Monday, September 21, 2009


Ever since the release of Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), a biopic has been in the works. At one point, in 1991, Gus Van Sant was set to direct Robin Williams. The project fell through, but the fact that one proposed project after another had fallen through in all the years since is ample evidence of Hollywood's smell for a sure-fire hit as well as its cowardice. Finally, with an air of inevitability, Gus Van Sant's film, Milk (2008), with a new script and star, was released just in time for the California vote on Proposition 8, a California state constitution amendment which reads: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." The release's timing was, however, off. 52.24% of California voters said yes to the proposition, paving the way for future rallies and protests which led all the way up to Oscar Eve, when Sean Penn won for Best Actor.(1) I could see Penn's acceptance speech coming from 6,000 miles away.

The Times of Harvey Milk was an extraordinary documentary that encapsulated a story that might easily have been overlooked by anyone not involved in San Francisco's political scene. Harvey Milk was a gay man who moved to San Francisco from New York to escape a life of constant subterfuge - the life of every gay man living outside a major city. (2) Even in San Francisco, however, gays were subject to harassment from police and straight men, and many of them took to carrying whistles to alert others when they were under attack. Milk managed to organize the residents of the Castro district, where he and other gays were able to live openly. Milk's would have been just another San Francisco anecdote if Dan White, a fellow city supervisor, had not murdered him and the mayor in November 1978 for what appeared to be political reasons, although there were rumors, which will only ever be rumors, that White was in denial of his own gayness.

On his election to City Supervisor in 1977, Milk was quickly pushed into a leading role in the California vote on Proposition 6 which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. It was part of a broader, national movement, Save Our Children, whose figurehead was Anita Bryant. The proposition was defeated, and it was seen as a victory for Milk and a mandate for further gay rights legislation. Dan White supported Milk in the proposition's defeat, reportedly as a deal that would oblige Milk to support one of White's initiatives to block the moving of a mental hospital into his district. When Milk reneged on his promise, White was outraged, and submitted his resignation to the mayor. When White changed his mind and asked the mayor to return his resignation, the mayor, with Milk's encouragement, refused.

Van Sant gives ample credit to Rob Epstein's documentary in the end credits for Milk. A gay man himself, and a filmmaker who seems to invite controversy, Van Sant was probably attracted as much to Milk's violent death as to his strident sexuality. Milk's sexuality is depicted in the film quite naturally, which is remarkable for a mainstream film. Lately, the presence of straight men in gay roles is a commonplace. Aside from providing producers and audiences with the assurance that there is no untoward gratification going on, the phenomenon has a fetishistic feel to it, providing gay titillation watching them pretend to love men. It is comparable to the titillation some straight men claim to derive from watching women kissing. It would have been far braver, if less titillating, of Van Sant to cast a gay man in the role of Harvey Milk.

One critic, John Podhoretz of the Weekly Standard, complained that the film failed to mention Milk's "polyamorous" affairs in order to placate the same-sex marriage crowd. Some opponents of gay marriage are convinced that, since the male libido is controlled by testosterone,(3) gay men are far more sexually active simply because their partners are under the influence of the same hormone. The "bath houses" where gay men go for gratification, which Milk mentions in the film, have been the subject of heterosexual curiosity, if only because there is no such counterpart in the straight world.

Sean Penn is utterly convincing as Milk, and could, I suppose, be commended for so fearlessly impersonating a gay man, if one believed it requires courage for a straight man to continually kiss someone of the same sex. Evidently, the Academy Awards thought so, in awarding Penn Best Actor. The only other commendable element of the film is its equally fearless re-creation of 1970s America. For quite a few other unsightly reasons, the '70s was a profoundly ugly decade. The clothes, the cars, the hair were merely an outward manifestation of an inward ugliness. Van Sant and his production and costume designers, Bill Groom and Danny Glicker, got it all frighteningly right.

Gay and straight people have always seemed to be living in parallel worlds. Of course, this is only because, heretofore, straight society insisted that it be so. Long before the American military adopted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it was an unwritten law for everyone else. By telling the straight world that they exist, gays have always risked backlashes from threatened straights, in defense of such shibboleths as "family values." Over the decades, propositions both for and against co-existence - the simple acceptance of gays living in the same world - come and go. That homosexuals have rights at all is thanks to people like Harvey Milk.

(1) Dustin Lance Black also won for Best Original Screenplay.
(2) In Milk, we first meet Harvey in medias res, picking up a cute man on the stairs of a New York subway.
(3) An average man has forty to sixty times the Testosterone levels of an average woman.

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