by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I pulled out the film Milk, the 2008 biopic of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black and decidedly not based on Randy Shilts’ biography The Mayor of Castro Street — which has lingered in development hell for most of the two decades-plus since its publication — though since Black interviewed most of the people Shilts did, and they obviously told him substantially the same stories, the book (which I read ages ago but still remember a good deal of) and the film track pretty closely. I had major issues with this film even while it was still in production, and though Charles wanted to see it during the theatrical run I begged off for two reasons.
First, Harvey Milk was played by straight actor Sean Penn, and as much respect as I have for his talents (including two previous credits, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and the 2006 remake of All the King’s Men, that indicated he’d be as right for this part as any non-Gay actor would be), I really, really, really wanted to see the great Gay hero played by one of us. During one of the attempts to package The Mayor of Castro Street, when the Los Angeles Times announced that Robin Williams was going to play Milk, I wrote a letter to the editor — which they printed — saying that casting a straight actor as Milk would make about as much sense as casting a white actor as Martin Luther King. I didn’t want a Harvey Milk movie to be a star turn for a straight actor; I wanted it to be a star-making turn for a Gay one! When this project was announced and Sean Penn was mentioned as a star, I made the rather grim joke, “Well, maybe they consider him an honorary Gay man because he was married to Madonna.” (To make it even more ironic, Denis O’Hare, the actor playing California State Senator John Briggs — whose initiative to allow school districts to fire teachers for being Gay or supporting Gay rights was Milk’s main preoccupation during the last months of his life — is Gay, so we have a Gay actor playing a homophobe and a straight actor playing a Gay hero.)
The other reason I didn’t want to see this movie was that Gus Van Sant was directing, and while he actually is Gay, he’s not one of my favorite filmmakers. The first movie of his I saw was Drugstore Cowboy, which I absolutely loved, but most of his other films — particularly the pretentious My Own Private Idaho and the utterly atrocious (and deservedly forgotten) Gerry — have actively repelled me; in fact, if I were asked to make a list of what I thought were the 10 worst films of all time Gerry would definitely be on my list. So when I ordered the DVD of Milk from the Columbia House video club it was more because Charles wanted to see it than because I did, and when I got it out last night my thought was, “Well, we have to watch this sometime.”
As things turned out, Milk was better than my expectations but nowhere near as good as a film of Harvey Milk’s life deserved to be. The good thing about Gus Van Sant’s direction was that it was faceless and impersonal, a pretty straightforward job of handling a biopic — which given how appalled I’ve been by Van Sant’s “personal” films is actually a good thing. The director it really needed was Pedro Almodóvar, but not only has he not shown any inclination to come to the U.S. and make films in English but he’s probably not the first name on anyone’s short list of directors for a movie about American politics — though given what a fine job Fritz Lang did with an anti-lynching “message” film in Fury, his first U.S. film, an Almodóvar-directed Milk biopic is a fascinating movie to imagine, especially since he would have insisted that Duncan Lance Black broaden his script to include more of the sexual context in which Milk lived and thrived (more on that later).
The Milk we have is a pretty normal biopic, lionizing its subject and ignoring or shading his less attractive characteristics, and it’s also normal for a movie about American politics in focusing on the public rather than the private life of its hero. What really makes the film are the performances, not only Sean Penn’s as Milk — given my obsession verging on hatred for the very idea of a straight actor playing Milk, I must say that he got me to suspend my disbelief enough that for the two hours of the movie I really believed in Sean Penn as a Gay man — but also Josh Brolin’s as Dan White, Milk’s rival on the Board of Supervisors and eventually his killer. (This means that you get to see Barbra Streisand’s stepson kill Madonna’s ex-husband.) In a few short scenes, Brolin manages to create a carefully controlled picture of a decent guy who was driven to murder by changes, both political and personal, he simply couldn’t handle (and nothing in his Irish Catholic background prepared him to handle it — as a Gay Irish-American it’s a weird experience to watch a film in which I have something in common with both the hero and the villain!) — no wonder Oliver Stone wanted him to play George W. Bush in his political biopic!
As for Penn, though shorter than the real Milk, he nonetheless manages to suggest the gangliness of the real Milk, the sense that Milk gave in his public appearances that he was not quite in control of his own body — though, according to imdb.com, he had major help in undergoing the physical transformation to make him look like Milk: “Sean Penn’s cosmetic transformation in the film included a prosthetic nose and teeth, contact lenses and a redesigned hairline. His makeup was done by Academy Award winner Stephan Dupuis.” Though Milk is a much better movie than the 2006 All the King’s Men, it’s clear that Penn’s experience making that film — also about a political outsider who wins office by taking on his state’s establishment and assembling a coalition of outsiders — helped him in making this one, though where the remake of All the King’s Men was unashamedly cynical about the very idea of making change through the political system (far more so than the 1949 original had been!), Milk is such an uplifting movie (despite the downer ending) that through much of it — especially when Black’s Milk (like the real one) is dropping the word “hope” about 20 times in every speech — Milk comes across like a Gay white prototype of Barack Obama, another tall, geeky-looking politician who won high office against all the odds.
Milk is the sort of movie that frustrates the viewer not because it’s bad — it’s a quite good movie within the limitations of Van Sant’s and Black’s approach to the subject — but because the life of Harvey Milk had the potential to be the basis for a far greater movie than this. Black decided to start his script in 1970, when Milk and Scott Smith (James Franco) cruise each other in the New York subway; within the space of one jump-cut they’ve moved in together and are seen in bed from the waist up, not doing anything but talking about how bored they are and they need a change. Within a few minutes of screen time they’re in San Francisco, renting a ratty apartment in the Castro and pondering what to do when Scott’s unemployment insurance runs out when Milk hits on the idea of renting the commercial space on the ground floor of their building and opening some sort of small business out of it, something that will keep them together and enable them to scrounge up some sort of living while not having to work too hard. They end up opening a camera and film developing shop — I can imagine the young audience, who’ve grown up in the days of digital photography, having no idea what film was, and I’m sorry they didn’t include the charming origin story of Castro Camera as told in Shilts’ book: someone else ruined a roll of film Milk and Smith had shot, and they decided they could develop film better than that.
The film flashes through Milk’s first three political campaigns, two for San Francisco Supervisor under the citywide elections system (San Francisco’s government is a combination city and county and therefore their equivalent of a city council is called the “Board of Supervisors”) and a Democratic primary for state assembly against machine candidate Art Agnos (which is when I met him for the one and only time: though I was living in the East Bay, I was working with a Left-wing political group headquartered in San Francisco and they asked me to be on a panel asking the candidates questions at a candidates’ night they were presenting), where he’s crushed. Along the way he meets Advocate publisher David Goodstein (Howard Rosenman) and his protégé, Rick Stokes (Stephen Spinella), who basically come off as Booker T. Washington and Robert Russa Moton to Milk’s W. E. B. DuBois: the acommodationists who want to work through friendly white/straight politicians versus the militants who want to elect their own.
Forty-five minutes into the movie Milk finally wins his supervisorial seat under the district-elections system enacted by San Francisco voters in 1977 (and quickly repealed again after Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed), and from then on — once we’ve reached the part of Milk’s life Black was clearly most interested in — the events move in a whirlwind, as Milk takes his seat on the board, writes the city’s first Queer-rights law and cultivates Dan White, his rival on the board and a man drawn as representing the old Irish-Catholic working-class San Francisco and winning his board seat by talking about the breakdown in moral values and the takeover of the city by “special interests.” Milk wants the vote on the Queer-rights bill to be unanimous and White offers to vote for it if Milk will vote against granting a permit for a psychiatric hospital to be built in White’s district, and when Milk gets convinced by the idealists on his staff to vote for the hospital project, White never forgives him and Milk seals his own fate — though the film also shows Milk as the only one of the supervisors White invited to his son’s christening who actually accepted (and according to imdb.com, the real adult Charles White is in the sequence) and Milk telling his aides he’s getting more and more scared of White because he’s become convinced that White is a latent homosexual and being in such close professional association with an “out” Gay man is bringing all that out in him to a dangerous degree.
While all this is going on in San Francisco, Anita Bryant is launching her infamous “Save Our Children” campaign in Miami and Queer-rights laws are losing by two to one in every city where our opponents can challenge them on the ballot (a salutary reminder to those — like me — who are afraid the American people will never vote to legalize same-sex marriage that there was a time we were equally convinced, and on just as solid evidence, that they would never vote to allow us basic anti-discrimination protections in civil-rights law either), and State Senator John Briggs (openly Gay actor Denis O’Hare, who actually does a great job conveying his character’s visceral distaste of homosexuality that goes way beyond its value to the Right as a political issue) puts his initiative on the ballot that would call for the firing of Queer and Queer-friendly teachers. With all the commentary this film has evoked because of the supposed similarity between the campaign on the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, in 1978 and the campaign on the same-sex marriage initiative, Proposition 8, in 2008, there’s one big difference that has virtually escaped attention even though it’s made very clear in the film itself: Proposition 6 was far ahead in the early polls (“We might even lose San Francisco,” Milk is told in an early scene in the film — and that fear of an overwhelming statewide defeat that would bury Queer rights for generations was very real; I remember it well!) and therefore the Queer community knew what it was up against and how it literally had to mobilize for its lives, while Proposition 8 was behind in the early polls, we were lulled into a false sense of security and it was the homo-haters who pulled off the great come-from-behind victory.
One parallel that does strike home comes in the scene in which Milk, summoned to a meeting with the big straight progressive Democratic bosses of California, sees a draft of an anti-6 flyer that presents it as an abstract “civil rights” issue and makes not one mention of Gays — and he pulls one of his spectacular drama-queen gestures and burns the draft flyer in the room’s fireplace, refusing (as we all too meekly agreed to do in the Proposition 8 campaign!) to step back in the closet and essentially become extras in our own struggle for rights. The plot threads come together in Milk’s active campaign against Proposition 6 and his public debates with Briggs — whose anti-Queer arguments sound chillingly familiar (these folks haven’t changed their script much since Bryant and Briggs, though they’ve had to retreat as we’ve slowly advanced from having to fight for our right to exist to having to fight to avoid discrimination to having to fight for official recognition of our relationships and the legal right to call them “marriages”) — and much of the commentary that linked this film to the Proposition 8 campaign has consisted of regret that there wasn’t a Harvey Milk in our community willing to stand up to the wimpy get-back-in-the-closets-and-let-straight-people-argue-for-your-rights strategy Equality California and their consultants cooked up for the No on 8 campaign. (On April 2, Delores Jacobs, executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in San Diego, will host a town-hall meeting on the future of the same-sex marriage struggle in California, and a lot of the Equality Whatever types will be there — which strikes me as about the same as organizing a “How to Survive the Recession” financial-planning seminar and inviting the former AIG executives to lead it.)
The film quickly moves from the triumph of the Briggs defeat to the tragedy of the dual assassination of Moscone (who becomes in this film, as he was in White’s trial, the forgotten victim — his assassination is not depicted on screen but Milk’s is, though there isn’t a trace of the expression that flashed across Milk’s face before he died that White later cited in saying he killed Milk because “he smirked at me”), and it ends on the candlelight vigil that took place on the night of the murders, while only an American Graffiti-style “what happened later” series of titles mentions that White got off on a diminished-capacity defense and was sentenced to only seven years (and got out in five) for a double murder, or the “White Night” riots that took place thereafter.
Milk is a good film (not a great one) as it stands but it could have been a good deal better if they’d seized on more of the opportunities Milk’s life offered for dramatization. I’d have liked to see more of the pre-San Francisco Milk, the young Republican (his first political involvement was campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964) stockbroker and man-on-the-make who earned enough money to attend the Metropolitan Opera regularly (Milk’s lifelong love of opera — and the culture clash between him and his young supporters over that — are shown in the movie, but without the background Milk’s opera fandom seems like a bizarre and inexplicable affectation) and was scared shitless that someone would find out he was Gay, he’d be fired and his high life would be over.
I’d also like to have seen more of the sexual ferment that gripped San Francisco in those 12 years between Gay Liberation and AIDS, in which Milk fully participated; the film depicts his breakup with Scott Smith as coming from Scott’s desire not to be a political “wife” any longer, and Milk’s bizarre, destructive affair with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), the whiny Latino hustler he picks up and lets move in with him, as more of a Gay version of a midlife crisis than anything else, with virtually all his friends in the movie telling him, “You can do better than that.” What the film avoids showing is that by 1978 Milk had decisively rejected monogamy (or, as my husband Charles would call it, monandry) as an appropriate model for Gay relationships and was himself an enthusiastic participant in the casual-sex culture of San Francisco — and he made no bones about it, either; the film suffers from the absence of any depiction of just how in-your-face Milk was not only about his sexual orientation but about his sex life, at one point telling one of his partners to tell people who asked, “No, Harvey doesn’t fuck me — I fuck Harvey,” and at another point telling one of his straight supporters, “You wouldn’t want to shake my hand — because you don’t know where it’s been!”
It’s evident that in avoiding such scenes Van Sant and Black were consciously sanitizing Harvey Milk, turning him from an apostle of free Gay love to a born-again monogamist (Black even wrote a cornball scene of Milk seeking out Smith and offering him a reconciliation just before he gets shot, a scene that was a movie cliché before Harvey Milk himself, let alone any of the filmmakers, was born!), a suitable Queer icon for an age in which AIDS (and particularly the widespread misconception that it’s a sexually transmitted disease caused by a single virus) has been interpreted in the common consensus as a biological judgment against a sexually open community lifestyle (an argument in which the Queers themselves begin to sound an awful lot like the radical Right in their arguments against “unprotected” — i.e., natural — sex between men) and the principal political demand of the Queer community has become the right to get married.
I wish the filmmakers would have honestly depicted the sexual Bacchanalia San Francisco was during the last few years of Milk’s lifetime — which is one reason I wish Almodóvar would have directed it (Gus Van Sant is simply not good enough a filmmaker to show scenes like that without making them overly sensational or disgusting — even if Black hadn’t sanitized the script of this film and instead had given him the chance) — and I also wish they would have worked into the Jonestown massacre into the script. Anyone who was living in San Francisco in 1978 (as I was) remembers the sense that the times were out of joint — the assassinations of Moscone and Milk hit a city that was just recovering from the catastrophe of Jonestown (and the two events were intimately connected because Jim Jones had been a strong political supporter of Moscone’s mayoral campaign, had ordered his People’s Temple members to canvass for Moscone, and had been rewarded with an appointment to head the city’s housing commission), much the way one would expect a film about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to mention the killing of Martin Luther King two months earlier: the conjunction of Jonestown and the Moscone/Milk killings was a sort of double-whammy that made the later event even more traumatizing than it otherwise would have been and created that same swimming sense that the times were totally out of joint.
Making the sort of Harvey Milk movie I would have wanted to see would have taken a lot more guts than it did to make this one — not only a nervier director and an unknown Gay actor (instead of a well-known non-Gay one) in the lead, but a script that would have dared to confront the way the Queer community functioned in Milk’s time even though much of that would have been read as outrageously politically (and culturally, and sexually) incorrect by a 2008 audience — and it was hard enough for the people who made this one to get the greenlight for it, but one still gets the impression that the definitive movie about Harvey Milk has yet to be made.