WINDY CITY TIMES
||Knight at the Movies: From Brokeback Mountain to Milk
by Richard Knight, Jr.
This article shared 4616 times since Wed Mar 11, 2009
Pictured: Michelle Williams and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. 'Milk' man Josh Brolin. Photo by Phil Bray
I was in college when I read the news that gay activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone had been shot in 1978, but in the years that followed his death I have to admit I didn't think much about him. The next time I did was after watching the moving and powerful 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. This was one night many years after the movie had won the Oscar for Best Documentary and came at the height of the AIDS crisis. It was also the height of the group ACT UP and, not long after seeing the documentary, I remember someone at one of the mega marches that happened here in the late '80s shouting, "Remember Harvey Milk!" and then saying wistfully, "It's too bad Harvey isn't here to lead the march." I turned to ask the man if he had known Harvey and what had ever happened to that movie about Harvey's life I kept hearing about? But he was already down the block, swept along with the other protesters.
Rumors of Milk's story coming to the screen appeared periodically over the years and I eagerly followed them. At one point Robin Williams was announced to play Harve—a stupendous choice—but nothing came of it. Next I heard that Tom Cruise wanted to play Dan White and that Oliver Stone was attached to direct. No, he wasn't. Yes, he was. No. Eventually, rumors about any Milk biopic fell off the radar screen.
In the meantime gay cinema in the mainstream suddenly caught fire in 2005. Not only did we get the first critically lauded and financially successful gay-themed movie, Brokeback Mountain, but it was joined that year by a slew of other movies with LGBT themes. I reviewed over 25 of these alone in 2005 and that year's Oscar nominations included not just Brokeback but Capote and Transamerica. Although Brokeback won in several categories, it lost the top prize to Crash and Heath Ledger lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote ( and here's a bit of ironic reversal—Hoffman lost this year to Ledger, who was awarded posthumously for The Dark Knight ) .
It seemed for a brief period at the end of 2005 that mainstream acceptance was going to finally come for LGBT-themed pictures. But as gay icon Bruce Vilanch reminded me during an interview, "These things are special events. They only come along once in a great while." So, though I reviewed nearly as many LGBT-focused films in 2006, not one of them received the critical acclaim or mainstream acceptance of the movies the previous year. That's pretty much been the case since 2005, and I've come to think of the intervening years with their skimpy movies releases aimed at LGBT audiences as the "broken promise of Brokeback Mountain."
But I should have taken longtime Oscar award ceremony scribe Vilanch's words to heart and patiently waited. ( After all, who else from the gay community has had a front row seat when it comes to the movies for quite as long? ) When word seeped out that not only was Harvey Milk's story finally going to be made but would be directed by Gus Van Sant, star Sean Penn, have Cleve Jones as its technical adviser and feature a first-time script by an openly gay writer, it seemed too good to be true. For me, the result is a movie where reality has surpassed my dreams. Milk is all there, quietly told with a minimum of fuss, beautifully relayed in Van Sant's unvarnished, unfussy style. I hasten to add that the movie—which I termed an "unadorned masterpiece" in my original review ( boy, is it ever ) —is never just a dry history lesson. It's also sexy, funny, illuminating and, of course, powerful and emotionally overwhelming.
Hasn't it been great to see the man many have termed the "gay Martin Luther King" so lovingly and respectfully portrayed on the screen? Hasn't it been great to have our straight friends and family members embrace this gay hero at long last? And how about them Oscars? Dustin Lance Black's speech after winning for Original Screenplay was a vivid highlight and it was a joyful moment and victory for Our People, indeed, when Sean Penn won over Mickey Rourke in the upset of the evening ( and Penn forever won my heart when he started his acceptance speech with an exuberant, "You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns!" and then went on to shame those who continue to hold the line against gay civil rights ) . Even though Milk lost in several categories these wins seemed to momentarily remedy the years of slights and denigrations.
But we're not there yet: Milk hasn't done all that well in theatres and— let's face it—movies are as much about business and financial success as anything else. So turning Milk into a financial hit, which we can do with the just-released DVD ( from Universal Home Video ) , is going to be important and help insure that more LGBT-themed movies get made. The disc includes three very inspiring featurettes—"Remembering Harvey," "Hollywood Comes to San Francisco" and "Marching For Equality"—and a few deleted scenes. Although I'm disappointed a commentary track with Van Sant, Black, cast members or historical consultant Cleve Jones wasn't included, this is obviously one of those movies you gotta have in the collection—not only to offer support a film that's so clearly "one of our own" but to take out from time to time and watch, remember, enjoy and be moved all over again. Though we lost one of our brightest lights much too soon, at least we have both The Times of Harvey Milk ( another must-have ) and Milk to help fill the void. Both are films to pass on to future generations and provide wonderful, inspirational examples from gay history for all the world to see.
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site.
This article shared 4616 times since Wed Mar 11, 2009
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