Gus Van Sant’s Milk is a biopic starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man ever to be elected to office in a major U.S. city.
The film charts the last eight years of Milk’s life, from 1970-1978, as he rises as one of history’s gay civil rights leaders, first as a community activist and then as an elected member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
With his beloved Castro neighborhood and entire city empowering him, Milk surprised his many lovers, including Scott Smith (James Franco), his supporters (which included a young activist named Cleve Jones, played by Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch), and ultimately, himself by becoming an outspoken and effective agent for change.
Alas, like many great voices, his was silenced too soon, when in ’78, another newly elected supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin), gunned him down.
Milk’s message, though, already had been shared, and his legacy would live on and will resonate until the end of time.
Read on as my very special guest, E! Online’s Ted Casablanca, and I discuss Milk.
You know, I left Milk feeling galvanized and frustrated since I’m not an American and I couldn’t vote to help keep Florida’s Prop 2 from passing. Since I saw the film a few weeks ago, I’ve been observing and listening in on conversations for reactions to it, assessing the level of anticipation. There was talk of having all members of the GLBT community stay at home last Friday – I haven’t heard anything about how that turned out – but watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that’s not enough. What we need is a Harvey Milk, and I’m racking my brain wondering just who is filling those shoes these days.
Ted Casablanca: I couldn’t agree with you more. Where’s Harvey Milk today when you need him more than ever? That’s what the movie just leaves you screaming with inside your head. That, and the requisite Oscar nomination for Sean Penn – which is hugely deserved, mind you, but isn’t it always that way? The put upon fruit gets all the attention at the Oscars? Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Charlize Theron in Monster, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. It’s always a straight actor playing those roles. But, yeah, where’s Milk now to fight back [California’s] Prop 8? We need somebody that angry, that motivated, and definitely that fearless.
I’d dare say there are plenty of high-profile straight allies – just look at all the celebrities who came out in support of No on 8, including the Governator – yet not one single strong queer voice. There’s no one leading the march, the revolution. The strides made by Milk have all been but abandoned and taken for granted in favor of I don’t know…figuring out the feud between LC and Heidi? Do you think that in the current climate, that someone will emerge?
TC: Are you waiting for Ellen, or something? She’ll never do it. What about Rosie? She’s so used to people hating her while loving her. She’s perfect!
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Ellen. She’s a trailblazer, that’s a given, but she’s also so safe. She could do so much more for her people, for the “uses” of which Milk spoke. It puzzled me so that Portia de Rossi never was a guest on her show while she was on Arrested Development. (OK, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t.) But that’s neither here nor there. I feel like Milk is going to do more for civil rights than Brokeback Mountain, though. That film humanized gays in a way that was unprecedented, which perhaps I didn’t articulate well enough when it came out. But Milk – Milk is going to, or it should, make people, gay or straight, stand up. What did you think of the performances?
TC: I think it’s all about Sean Penn. No one even compares. Josh Brolin has some truly splendid moments as Dan White – he really has a thing for doing creeps well (I wonder why?). But everyone just gets washed away by SP, I think. He’s that powerful. And everybody else, even James Franco, just seems left in the dust. It’s truly a remarkable job, especially from a guy who isn’t exactly known for being in touch with his feminine side. I thought one of Gus Van Sant’s best decisions was not to cast Anita Bryant, and just use actual footage of her. It was brilliant. Who could be that evil with hair that perfect? Besides Sarah Palin, that is.
A friend mentioned to me that he saw a documentary about Harvey Milk and that SP played him much more effeminate than he was. I found that Emile Hirsch took it a bit too far a few times, as did Diego Luna. But then again, there are people out there just like that. Indeed, Penn was It. I loved the structure of the film, and cannot imagine Gus Van Sant will not be nominated as well. It was genius not to cast Anita Bryant. I can't think of any actress who would’ve willingly stepped into those controhateful shoes, except perhaps a desperate one like Lindsay Lohan. And I love L2!
TC: Look, you big butch thing, Harvey Milk had his fagola moments, so I’m told. I hate this politically correct notion that it’s somehow bad to be feminine, at times, or at all. It’s part of that whole straight-acting, self-hating mentality that so many gays fall into. Queer is as queer does, which means we should love the whole f---ing rainbow of how we all are. Some are screamers, some aren’t. I embrace all sides, and hate those who don’t love the whole lot of us. And as far as SP goes, I thought he was most strong when he played lighter, less renegade, which would have been so obvious. Like when he laughed to Dan White, saying, “God knows we keep trying!” after White complained gays couldn’t have kids. And he chose to say that very gay, which I thought was a wonderful moment.
I'm not putting it down at all, so back it up and put it on a shelf, hun-hun. I found the moments in which Milk was shown at home to be the most tender and most relatable. Look, SP nailed this role on the head. I didn’t know Milk from the next Jack on the street until this film came along, and I find myself craving to learn more about him, and craving more people like him. No-apologies, conflicted fighters who are not about pussyfoot in the name of conformity. Change is in the air, obvs, and I can only hope that the power of inspiration will translate from the screen onto the streets.
TC: I pray for the same, hun-hun. Where’d you get that one, reading me?
It’s the gayer variation on Sandra Bernhard’s famous “Honey!” Speaking of, and totally off-topic: Did you see this?
TC: It’s funny, but, isn’t it kind of sad?
I don’t think so. Sandra never bags on Madonna, so when she does it’s priceless. It’s too bad they’re not friends anymore. M is like a sponge, obvs, and Sandy B. is way smarter than any of the yes people around the Queen’s throne these days.
TC: You gotta point there.
Let’s get back to the topic du jour. You mentioned earlier that it’s always straight actors playing these gay roles. Let’s be fair – they are the majority, no? And some gay talent still is in the closet… which, whaddya know, was one of Milk’s central messages: “Come out!” Now – and I’m not asking you to out anyone – what do you make of that?
TC: Ask Wanda Sykes. And do you actually think straight actors are the majority in this community? Tell that to the married actor with a family who asked me to blow him, would ya?
Scandalous…and do tell? Seriously, though, if gay actors wanted to claim these roles, push the envelope, then shouldn’t they? SP can do so much, you know. He’s the face of the film, but GVS (pictured at right) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are, I feel, the ones who.... They deserve all the credit for continuing this important dialogue that Milk started. What do you hope people will take away from the film?
TC: You asked more questions in that one paragraph than Hilary Swank’s hair asks of a single photograph. In order: No. Yes. Agreed. Who what? Agreed, but, why weren’t more openly gay folks cast in the movie? I asked Van Sant that, and he said [that] yes, Harvey would have loved it, but, it came down to a money issue. I’m just not sure I agree with his hedging. Smaller films with gay folks often make bucks, [and it’s] certainly no reason why one or two showcase roles couldn’t have gone to out fruits like Rupert Everett or Neil Patrick Harris, I think. Actually, Harris would have been terrific in the Emile Hirsch role. Jesus, even Lance Bass could have had a f---ing cameo. But, obviously, Van Sant didn’t ask me. Also, how perfect would it have been for Kevin Spacey to play Dan White? And what should people take away? That it’s OK to be angry, and more of us should, indeed, be angry.
And hopeful perhaps?
TC: Hopeful is for losers. I’m sorry. It’s just such an ultimately second-class citizen emotion. I really think demanding is a better word. We should demand better treatment, not hope someone will eventually do so.
So…I really liked Milk. I thought Penn was terrific, really phenomenal, and I found Harvey Milk’s story to be so courageous and important and inspiring. If I ever get the chance to meet Gus Van Sant, he’s a big thank-you hug for putting this story on film.
Call me a loser, already, but I am extremely hopeful that this film will awaken the Harvey Milk within each one of us. It only takes one to make a difference.
My Rating ****
Photos: Focus Features.