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Milk (2008) -vs- Philadelphia (1993)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

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?

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The Challenger

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.

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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.

The Scorecard

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.

The Decision

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.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

7 Comments on Milk (2008) -vs- Philadelphia (1993)

  1. The last Gus Van Sant movie I saw was ‘Elephant’, a film that did not work for me. Thankfully he is back with ‘Milk’ which pretty much gives a detailed account of the rise of Harvey Milk and his martyrdom. Van Sant uses live footage between scenes which reminds one of how much harsher the world once was to people who were ‘different’. The writing is stupendous and the dialogues are especially effective. The portrayal of the characters are very human. There is no hero or villain. There are just humans with flaws, humans fighting for what they believe in. Van Sant sets a tense and chaotic tone right from the beginning. The 70s atmosphere is well created through makeup and costumes. The use of brownish tinted light may arise nostalgia. It is two remarkable performances that make ‘Milk’ stand out: Sean Penn’s very accurate and nuanced portrayal of Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin’s layered portrayal of a complex Dan White. I doubt ‘Milk’ would have been effective enough if it weren’t for such strong acting. The director deserves mention for his brilliant work. Movies like ‘Milk’ are relevant today because they serve as a reminder of how difficult life once was and how people fought against it and lives were sacrificed in order to create a better society for those living in today’s world.

  2. Yep. Sure thing. Or as sure as these things get.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. MILK is truly a special piece of work and Van Sant’s heart is clearly viewable in it.
    I found myself feeling guilty for the invisible discrimination the film touches on, and found myself feeling rather ashamed of the many propositions that passed this election year despite us making racial history with Obama.
    MILK is an appropriately timed piece of film magic that hides its ideological points in human drama, wrapped warmly and affectionately in the heart-warming performance by Sean Penn.

  4. Philadelphia was soooo sad… but Tom Hanks did an amazing job. I really liked the Harvey Milk character in Milk. Do you think Sean Penn will get nominated for an Oscar?

  5. I have to say that BOTH are fantastic flicks, but I think the cult status of “Layer Cake” will grow and grow on both sides of the pond. I have to give the edge to cake, because they had the balls to take real chances. Goodfellas is now starting to show its edge. Its not that radical anymore. The ending show the Brits are also willing to mix things up…something American movies rarely if ever do. Layer Cakes ROCKS!

  6. Um… Why would you need subtitles? Maybe you understand our difficulty in understanding a slow Southern drawl or similar. Just like Goodfellas will have some significance for you (don’t get me wrong, it is awesome, and I’m not trying to accuse you of acting like a gangster), us Londoners relate to Layer Cake, because it was shot in London, using Londoners, talking in a very London manner. That’s the same reason 28 Days Later has such a significace for us too.
    Don’t be dismissive just because you fail to understand the speech, or the relevance.

  7. “Good Fellas” is a rock-solid movie, and as you correctly pointed out, it has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. Pesci, Deniro, Liotta… How can a movie even begin to compete with that cast??? I haven’t added “Good Fellas” to my collection yet, but I hope to soon.

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