As Proposition 8 protesters take to California streets, Gus Van Sant’s Milk reminds us that we’ve been here before.
Thirty years ago, the religious right-backed Proposition 6 was defeated by the first wave of openly gay protest and organization. The timing could not be better.
Fifteen years ago, Philadelphia brought AIDs into the bright lights of mainstream consideration. How much progress has been made in three decades? While both films are relevant and important pieces of the ongoing struggle, which film at this critical juncture most urgently deserves a place on your “must-see” list?
Gus Van Sant makes excellent use of documentary footage to set the scene; we are immediately and effectively plunged back in the dark days of the sixties, when so many gays still lived closeted in shame, in real danger of discovery. Echoing familiar footage of anti-black violence in the deep south, we watch as cops round up men in gay bars, wielding billy clubs and barking unheard epithets we can only imagine. Out of this black and white horror rises an unlikely savior, Harvey Milk, our country’s first openly gay elected official. The film follows his journey from unassuming, closeted middle aged New Yorker to gay rights activist to martyr.
The Defending Champion
A conservative law firm fires up-and-comer Andrew Beckett when it is discovered that he has AIDs. Avenging angel Beckett hires a homophobic black lawyer to plead his case in court. In Jonathan Demme’s powerful and affecting Philadelphia, the filmmaker puts homophobia and prejudice on trial, and we all win.
Hollywood largely abides by an unwritten law that only (assumed) straight actors play gay characters. Presumably, straight audiences like their men kissing and canoodling without really enjoying themselves. Watching openly gay actors cavorting might prove too much of a risk. Perhaps it’s comforting to think that we’re all engaged in professional pretending, that we’re not actually voyeurs. That distance separates mainstream commercial fare from porn.
Homophobia is an insidiously pervasive thing, even in the most liberal leaning supporters of gay rights. Several (most) straight men of my acquaintance (names withheld to protect the slightly guilty) ardently believe that their enjoying a musical too much or dressing too fashionably might indicate a slight but nonetheless disturbing penchant for other men. To themselves? To others? Who knows? This gay panic stuff runs deep. These guys squirm in their seats when Sean Penn nuzzles James Franco like they did when they were six and Annette kissed Frankie. Public displays of affection in gay males (even pretend ones) are off-putting. And the straight actors who play gay get lauded for their bravery, for daring to be mistaken for gay. Wow. What a world.
Philadelphia played a large part in winning and changing American hearts and minds; Demme knew his target audience. Philadelphia has Tom Hanks playing a virtual saint. Saint Andrew Beckett. He and Latin main squeeze Antonio Banderas barely touch; their (mostly) monogamous relationship and impeccably tasteful lifestyle never flirts with messy subculture. (Saint Andrew’s one sin exacts the highest possible price.) Their high-end loft life looks like a feature in Architectural Digest. Beckett’s family is a Norman Rockwell painting of iconic acceptance and filial affection. Clearly, Demme has chosen not to clutter his story with unnecessary detail, but in clearing the decks, he creates an almost impossibly perfect hero. Homosexuality is not Andrew Beckett’s problem; his issue is AIDs, and it’s only an issue when he’s fired. He has managed to fashion himself a fairly closeted little world safe from homophobia. The prejudice he faces is institutional, professional, white collar – ultimately no less lethal than the beatings and suicidal self loathing of Harvey Milk’s pre-gay-pride seventies San Francisco.
In Milk, Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, warts and all – his Milk is real. Bad hair, messy relationships, awkwardness, personal and professional failure. He’s charming and flawed, a loser who eventually wins and ultimately loses. Van Sant isn’t gunning for Harvey Milk’s sainthood; instead, he’s telling a powerful true (and in some quarters, unknown or forgotten) story and pulling few punches in the telling. Van Sant expects his audience to handle much more than Demme did; it’s no whitewash, but it’s fairly tame. Times have changed. Still, Van Sant may alienate straight audiences a bit; while there’s no full monty here, the clinches and the relationships are played for realsies, and the affection gets plenty physical. This is no Norman Rockwell version of chastened monogamous post-AIDs movie life; sweet young things hustle their wares on the city streets, and men go to bed on the first date.
Both films begin with the knowledge that the protagonist will die before the credits roll; this surety lends a certain tenderness to the proceedings; our consciousness of their (and our) mortality endears them to us and calls to our minds other losses, personal and private. The experience of watching both films exponentially deepens, depending on our own history with grief and loss, sudden or prolonged, expected or unexpected. We come to the stories ready for the ride, knowing the end, primed for tears.
The two films complement each other in a strange way; one wonders if the AIDs crisis might have been somehow mitigated by an activist like Milk…the film makes me contemplate the butterfly effect. Had the man who so successfully came out and fought for gay rights survived, might he have made an impact on the plague that decimated The Castro and NY’s Village and so many other places? Or might he have been another victim?
Milk is a little dramatically hamstrung in that no one really understands Dan White’s motivations. His Twinkie defense launched a thousand late-night quips but never gets referenced in the film; instead Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black subliminally posit the unproved but perhaps credible theory that Dan White was a closeted homosexual whose urges rocked him to the core. Of course, that hardly explains Moscone’s killing; do closeted homosexuals have more problems than most handling job loss? No, Dan White’s violence remains shrouded in mystery, unexplained in the film as it remains inexplicable in life. The well cast Josh Brolin plays him as a bit of a lunk, the kind of essentially unknowable lunk who’s risen beyond his true talent and capability, whose very self doubts spring from …hmm. Remind you of anyone? President Reject George W perhaps? It’s not just coincidence that the actor plays two carelessly destructive forces in way over their heads, two bulls in two china shops. W leaves the nation and the world in virtual ruin as his term winds down, inarguably the worst President ever, and Dan White leaves San Francisco rocked to the core, the world likewise changed for the worse. No Country For Gay Men.
Philadelphia ends with a montage of mock home movies set to a Neil Young ballad that could coax tears from a stone. I loved the Milk whatever-happened-to closing credits sequence; these are always edifying and seldom more moving, concise and sad. I’m a total sucker for glimpsing the real people and the actors who play them and hearing the ends (or next chapters) of their stories. For my daughter, who had never really heard of Harvey Milk or the Twinkie defense or even Proposition 6, the story came as a revelation. We’ve talked quite frequently in the past months about California’s very flawed system whereby Propositions supported by only 51% of the voting public can alter Constitutional law and rights. It’s amazing that, without the internet or cellphones or Obama-style organization, Prop 6 managed to go down in defeat while Prop 8 did not. Anita Bryant and her minions didn’t have the cash flow and might of the Mormon church.
[I should feel remiss were I not to recommend a terrific documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). The films make a great double feature; the documentary will only increase your appreciation of the casting and performances of all the principals, especially Sean Penn. For more supplementary viewing, I have a link for those of you who have somehow missed the brilliant, brief and scathing Prop 8: The Musical.
Both films make me cry, mostly for friends and acquaintances I’ve lost. The memories are fresh, the power of remembrance cleansing. Sadly, the message of Philadelphia needs repeating; too many people have become complacent. It’s not enough to watch Ellen’s talk show and reruns of Will and Grace. That kind of acceptance is key, but it’s clearly not enough. Some of my best friends are… doesn’t cut it any more. People need reminding that freedom comes with a fight, that our liberties are only as safe as the civil liberties of all our friends and neighbors. We need to vote, we need to fight for the civil rights and the full and complete acceptance of everyone. We must rise up and counter the oppressors; the religious right and their cherry-picked Bible are no match for our numbers. The religious right can not take our rights. And if that doesn’t inspire you, Got Milk.