Thursday, February 19, 2009

Film: "Milk"

Milk directed by Gus Van Sant (Good will Hunting , My Own Private Idaho), original screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, and starring macho actor Sean Penn (Mystic River, Dead Man Walking) is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Male Actor, and Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin-No Country for Old Men, W). Penn luminously portrays gay activist Harvey Milk, the first ‘openly’ gay man in the USA elected to major public office (San Francisco Board of Supervisors) who, in the years prior to his murder, tirelessly fought for civil rights for gays, taking on Anita Bryant, and campaigning against California Proposition 6, anti-gay legislation in 1978 sponsored by John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) to keep gays and their supporters out of public schools. This movie was especially timely given the concurrent defeat of Proposition 8, which proposed marriage equality for gays.

It is with disbelief that I watched the beatings and murders of gays in this film, much like one would watch the hoses and police dogs unleashed on Freedom Fighters in the South. Brokeback Mountain and now Milk show how far the Academy has come, nominating films about gay men, (though I remember Dog Day Afternoon, 1975, received 17? nominations, winning for writing), at a time when many actors feel they must still remain in the closet. Gay bashing continues. Milk debuted in the same month that USA elects, for the first time, an African American president, giving hope to our social consciousness. Still, California’s Prop 8 was defeated on Election Day. When a friend’s two young adult sons, not having memory of Jim Crow laws, could not fathom the enormity of Obama’s victory, my friend asked her sons if they thought they would see a gay man and his partner one day in the White House. They chortled incredulously, to her horror, but then better understood the racist climate of her youth.[As an aside, while Bryant may have and Briggs certainly did confuse homosexuality with pedophilia (the former between two consenting adults, the latter, abuse of one recognized as unable to legally and emotionally consent) Hollywood remained confused, or provincially squeamish, when it snubbed The Woodsman, 2004, and Kevin Bacon’s performance in it.]

Throughout Milk I sat a little teary-eyed, not simply because I knew Milk’s real-life fate, but because there is a profound sadness in the horror of watching our sons and brothers brutally beaten, both literally by police and legally by a prejudicial system, a sadness made deeper by how far we have come and still have to go. Activists for human rights were, and are, heroes. Milk, then, is moving, uplifting, and inspiring, as it shows the last eight years of Milk’s real-life transformation from closeted-gay conservative to a gay activist, a man “fighting for our lives,” for civil, for human, rights. Milk was murdered, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Vincent Garber), November 26, 1978, by former supervisor colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin). Many say assassinated as if it were strictly the gay activism of Milk which incited White.

I surmise that White was more complex than that explanation allows. Whether a repressed homosexual or not, his motive to murder may have been narcissistic injury from which he could not recover. White may have seen himself as a golden boy, a handsome former fire fighter and police officer, All-American boy, who did everything right, and received insufficient recognition. Milk, was invited, possibly only out of politeness, along with all the supervisors, to White’s son’s christening, and is the only supervisor to show up. (I don’t think Milk, as other reviewers noted, was the only one invited.) Later, White feels betrayed that Milk did not support White’s effort to keep a psychiatric hospital out of his district. And White misread the Board when he was the only one to vote against Milk’s cosponsored city-wide gay rights ordinance. White’s district is the only one in the city to vote for the unexpectedly defeated Prop 6. ‘How,’ he must have wondered, missing the bigger picture of human rights, ‘could a gay man be preferred to me?’ Then he was further humiliated by not being able to rescind his resignation. (Why else kill Moscone first?)

Another tragedy following that of the murders of Milk and Moscone, was the death in California of the diminished capacity defense, undermined and made unfairly notorious by the hype of the “Twinkie Defense.” Mental illness mitigates even if it does not exculpate. White, who killed himself two years after serving five years of his sentence for manslaughter, suffered with a mental illness, depression, a not uncommon result of irreparable and devastating narcissistic injury. While it may be true, as Milk intimates in Milk, that gays killed themselves because they were coercively closeted (in his case, by him as their lover), being gay, repressed or otherwise, is not the cause of depression. Milk is described in Christianity Today as an “inspiring tale of one man’s quest to legitimize his identity.” It is lack of the Self’s recognition by others, the Self’s de-legitimization, by coercion, victimization, shunning, deprivation of civil liberties, or police brutality, that leads to alienation from the self and, possibly, consequently, to depression. Whether a repressed homosexual or not, White had lost himself.

Sean Penn may well deserve Best Male Actor. And it may well be the toughest choice this year for the Academy, when we consider Richard Jenkins’ performance, playing a man also transformed, in The Visitor, or Frank Langella, who, equally well, channeled a real-life figure in Frost/Nixon. But my personal favorite was Mickey Rourke, in The Wrestler. Though I thoroughly loved this film, Milk (as you know from my post 2/18 about The Reader) is not my pick for best picture.

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