In 1977 Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in America. But just 10 months after being sworn in to San Francisco’s board of supervisors, he and mayor George Moscone were assassinated—shot dead by a conservative colleague, Dan White. Hollywood has been trying to bring Milk’s remarkable story to the screen for decades, involving a host of prospective stars—including Robin Williams, Richard Gere, Kevin Spacey, Daniel Day-Lewis and Steve Carell. Now Sean Penn brings the character vividly to life with a performance that rings so true it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. And after all these years, Milk—directed by Gus Van Sant—lands with prescient timing.
Not only has America just elected Barack Obama—another “first-ever” candidate born from a historic grassroots movement—on the same ballot, California voters approved Proposition 8, which prohibits gay marriage. Last week, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black told me the vote on Proposition 8 was “personally devastating.” Ironically, though, this setback for gay rights lends his period drama stunning resonance. Exactly three decades earlier, Milk led a successful crusade to defeat Proposition 6, which would have banned gay teachers from California public schools.
Many of the real-life activists who surrounded Milk served as consultants on the film, and they’ve said Penn’s incarnation of him is uncanny. But one real-life character who could not be on hand was Milk’s assassin, who committed suicide after serving five years on a reduced plea of voluntary manslaughter—White had won leniency with the infamous “Twinkie defence,” claiming he’d been unhinged by junk food. Josh Brolin (W., No Country for Old Men) plays White, and his chemistry with Milk is the film’s most intriguing element, freighted with an innuendo that suggests the killer’s homophobia was undercut by a closeted attraction. Chillingly, the narrative is framed by Milk dictating his life story in a will that he said was to be opened only in the event of his assassination.
If that sounds like an Oliver Stone movie, it almost was. Backed by gay producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago), Stone was the first director tapped to film Milk’s story, as The Mayor of Castro Street. But he backed out after incensing the gay community with his portrayal of debauched homosexuals in JFK (1991). Stone passed the baton to Van Sant, who wrote a script that died on the vine, and then Bryan Singer (X-Men) tried to cast Spacey. If there is credence to rumours that Spacey is gay (which he denies), it would have been strangely inappropriate for a closeted gay to portray a politician who was adamant that homosexuals come out. It was vital the movie’s star “not be a closeted gay actor,” says Black. “That would have been a big slap in the face to the real Harvey Milk.”
Black, inspired by the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, wrote his script on spec. It got to Van Sant, who gave it to Penn. And out of the blue, a rival pair of gay producers, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, beat out the original team, who had struggled for 16 years on their project.
The casting of Milk was sexual-preference-blind. “I think we have more gay actors playing straight roles,” says Black, “than straight actors playing gay roles.” The latter range from Emile Hirsch, as Milk’s flamboyant protege, Cleve Jones, to Toronto-born firecracker Alison Pill, 22, as his lesbian campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg. “When I read the script,” Pill said, “I had this whole bull-dyke thing in my head, but once I met Anne, she had an amazing den-mother quality.”
Kronenberg’s character is just one of many teasing tangents that could evolve into a whole other movie. But the focus here is on Harvey. Tracing his evolution from repressed New York office drone to lovesick San Francisco hippie to trim politician, Milk embodies the bohemian abandon of a gay pride movement discovering itself. With more wit than finger-wagging, it shows the difference between compromising on tactics (Milk cuts his hair and dons a suit) and on principle (he rejects support from wealthy gays who want to campaign behind a straight mask). In that regard, the movie follows Harvey’s cue. There’s more gay kissing than we’ve ever seen in a studio picture. But stylistically, Milk is Van Sant’s straightest film since Finding Forrester (2000). Van Sant simply tells the story, an inspirational tragedy that gives Milk his due, and lends his movement the mainstream acceptance and affection he always craved.