Knight at the Movies Archives
Gus Van Sant's gay masterpiece arrives, a Harvey Milk-era gay movie deserves another look
It’s been a long three years since Brokeback Mountain the last gay themed movie to win both critical accolades and breakthrough to
mainstream audiences. Now, at last, with Milk starring Sean Penn as the slain gay rights activist, we have another contender for
widespread acceptance from all quarters. The movie has had more starts, stops, casting announcements, and directors it seems
than the screen version of Evita. But unlike that luckless, flawed movie and many other by-the-numbers biopics Milk arrives onscreen
without compromises or casting glitches.
Shepherded by Harvey Milk’s fellow gay activist Cleve Jones (portrayed winningly in the film by Emile Hirsch), who has kept the flame
lit for the project for decades (and acted as the film’s historical consultant) the movie has been helmed by openly gay director Gus
Van Sant, working from an original script by gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Together, they’ve created a straightforward biopic
that is both the compelling story of an ordinary man whose activism turned him into an extraordinary icon and a fascinating moment
in our gay history. It’s a wonderful, full bodied movie that earns its tears honestly driven by an Oscar worthy performance by Penn.
At the outset Van Sant gives us a brief overview, via vintage footage and photographs, of the shameful history of gay abuses in this
country and then plunges us into the early days of the gay rights movement in the early 1970s. This is interspersed with Penn as
Milk, sitting in a darkened room dictating his will into a tape recorder, already aware that his life is in danger (this framing device
bookends the film.) We learn immediately that Milk, the first elected openly gay official in the country and San Francisco Mayor
George Moscone, via the grainy footage of Dianne Feinstein’s horrific announcement to the press, have been shot and killed.
It seems that we’re in for a very dark road – and based on Van Sant’s previous efforts that’s a fair supposition – but Milk was a
naturally ebullient man, an optimist with a goofy grin, able to turn the bleakest losses into a personal victory whose ability to create
coalitions earned him the nicknamed “The Mayor of Castro Street” and Penn captures all these things in his endearing performance,
lifting the spirit of the movie. After the opening prologue Black’s script takes us back eight years earlier just as Harvey is turning 40
when he’s still living in New York. The Bronx accented Harvey bumps into James Franco as Scott Smith and within moments the
quietly magnetic Harvey has enticed the much younger man into his bed. Five minutes into the movie, with no fuss, muss and no
apologies we have a sensual love scene between Penn and Smith that establishes the intimacy of the two characters and supplies
the rest of the movie with its emotional grounding.
The scene shifts to San Francisco in 1971 when the couple relocated their and for the first half of the movie focuses on their
relationship (Franco is extremely charming in what is essentially the boy toy/housewife role). If there is a gay sensibility in the film’s
approach it is in this first half when the relationship between the two men is presented as the norm, rather than the exception (and
there’s genuine intimacy between Penn and Franco – to the credit to the two straight actors). This, in itself, is revelatory – so far
beyond the hidden, forbidden love portrayed in Brokeback Mountain. In fact, until we begin to see archival footage of entertainer and
evangelical Anita Bryant stumping on behalf of her infamous campaign to enact anti-gay laws in Florida’s Dade Country the
homosexuality of the characters hasn’t been a big deal.
But the Bryant campaign galvanizes Milk and working out of his camera shop in the Castro district of the city he and others (including
Hirsch as a feisty Cleve Jones) begin to organize themselves to fight for gay rights. With his irresistible, winning personality and
passionate anger, Harvey quickly emerges as a natural leader. As Harvey begins to run for public office in San Francisco – any office
it seems – realizing that an openly gay elected official will help counter the damage Bryant’s campaign had on gay rights throughout
the country, the movie, by virtue of the number of races Milk ran and lost (how many were there? – one loses count) becomes a tad
confused. The arrival of Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg, a tough dealmaker with a record of closing deals at City Hall (and the film’s
lone lesbian), signals a change in the previously shaggy Milk’s approach – the grassroots style is melded with traditional political
campaign tactics and finally in 1977 Milk is victorious.
By that point his relationship with Scott is a casualty and soon Milk begins seeing the emotionally needy Jack (Diego Luna,
memorable in a brief role). Harvey also meets the uptight, conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin), who has also been elected a
Supervisor to his district. The two get along at first though Harvey suspects that White is a closet case and eventually his passion for
gay rights trumps any chance they have of working together. “This is not just a job or issues, this is our lives” he tells White at one
point as the film moves toward its dreadful climax, the assassination by White of Mayor Moscone (played by Victor Garber) and Milk.
The film ends with a recreation of the candlelit march held in honor of Milk and Moscone and momentarily I wanted it to go on. I
wanted to see the mockery of justice that was the trial of Dan White who used the infamous “Twinkie defense” and served only five
years for shooting two men in cold blood, who ended up a suicide, alone, a footnote to history. But by that point I’d also written on
my pad, “How can I possibly be objective about a movie that is so close to my heart?” and I realized that there are movies that
touch us so personally that we become awash in them. Milk is one of those for me.
I can tell you that Van Sant working with cinematographer Harris Savides has again eschewed the early visual flourishes that were
hallmarks of Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho. He has become a filmmaker who leaves no fingerprints – something that serves
this deceptively simple material very well (and Black’s excellent script is helped along by a nice, understated score by Danny
Elfman). I can also tell you that I think Milk is an unadorned masterpiece but then I am a middle-aged gay man who has wanted to
see a feature film version of Harvey’s story since I first watched the 1984 Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. So
that’s my caveat and having gotten that out of the way I want you to go in droves to see Milk and then take to the streets to
overturn Proposition 8 and every other asinine attempt to discriminate against Our People and I want you, especially, to take to
heart Harvey Milk’s battle cry –
Never blend in.
Like the gleeful pleasure at discovering a once beloved pop culture relic in an antique mall, so to my reaction at opening the
package that contained the DVD for The Boys in the Band. Pleasure because the movie brings back a flood of warm memories
associated with my first encounter with this 1970 film that “shockingly” focused on a gathering of homosexuals for a birthday party
that goes off the rails. I’d read film critic Pauline Kael’s dismissive review in her book “Deeper Into Movies” but that only whetted my
appetite to see the movie which, back in the days before VCRs or cable, was next to impossible to do. Finally, somewhere in the
mid-70s during my college days a revival house booked the film and at last I got to see what all the fuss was about.
The impact Boys in the Band on me had more to do with its bitchery and fun, not the guilt and repression that continues to drag down
the reputation of the material to this day. I remember laughing at the quips tossed off by Leonard Frey as Harold, the pot smoking,
self-described “32 year-old pock marked Jew fairy” and Cliff Gorman as the super nellie Emory who brought lasagna to the party and
called herself Connie Casserole (30 some years later my best friend Marla and I are still quoting lines from the movie to each
other). I also vividly remember Frederick Combs as Donald and the tantalizing glimpse of his butt as he stepped into the shower.
Michael played by Kenneth Nelson, as the self-loathing host with the closet full of designer sweaters, the fabulous Manhattan
apartment with its large terrace and track lighting who turns the evening from light to dark with his venomous behavior didn’t make
much of an impact. Even then, only six or seven years after its initial 1970 release the self-destructive behavior of the character, his
unrequited crush on the straight college roommate, boring, uptight Alan (Peter White) whose appearance at the party starts all the
sturm and drang in the movie seemed old hat; stereotypical, much too contrived.
And that was still my reaction when I popped the new DVD into the player. Like many reunions this one saw the initial joy of
rediscovery, the veneer of the rekindled memories quickly stripped away by hindsight: though elevated by the performances of Frey,
Combs and a few others, overall Boys in the Band isn’t just a creaky relic of gay history, with its endless close ups, claustrophobic
setting and especially, its stage bound drama queen dialogue and situations by Mart Crowley (adapting his play for the screen), it’s
just not a very good movie.
Now if I, who remember adoring parts of this movie, find it a not very pleasant antique, imagine how out of date The Boys in the Band
will seem to a generation of GLBT audiences raised in the post-“Yep I’m Gay” Ellen DeGeneres-Queer As Folk-L Word world we live in.
And yet, like a loud, loveable relative who demands a bear hug and calls you by that dreaded childhood nickname but still you
begrudgingly love them, there is something about Boys in the Band that nags for attention and makes it pertinent to film audiences
now, especially GLBT ones. It’s less the film itself and more the performances but mostly it’s the fact that in 1970, so soon after
gay liberation, that Boys in the Band existed at all and that the actors, to a man, took huge career risks in playing gay characters.
The DVD with its new making of documentaries gets right to the heart of this and yes, playing gay is no longer a big deal (it’s
actually closer to a potential Oscar-winning career move – see next week’s Milk review starring Sean Penn for continued proof of
that). But nearly 40 years ago the bravery of these actors in taking these roles – none of whom ever got parts this large on film
again – is worth venerating and because so many of these actors died from AIDS during the first wave of the pandemic, the movie
has also become a bittersweet eulogy, a time capsule that finally, maybe even lends the material the respect and attention it wouldn’
t otherwise warrant.
Upon reflection Mart Crowley and his Boys in the Band – which paved the way for Making Love, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk (and a case
could be made for the indie queer cinema genre itself) – is, yes, on one hand a stereotypical curio that illuminates attitudes and
cultural behavior (not to mention fashions) at an important moment in gay history and it’s also a movie that needs to finally be
acknowledged – unsullied – for the groundbreaking status that it deserves.
Gay History Lessons:
Milk-The Boys in the Band DVD
Expanded Edition of 11-26-08 and 11-19-08 Knight at the Movies Columns
By Richard Knight, Jr.