Harvey Milk had a large nose, funny hair and a grating New York accent. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and allies but often ruthless toward those who questioned his motives.
He was also the first openly gay male elected to public office in the United States. As such, he knew he would die young.
A fearless grassroots populist who encouraged gay men and women to come out of the closet, Milk knew he was a threat to the status quo — even in a relatively sympathetic place like late-1970s San Francisco. About a year before he was killed at age 48, he sat in his modest Castro Street apartment and recorded a will that would be played “only in the event of my death by assassination.”
Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black use this prescient recording as the backbone of Milk, their lively, surprisingly straightforward biopic of an unlikely politician who touched more lives than he even knew possible.
And perhaps befitting of Milk’s unconventional rise (and continued relevance), Van Sant went the curious route of casting Sean Penn in the lead role — an actor who takes the production to an entirely new level.
From the closet to Castro Street
The film’s compact narrative is shaped by Milk’s brief political career (essentially 1973 through 1978, only the last 11 months of which he spent as an elected official). Andrew Sullivan, another openly gay man immersed in politics, describes the film’s impact with typical incisiveness on his blog: “The tidiness of Harvey Milk’s martyrdom gives the movie a shape and a narrative. And within that tight frame, (Van Sant) let his life breathe a little with its contradictions and complexities. I remembered that Milk understood two things: that organizing a gay community from the ground up was essential if homosexuals were ever to be free of threat, persecution and violence; and that such a ghetto would never be enough — because the most vulnerable gays and lesbians and transgenders are destined to be born every day in the great heartland between the coasts.”
The narrative kicks into gear as Milk (Penn) leaves behind his old, largely closeted life in New York City and moves to San Francisco with his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco), in 1972. The pair opens a small business, Castro Camera, which becomes a vital hub for San Francisco’s burgeoning gay community.
It’s not long before Milk, yearning to give voice to the community’s interests, runs for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (their version of city council), to which he’s finally elected in 1977 after two unsuccessful tries.
Van Sant and ace cinematographer Harris Savides — who worked similar magic in David Fincher’s Zodiac — re-create the period with loving, dead-eye detail. The use of vintage news footage from the era — including Diane Feinstein’s shocking announcement of Milk’s and then-Mayor George Moscone’s assassination by fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) — only adds to the film’s organic, authentically rendered flavor.
But it’s Penn’s performance as the charismatic Milk that cuts the deepest. Anyone who has seen The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein’s fine 1984 documentary, will be astonished by Penn’s uncanny portrayal — a performance marked by the actor’s fearlessness and, somewhat surprisingly, sweetness. Known for brooding, desolation-laced characters, Penn wouldn’t seem the obvious choice to play an eternally optimistic gay man.
Van Sant, who joined much of the film’s cast for a series of interviews in Los Angeles, agrees.
“I thought, ‘The most macho guy in Hollywood is going to play Harvey Milk?’ ” he says. “But that challenge also makes it really exciting for him. It’s a hard job to do, which makes it interesting. It’s not just the obvious choice. It gives the movie some vibrancy. And then you hope that Sean does the job that he actually did, which is that he completely infused himself into Harvey.”
While Van Sant long had Penn in mind to play Milk — he originally offered him the role during a different incarnation of the project more than a decade ago — the director wasn’t sure what to expect from the notoriously opinioned actor.
“When we had our first meeting, (screenwriter) Dustin (Lance Black) came to his house and we sort of were ready to get into a hardcore political discussion, because Sean was known to be going all over the world experiencing political situations,” Van Sant says.
“But Sean said, ‘I’m not ready to talk about the politics. I guess I just need to learn my lines and show up on time.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really what we want him to do.’ You know, make it simple, and that’s what he was thinking.”
Milk’s passionate, humanist stance on various issues clearly aligns with Penn’s own political philosophy. But articulating that in Milk’s voice, appearance and mannerisms was something else entirely — especially for a method man like Penn.
“Somebody asked Sean before we started shooting how he gets so fired up making his own speeches when he gets in front of the press,” Van Sant says. “He said, ‘Well, this is something my director should know: I have to get very angry to really do that, to make a good speech or performance.’ And I was like, ‘OK, we’ll figure that out. How does it work?’
“(Then) I thought, ‘I guess I could throw coffee at him,’ ” Van Sant says, laughing. “He didn’t look to me for the anger, fortunately, but he found it in his own way of, like, getting himself angry for certain scenes, the speeches in particular.”
“The way Sean became Harvey Milk was amazing,” says Diego Luna, who plays one of Milk’s love interests in the movie. “Not just physically but, you know, Harvey was a very happy person, the kind of guy that was able to turn negative energy (into) positive energy. He was the kind of guy that, if the news was that you lost the elections, he would hear there were people voting for you this morning, and Sean did have a lot of that energy in his eyes.
“It was a different Sean than any other film I’ve seen him in. He’s a guy that understands acting is sharing, and that makes everything easy. It’s a guy that’s searching for your eyes, looking for the exchange.”
‘Thank goodness’ for Gus
While the life of Harvey Milk isn’t a surprising topic for Van Sant, an openly gay filmmaker, it is a departure from his recent string of poetic, beautifully abstracted (though no less doom-ridden) films like Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park. In fact, Milk is perhaps the most conventional film in a varied career that includes Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, an ill-advised Pyscho remake and his lone commercial hit, Good Will Hunting.
Van Sant, a low-key guy who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-1970s, is somewhat evasive when asked how his own sexuality informed the project as well as the curious fact that all of the film’s main actors (Penn, Brolin, Luna, James Franco and Emile Hirsch) are played by heterosexual males.
But Franco, who plays Milk’s main love interest, isn’t shy about articulating his director’s assets.
“The fact that Gus felt so strongly about this movie, because there are a lot of issues that relate to his own life, I’m sure it helped,” he says.
And on the issue of straight actors playing gay roles?
“I don’t know if a gay actor could have played my role better than I did,” Franco says. “I just know that I feel strongly about all the issues that Harvey was fighting for and, hopefully, my passion for those issues was enough for me to devote myself to this character.”
It helped that Van Sant is such a sensitive, highly attuned director.
“Gus, thank goodness, makes everybody so relaxed to the point where it results in more natural performances,” Franco says.
Alison Pill, who plays Anne Kronenberg, one of Milk’s key political strategists, finds Van Sant’s organic approach a vital component to the film’s success.
“The story isn’t about their discovery of being gay or any of that,” Pill says. “Within the first five minutes there’s a beautiful love scene between men (Penn and Franco) that’s not like, ‘Oh my God, this is shocking!’ It’s just as you would see in any romance. I think that is something that Gus can definitely do well. The movie isn’t about being gay as anything more than a given.”
There’s no way one can view Milk without thinking about Proposition 8, the recently passed ballot initiative that bans same-sex marriages in California. In a strange and ironic parallel, Milk’s crowning achievement, well documented in the film, was his battle against Proposition 6, which would have barred gay teachers from jobs in California public schools.
Milk combated the measure the only way he knew how: head on. He humanized the gay movement by letting voters know that he was just like them — a concerned citizen who believed that “all men are created equal.”
Brolin, who plays Milk’s assassin and fellow supervisor with depth and nuance, was surprised by the passage of Prop. 8.
“There’s a grand parallel,” Brolin says of its timing in relation to the film’s release. “You feel like you’ve evolved, you feel like the gay community and that gay society has become more mainstream, and then something like this happens, which was a huge surprise for me. And in California of all places.”
Like Penn and other “Hollywood types,” Brolin has been vocal about his beliefs, which has led to criticism from some.
“To me the most important thing, and it was Harvey’s thing also, was that people allow themselves to speak, allow their opinions to be heard,” Brolin says. “Howard Zinn says it: ‘Democracy comes from the bottom, not from the top.’ Allow yourself to be heard. Suffer the consequences of that, but allow yourself to be heard. More people voted this time than in I don’t know how long, which is fantastic.
“I read these blogs that say, ‘Actors should just shut the fuck up and act.’ Why? It’s another citizen speaking up. Who cares? Everybody should speak up. Stop talking to the television, you know?”
The film’s screenwriter hopes Milk is an informative tool for the current gay-rights movement.
“There’s a very different strategy in defeating an anti-gay proposition in the movie,” Black says. “In fact, it takes kind of an attack on a closeted campaign in the movie. Harvey does (it) directly, which was sort of a theme for Harvey: self-representation. That was missing in the campaign for Proposition 8, I think. We didn’t hear the word ‘gay’ in much of the mainstream campaign for No on 8. There were no gay people depicted in it. We sort of never introduced ourselves and said, ‘Hey, we’re the ones that it’s being taken away from,’ and that was really the opposite approach for Harvey.”
While Penn’s performance is sure to be showered with hyperbolic praise — many are calling it the best of his career — the big question is whether Milk’s deeply humanist message will reach a broad audience.
“I think it’s great that whatever straight folks will come to see it, which I hope a lot will, they can learn from it,” Black says. “But I think it’s also really helpful for the gay leadership to see how it’s done.”
Van Sant agrees.
“It’s about grassroots political organizing and making it work and that you can do it,” he says.
Opens Dec. 12 at the Esquire Theater and Kenwood Towne Centre. Check out show times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.