moscone and Harvey Milk in cold blood. I assumed he’d get the death penalty, which had been re-instated in California the previous year. I couldn’t believe it when he got a measly seven years for the reduced charge of manslaughter, thanks to the infamous “Twinkie Defense” his lawyers trotted out claiming that White’s junk food diet had impaired his reasoning so he wasn’t fully responsible for the killings. Like many people, I thought that the results of White’s trial were affected by the hatred many people had of gay people. I still believe that had Dan White ONLY assassinated Mayor Moscone, he would have received a much harsher sentence than he did by killing Moscone AND openly gay Harvey Milk. The trial was a travesty, as was White’s release after only five years. Upon his release, Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, urged Dan White not to return to that city, but he did anyway. Clearly a tormented individual, he committed suicide less than two years after his release from prison. Josh Brolin did an amazing job of portraying Dan White in “Milk” and I believe he will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Other stunning performances in this film include James Franco as Milk’s boyfriend Scott Smith, Emile Hirsch as young activist Cleve Jones, and Alison Pill as Milk’s lesbian campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg.
One of the main plot points in the film is Harvey Milk’s fight in the 1970s against anti-gay rights crusader Anita Bryant and California’s Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, that would have allowed public schools in California to fire any teachers or employees they suspected of being gay, or even of supporting gay rights. When this film was being shot earlier this year, I’m sure Van Sant, Penn, and the others never dreamed how much the fight against Prop 6 in November 1978 that they were depicting would mirror the fight against Prop 8 in November 2008. And who could have guessed that Proposition 8 would pass while Proposition 6 was defeated against all odds. True, the stakes may have been higher for Prop 6, but the proponents of Prop 8 used much of the same language and the same cache of ugly lies in their scurrilous arguments. And the ultimate message of both propositions was the same: gays and lesbians in California are still not viewed as full citizen with equal rights. It is a terribly sad postscript to the legacy of Harvey Milk, and I hope that some of the people who voted for Proposition 8 go to see “Milk” and that their faces burn with shame as they watch the film.
Today is the 20th anniversary of World Aids Day. Harvey Milk died before the specter of AIDS reared its ugly head but everyone else in this story was affected by the AIDS crisis. Scott Smith died of the disease in 1994. Cleve Jones founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 1983 and later, at a candlelight memorial service for his friend Harvey Milk, conceived the idea of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. This quilt has become the largest community arts project in the world, memorializing the lives of over 85,000 Americans who have died of AIDS.
Gus Van Sant and his set designers did an incredible job of recreating the look of the Castro in the late 1970s. They turned Harvey Milk’s old camera shop, now a gift shop, back into Milk’s headquarters. A plaque on this building reads as follows:
Harvey Milk’s camera store and campaign headquarters at 575 Castro Street and his apartment upstairs were centers of community activism for a wide range of human rights, environmental, labor, and neighborhood issues. Harvey Milk’s hard work and accomplishments on behalf of all San Franciscans earned him widespread respect and support. His life is an inspiration to all people committed to equal opportunity and an end to bigotry.
Harvey Milk loved movies and I know he’d be thrilled with this excellent film about his too-short life. If he were alive today, Harvey Milk would be 78. I hope he’s able to look down on the festivities at the Kodak Theatre on February 22 when Sean Penn collects his award in Harvey’s name.