Dec 3, 2008
I can't decide whether Gus Van Sant's choice of a traditional biopic for his Harvey Milk movie is radical or exactly the opposite, although I am veering towards the radical. This is a far cry from My Own Private Idaho. It is a classic, epic Hollywood biopic that happens to be about a gay hero. There is no need to bathe it in outsider style. The man was an American hero and should be celebrated as such. A radical notion.
What is very interesting is that the movie comes out right after the pathetic disaster of Prop 8 in California and makes it even more pathetic. The movie chronicles the gay rights fight and it looks like it's been 30 years and some has changed, but not enough. This movie alone should make the entire state of California ashamed. On the other hand, it is frightening to see that this fight seems to move forward in extraordinarily slow increments. The fact that there was even a prop 8 in this day and age in California is totally disheartening.
As for the movie itself, the one thing that redeems it from being an entirely conventional biopic, radical or not, is the gorgeous, generous performance of Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. There are other wonderful performances in the movie, most notably James Franco and Emile Hirsch, and as always, Josh Brolin (this guy is GOOD). And the always fantastic Dennis O'Hare playing a hateful right wing senator from California as a total closeted queen. But Penn is amazing and not because he goes gay or kisses guys in the mouth, but because he channels with every inch of his macho being the warmth and passion and spirit and charm of the original. When Penn flirts with Franco and looks in his eyes (in a subway station), the desire and the longing, the flirtatiousness are all there. One look at footage of the real Harvey Milk beaming is enough to know that Penn does not possess half of his charm or benign charisma (I would have thought Hank Azaria a dead ringer, if Hollywood was a fair place). But Penn finds it and bestows it generously: humor, gentleness, determination, passion, charm. Charm! Some of his best scenes are the ones with James Franco (gay and straight can agree on this: he is one cute, talented mofo), for they both have a wonderful chemistry together. I was very moved by this chemistry. There was more chemistry and tenderness between these two male actors than in hundreds of movies about men and women, and for that, I salute them.
The movie is framed by Milk recounting his story, leaving it on tape in case somebody kills him, and on those quiet moments of reflection, Penn is as intense and committed as when he is rallying the crowds or having intimate moments with other characters. He is a great actor not only because of the physical affectations and the undeniable showmanship, but of his total emotional commitment. It is a lovely, towering performance.
He will be nominated for an Oscar and he should win only to add further shame and disgrace to the state of California and the rest of the Union.
This being a conventional film, Van Sant smartly decides to show love and relationships instead of wild sex. For the most part, these gays behave in an almost saintly manner. There is none of their fabled, debauched ways. It is a film designed to enlighten the masses (good luck!), not to preach to the choir.
Yet to watch Penn and Franco kissing passionately, and with meaning, is not only enough but right.
The film, is as entertaining and predictable as all biopics. Van Sant uses a lot of real footage and distresses some of his new footage to look old. The actors all do a splendid job. I have one nit and that concerns my charming, talented and brave compatriot Diego Luna, who plays Milk's Latino unhinged lover. Luna is very sweet and funny and mercurial, and it is entirely possible that the actual character was a needy Latin drama queen. They exist indeed. But there was something really stereotypical about him that bothered me. He makes enchiladas and he watches soaps. Not the actor's fault, but the writer's.
I was wondering if this film ever reaches Mexico 1) what the title is going to be, because it can't be Leche. 2) what are my benighted countrymen going to think of their national acting treasure portraying such a committed fairy. I had horrid arguments with some "intellectuals" who vociferously complained about and made fun of the homoeroticism of Y tu mamá también so I don't expect much has changed.
David Denby says Penn is brave. I say all the actors in this film are brave, and isn't it tragic that they should be considered brave for portraying gay people, but among the very brave is Diego Luna.