Last November, Barack Obama’s name on the ballot brought to the California polls unusually large numbers of fans of Tyler Perry’s “Madea” movies, who stuck around to vote against gay marriage. Shocked, California’s liberals quickly settled upon more suitable villains to blame: Mormons! The small, besieged community of Hollywood bravely resolved to speak truth to Mormon media power by giving the Best Actor Oscar to Sean Penn in “Milk.”
The Academy even handed “Milk” the Best Original Screenplay award, although some of the drab script is lifted from “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which the Academy honored as Best Documentary back in 1984.
“Milk” is a repetitious biopic about the 1970s political career of the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Castro Street” as Harvey Milk grinds through five election campaigns on his way to becoming “America’s first openly gay elected official.” Director Gus Van Sant (best remembered for 1989’s “Drugstore Cowboy”) manages to make even San Francisco look unattractive in his haste to get back to the gerrymandering at Milk’s camera shop.
By the way, what kind of camera store is used as a political clubhouse? Camera shops are normally the worst meeting halls imaginable because they’re crammed with fragile and expensive merchandise. Yet, Milk’s “Castro Camera” is depicted as a shell with little inventory other than orange Kodak film boxes. (My guess: it was mostly a drop-off for amateur photographers who wanted their gay porn pictures developed discreetly -- an easy little business that left Milk with plenty of time on his hands for politics.)
A great tragic story could be made about how Milk’s gay liberation movement unleashed its own nemesis. Within two decades of Milk’s arrival, gay rights had transformed Castro Street into the plague spot of the Western world, with AIDS killing its 10,000th San Franciscan in 1993.
Mentioning a little thing like how industrial scale promiscuity set off the worst American health catastrophe of the last generation wouldn’t be On Message, however, and “Milk” sticks to its political talking points with the same tenacity as its namesake did. The bathhouses where the disease was spread aren’t shown. The movie is so politically prim that there’s only a single minute on the entire soundtrack of 1970s disco music.
Left out is almost everything that could add context and flavor, such as Milk’s alliance with Jim Jones’s Maoist Peoples Temple cult. Just ten days before Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by working class politician Dan White, 907 ex-San Franciscans drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown.
The acclaim that has greeted Penn’s supposedly precise impersonation of Milk is ironic because the 1984 documentary is readily viewable on Youtube, conveniently demonstrating how differently Milk and Penn read the same lines.
At least on TV, the suave candidate displayed only a hint of his native Long Island accent, while Penn plays him as an annoying noodge. And, oddly enough, the real Milk was better looking than the movie star. Penn, who in the 1980s would add slabs of muscle for roles as rapidly as Mickey Rourke did for “The Wrestler,” is now, at only 48, as wrinkled as a Shar Pei puppy.
Most strikingly, if “Milk’s” screenplay weren’t so relentlessly hagiographic, Sean Penn would be on the hot seat over his stereotypical caricaturizing of a homosexual. Penn’s performance is so flamingly effeminate that you have to wonder whether he got Castro Street’s Harvey Milk confused with Broadway’s Harvey Fierstein.
During television appearances, Milk came across as a calm, moderately masculine presence, with only slight gay mannerisms. In contrast, Penn’s histrionic act sets your gaydar clanging like the meltdown siren at a nuclear power plant. That’s important, because Penn’s decision to play Milk as utterly unable to pass for straight robs Milk’s story of much of its interest. The real man, who had served without incident as a Naval officer, chose to come out of the closet.
Perhaps Milk was as histrionic in private as Penn portrays him as being in public. I don’t know. If so, shouldn’t there be some mention in the script that his public persona was a facade? Watching Milk wrestle with his conscience over whether to drop his on-camera butch act might at least have provided the film with some hint of self-conflict. As it is, when Josh Brolin (who is outstanding, as usual) eventually appears as the financially and mentally shaky White, it’s a relief to see finally a three-dimensional character.
Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.
June 28, 2009
For the record, here's the full-length version of my American Conservative print-only review from last winter of the Oscar-winning biopic "Milk:"