After seeing Milk (opens Nov. 26, one day before the 30th anniversary of his murder), I predict that one of the five slots on the Academy-Award Best Actor wheel has been claimed by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone who has followed Penn’s work. Some actors, when they try to stretch by putting on weight, ugly makeup, accent, physical handicap, mental illness, etc., just look like themselves playing dress-up. But Penn, like Daniel Day-Lewis, can completely metamorphose into someone else right before our eyes. His embodiment of Milk is so accomplished, when a video clip of the real Milk appears at the end of the movie, I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve been watching Sean Penn, not the real man.”
This effect is aided by the film’s documentary style and ’70s feel. It begins with black and white footage, interspersed with newspaper clippings, of police raiding gay bars, loading men by the dozens into police vans. Then we see Penn as Milk in 1970 New York, boldly propositioning Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station. The men became lovers then moved to San Francisco two years later. Milk opened a photography shop called Castro Camera on Castro Street and became active in local politics after being initially shunned by other merchants for public displays of affection with Smith. He was elected to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors in 1977 and became the first openly gay elected official in the U.S.
In his short term before he was shot along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978, Milk successfully fought Proposition 6, which sought to remove all gay teachers from their jobs. The scenes of Milk campaigning against this measure echo the recent California fight against Prop 8, which bans gay marriage. These scenes made me wonder if the election results for Prop 8 would have been different if Milk were still alive.
Over the years, actors such as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey have been attached to a Milk project. I’m glad it eventually came to Penn because I can’t imagine the others doing it. Penn displays qualities in Milk we’ve rarely seen in his past work. First off, he smiles a lot. When he’s excited about something or someone, his whole face sparkles like a child who’s been given a puppy. He’s vulnerable but determined, humble but proud, speaks softly but carries a bullhorn. Thankfully, Penn makes Milk full-blooded and doesn’t employ stereotypical gay mannerisms.
The cast consists of many talented actors but the standouts for me are Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch. Franco, as Milk’s long-time partner “Scotty,” has developed quite an interesting career for himself, mostly staying clear of bland pretty-boy trappings. His chemistry with Penn is palpable and his gravitas grounds Penn as Milk’s political dreams take flight in the film.
Brolin plays Milk’s assassin Dan White as a man seemingly more in conflict with himself than with Milk. He has a smooth veneer that doesn’t quite cover the anger simmering just below the surface. Brolin deftly handles White’s slow unraveling and this is the most mature, interesting work I’ve seen him do (and he’s done some good work in recent years). Startlingly, in a medium shot, Brolin looks almost exactly like the real Dan White (check out the YouTube video below), down to the parted hair and tan blazer. The hair, makeup and wardrobe people were spot on.
Hirsch, unrecognizable as Cleve Jones in a ‘fro and oversize glasses, is just loose and having fun. It’s hard to imagine this is the same guy who played the tortured Christopher McCandless in last year’s Into the Wild.
I like Van San’s choice of documentary style for the film, as if he knew he had a good story (captured in a script by Dustin Lance Black) and great actors and just rolled camera and got out of the way. The events were incendiary enough; Van Sant didn’t need to take a heavy-handed approach. He didn’t have to feed us the outrage; he let us see for ourselves. His decision to incorporate real news footage of Anita Bryant as one of Milk’s antagonists is inspired because no one could have played that role and uttered those anti-gay proclamations quite like Bryant herself.
The clip below is from NBC Nightly News, with David Brinkley reporting the news of Moscone and Milk’s assassinations. It includes footage (used in the movie) of then-Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein confirming the shootings at a press conference.