This year’s major biopics may just win Oscars on account of merit, not a really good impression of a famous person. We have come so far, America! (Oh, also we have come far in our protection of gay civil rights.)
I’m still convinced that biopics win Oscars a little too blindly because people tend to confuse not only good acting with a good impression but, even more inaccurately, they mistake an important life with an important film, but in recent years I’m less grumpy about these cinematic biographies. W this year was good and Milk was even better. Innovative, good-looking, and sharp, these films are breaking from the mold because (according to me) they are trying to prove a point, and that point is, of course, that Ray is a stupid film.*
So, I liked Milk, which is about the political career of “first openly gay elected official” Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978 (no spoiler). I liked it a lot, in fact, as I think I’ve mentioned. Gus Van Sant does his normal interesting directing thing and Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch do their normal interesting acting thing. Sean Penn is Milk, and he grins his way aptly through multiple political defeats in San Francisco before finally landing the position of city supervisor.
The film is half about him, half about the gay movement across the nation and how 1970s America was slowly being awakened to the fact that homosexuality isn’t going anywhere. It’s cleverly topical, since the fight against Proposition 6 – the big ballot issue in California in 1978 that wanted to repeal a law that prohibited employment discrimination based on sexuality – was echoed this year with the fight against Proposition 8 – you know, the one about gay marriage. The difference of course is that Prop 6 was defeated, partly due to Harvey Milk’s tireless work, and thirty years later Prop 8 passed. It’s a little dispiriting at first glance to think that we are going backwards in what seemed like a consistently progressive journey towards granting other taxpaying Americans basic civil rights. However, what Milk accomplished in less than eight years of political activism is nothing less than inspiring. Of course, a 200-minute film can’t help but make it look a little easy. There’s no way we can really appreciate years of work in a couple of montages. I don’t mean to say that Van Sant leaves out the parts where Milk’s personal relationships, privacy, and, of course, old age, are sacrificed for the good of the cause. On the contrary, it’s not lost on us that for all of his relentless optimism and perseverence, Harvey Milk the man suffered a great deal. This is all tied into the gay struggle, which Milk himself very consciously represents. If he has to give up his longterm partner, it’s nothing compared to the persecution homosexuals have borne over the years.
In conclusion of the first part of this review, Milk is much more compelling and much less formulaic than most other biopics of this decade, and also uh it was neat how crazy old Dan White (Brolin) is always hanging out on the edge of the frame. And also James Franco was well-costumed. AND SOMETIMES NOT COSTUMED???
Anyway, I’m rushing through all of this fascinating stuff that you’ll find out yourself when you go see this film (which you most definitely should) because I want to talk about what I didn’t like. Namely, there is one woman in the entire movie.
I understand that this is probably a pretty accurate representation of the active gay movement at the time, at least what the public saw of it. There’s a reason why “lesbian” is the “L-word.” It’s more taboo, more threatening. If lesbianism doesn’t exist purely as a voyeuristic/participatory fantasy for heterosexual men, then what…it’s a relationship in which men aren’t needed?? Like…at all?? Unacceptable! In a scene in which Emile Hirsch is rallying the troops by putting into practice a grassroots phone tree, the screen splits into increasing numbers of squares, each one occupied by a guy on the other end of the phone call, agreeing to get all the dudes together in Wichita or wherever he’s living, and voila, the call has been heard across the U.S. Is it seriously possible that men were entirely responsible for bringing about the gay rights movement? I kept scanning faces in many of the crowd/march/riot scenes, and I’d catch one or two women in a sea of men. Every time someone mentions some sort of sad anecdote about a discriminated-against homosexual, it’s always a man. “This gay male teacher could be teaching your child!” “This gay guy could be living in your neighborhood!” “Get every queen out on the streets and registered to vote!” “I’ll be the first cocksucking politician!”**
Finally, the film does what it probably thinks fills its lesbian quota and introduces Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), who strides into Milk’s campaign office at his request and takes over management. Harvey good-naturedly chides the visibly uncomfortable guys who are confronted with this confident woman. I think she says a couple things like “Hi” or “I’m Anne” or “Here’s an idea for your campaign,” and within minutes, everyone is making jokes like “You have more balls than all of us put together!” or “Go talk to the papers, you’ll sure scare them into submission!!”*** Anne asks the question, “Is there a place in this for us?” and no one really ever answers her. Maybe their reluctant acceptance of her is enough, they think. Look, you’re here with us now, so don’t push it.
Like I said, I’m not under any delusion that this just might be the way things were. But I think the film has a responsibility to comment on that instead of add to it. It’s a shame too, because otherwise, Milk would be a near-perfect flick. But go see for yourself. One tired old cliche of a flaw doesn’t mean it didn’t nail everything else.
*My new year’s resolution for 2009 is to drop that grudge and move on with my life, you’ll be happy to know.
**This one even goes farther and excludes even straight women (who, I presume, could also embrace that term and who, I know for a fact, were already politicians).
***This scene also bears an unfortunate resemblance to a fateful night when I had been dating my husband for a few months and met a bunch of his friends at a low key birthday dinner for him. I remember thinking “I’m being so quiet tonight, but surely I will be my old self when I’ve known them for awhile and am not so nervous. I hope they don’t think I’m boring.” And then his report to me on Monday is that his friends all said that they liked me and that I “sure was a spitfire.” They meant it affectionately, but come on. I arrived at the restaurant bearing a lemon layer cake that I had made in Richmond and driven to NYC. Spitfire!? I might as well have left the party early to go tuck in Wally and the Beav.