Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay activist who was murdered 30 years ago tomorrow, has a New York City public school, a Georgia rock band and, as of this week, a Bay Area civil-service building named for him. The first openly homosexual city supervisor in the U.S., he organized gays into a potent political force. Then there are the movies. Bryan Singer, director of X-Men and Superman Returns, is completing a Milk documentary, The Mayor of Castro Street. Today we get Milk, a hurtling, minutely researched, close-to-irresistible biopic starring Academy Award winner Sean Penn, whose performance is likely to be nominated for another Oscar, as is this film. That makes it official: Harvey Milk is the gay Joan of Arc.
A lot of kids today, especially the most conservative, may think of gays as belonging to some vague outlaw culture. But they might be surprised to learn that when Harvey Milk was a young adult, gays were outlaws. The new movie begins with newsreel clips of men hiding their faces from the paparazzi's flashbulbs as police remove them from some furtive gay bar of the 1960s — the decade when practically every underclass of society but theirs got liberated. Vicious assaults of gays were common, and the law rarely pursued the perpetrators. If, as you watch Mad Men, you wonder why the gay art director is so timid about declaring his sexual needs to his colleagues, prospective lovers or, for that matter, himself, it's because he'd like to keep his job and his police record clean.
The dominant pop culture certified homophobia. Gays and lesbians were depicted as predators in best-selling novels (A Walk on the Wild Side) and respected plays (The Killing of Sister George), and the films based on them. The plot dilemma of that age's serioso movies was often just the threat of being accused of homosexuality, as in Tea and Sympathy, The Children's Hour and Advise and Consent. The tone was sensation dressed up as sympathy.
And when a film did take a compassionate approach to homosexuality, the mainstream press could pounce on it with cavalier ignorance and captious contempt. A review of the British drama Victim, about a barrister fighting the law that made homosexuality a criminal offense, took offense at the movie's "implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice ... Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself. 'I can't help the way I am,' says one of the sodomites in this movie. 'Nature played me a dirty trick.' And the scriptwriters, whose psychiatric information is clearly coeval with the statute they dispute, accept this sick-silly self-delusion as a medical fact." The review, headlined "A Plea for Perversion?", appeared in the Feb. 23, 1962, issue of TIME magazine.
The medical nonsense spouted here — which was also the stated position of the American Psychiatric Association — underlined a conformist culture's fear of the Other. They're different. They dress and talk funny. They're a threat to our spouses and our kids. The arguments against homosexuals, like those against blacks, meant to turn irrational suspicions into punitive legislation. To counter the know-nothing majority, members of the afflicted minority needed a righteous, urgent spokesman. Blacks had MLK — Martin Luther King Jr. Gays had MiLK — Harvey Milk.
The Harvey Milk story needs little Hollywood embellishment; it's already the perfect outsider fable. A Manhattan investment banker raised on Long Island, Milk arrived in San Francisco in the early '70s. He opened Castro Camera in the run-down Castro district, which was fast becoming an enclave for the not-yet-outspoken gay culture. With the aid of an unlikely ally, the Teamsters, he organized a boycott of Coors Beer, which at the time refused to hire gays. After three losing runs for a city supervisor seat, he won in 1977, and a year later he helped defeat Proposition 6, which would have banned gay men and women from teaching in public schools. Through his efforts, gay society, high and low, coalesced into a politically effective movement. (You'll be reminded of a more recent band of outsiders who got an unlikely, charismatic candidate elected President.)
On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot dead by supervisor Dan White, an Irish-American Vietnam vet and former cop who had befriended Milk but opposed his agenda. Thousands of angry Milk-men filled the streets of San Francisco; their mourning turned to rioting. Diane Feinstein, president of the Board of Supervisors, succeeded Moscone as mayor. Tried for murder, White pleaded diminished capacity due to depression and a junk-food diet — what became known as the "Twinkie defense." His conviction on the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter triggered another night of riots. White served five years of his seven-year sentence and, the year after his release, committed suicide: carbon-monoxide poisoning, in his car in his garage, a loop of "The Town I Loved So Well" playing on the tape deck.
White is so compelling and conflicted a figure that the trick of any Milk project is to keep him from abducting it. The 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk devoted its whole third act to White's trial, which was the entire subject of Emily Mann's panoramic docudrama The Execution of Justice, also from 1984. Josh Brolin plays him here and has much more to work with than he did as George Bush in W. This is a portrait, from the inside, of a man who fought the validation of homosexuality because his Catholic faith and his constituents wouldn't stand for it — and because, the movie suggests, he was roiled by unresolved gay issues of his own. ("I think he's one of us," Harvey whispers.) As a performance, it's Brolin's best since No Country for Old Men, which means very good indeed.
But Milk isn't about Dan White, except as a repository of the straights' resentment that dogged Milk and brought him down. The script by Dustin Lance Black, who worked on HBO's polygamy series Big Love (he was the only Mormon on the writing staff), is all about process: how Harvey Milk changed things. His style was charm mixed with genial bullying. He conveyed passion with good humor. In the movie, challenged by White to answer if two men can reproduce, he replies, "No, but God knows we keep trying." On the streets, he'd pick up a bullhorn and shout, "My fellow degenerates ... my name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you." He pestered and seduced citizens into signing petitions, knocking on doors, getting out the vote of a segment so disenfranchised they'd never had anything or anyone to vote for before.
Designated a "gay politician," Milk was at least as much the latter as the former — a genius in convincing people that what he wanted was what they needed. So is the movie. It revels in showing how Milk built his campaign staff from the lovers and locals who wandered into Castro Camera; how he fought the city's gay establishment, until then discreet in identifying itself; how he debated John Briggs, the sponsor of Prop. 6, to a standstill and was instrumental in having the initiative defeated by more than a million votes. You've never seen this before: a movie that builds a state referendum into a suspenseful and agitating emotional climax. Ain't politics grand?
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
"I am not a candidate," Milk says in the movie. "The movement is the candidate." That was false modesty. In California he was the movement's star, its producer and director. And Penn dominates the film — not in his usual way, by making brooding seem like a form of higher calisthenics. Perhaps the least homosexual actor around, Penn here reins in his Method bluster to locate the sweetness and vulnerability beneath Milk's assured persona. He becomes this character — surely far from his experience — with no italicizing, no condescension, no sweat. This isn't an impersonation; it's an inhabiting.
In any early scene, Harvey shares a long, loving kiss with his future lover, Scott Smith (James Franco in a finely tuned turn). The kiss is director Gus Van Sant's declaration that, yes, this will be a gay movie. But there's no shock value, except in the tenderness of the passion — when was the last time you saw a great movie kiss?
Van Sant emerged as an indie filmmaker with pictures like Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. These were set in the lower depths, populated with hookers and victims, sometimes ending in death. Those elements are here, mostly personified in Harvey's troubled lover Jack Lira (Diego Luna), as are Van Sant's old camera tropes of slo-mo and unsteady focus. But they aren't at the foreground, In the dichotomy between his audience-pleasing big movies (To Die For, Good Will Hunting) and his audience-resistant art films (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), Milk is securely in the former category. It's his most disciplined film — he was hired to direct Black's script, stuck to it, worked well with actors — and easily his best.
Harvey Milk lived with death threats. In the film, before one rally, he is handed a note reading, "You get the first bullet the minute you stand at the microphone." Black frames the film as a monologue delivered into a tape recorder by Harvey, who's as sure of his impending death as he is of his gay-liberation creed. In the '70s, paranoia was simply common sense; the preceding 10 years had seen the murders of King and Robert Kennedy and assassination attempts on Gerald Ford and George Wallace. The movie is faithful to that grungy time, but it downplays the riots that followed its hero's assassination; Black and Van Sant don't want Milk to leave a sour taste. They've made a picture that is frankly celebratory, forthrightly inspirational. It's no less determined to get its message across than Harvey Milk was.
We've come a long way, baby, since 1978. Uncloseted homosexuals occupy seats in Congress, state legislatures and city councils; as author and political strategist David Mixner notes, "almost every state has at least one openly gay or lesbian elected official, including Alabama, Montana and Oklahoma." The gay subculture is a hip harbinger of official culture and can boast its own nationwide cable network in Logo (two if you count Bravo!). Homocentric movies like Milk have replaced homophobic movies like Advise and Consent; and in TIME you read reviews like this instead of the 1962 review of Victim.
But some aspects of the national conversation between homosexuals and those who oppose or fear them haven't changed. Gay and faggot are widespread terms of abuse. Famous actors and singers won't declare their sexual orientation out of concern that their careers would be kaput. There are camps with regimens to "cure" kids of gayness. John Briggs and his national counterpart, Anita Bryant, aren't spearheading the outspoken antagonism to gay civil rights, but the Mormon Church is. It poured $20 million into promoting Proposition 8, this year's California initiative to outlaw gay marriage. Fear lost in 1977; it won in 2008.
Three decades ago, Milk and his ilk were able to enlist President Jimmy Carter and future President Ronald Reagan in the gay fight against Prop. 6. But this fall, Barack Obama was all but mute on Prop. 8. Some community organizers, like the President-elect, are more cautious than others. It's a shame Harvey Milk wasn't around to recruit him.