On the surface, Milk isn’t a terribly complicated film. Whatever complexity it has is revealed subtly, intermittently. As a description of the final eight years of Harvey Bernard Milk’s life, it’s fairly accurate. The screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black—Mormon-raised and a former writer and producer on the Mormon-themed, critically lauded television series Big Love—pretty much follows the standard biopic formula: subject grapples with self, finds self, becomes a public self, weathers controversy, triumphs personally and/or professionally, and then dies. Black’s attempts to dress up this schema in the gay trappings afforded by his subject do nothing to meaningfully pervert the form—or Milk‘s emotional tidiness.
We watch, with varying degrees of interest, as Sean Penn, in the title role, rises from opera-loving, affable San Francisco merchant to be one of the first openly gay politicians elected to public office in the US. Though the film’s emotional trajectory may bear no outward resemblance to, say, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler morphing from playboy to savior, the moral message is essentially the same: the road to redemption is paved by good works.
But Black and Gus Van Sant, who directed Milk, have something Spielberg and his team didn’t: their hero’s martyrdom. On the morning of November 27, 1978, at the age of forty-eight, Harvey Milk was shot and killed a few doors away from his office in San Francisco’s City Hall. The killer—Dan White, a former colleague on the Board of Supervisors—later blamed the crime on intense mood swings that were at least partially due to his habit of consuming large amounts of sugar. (During his trial, White’s claim became known in the press as the “Twinkie Defense.”) Sadly, even this cataclysmic event—one of Milk‘s concluding scenes—barely disturbs the homo-lite surface the filmmakers have constructed all along. Instead, the circumstances surrounding Milk’s death become yet another opportunity to exploit a gay cliché.
After White (Josh Brolin) blows a couple of holes in Milk’s hand and chest, the victim starts to fall. As he lands, the camera pulls back and we see what he does: a banner announcing the San Francisco Opera’s production of Tosca. Yes, we understand that Milk was a fan of the opera—a stereotypically gay interest. And that Tosca is about tragically thwarted love—a stereotypically gay theme. But as Milk falls to the ground, his hands flailing in slow motion—reminding us of previous scenes showing him conducting along to his opera records and gesticulating while he talked, both stereotypically gay affectations—we’re reminded of another fluttering pair of hands in another gay-themed, populist-minded movie featuring another heterosexual star: Tom Hanks, as the HIV-infected lawyer in director Jonathan Demme’s 1993 hit, Philadelphia. That film was nominated for five Oscars and won two, including Best Actor for Hanks.
Milk received eight nominations for this year’s awards; among them are Van Sant for Best Director, Black for his script, and Penn for his impersonation of a man who did not find his true calling until he was forty-three years old. In the film, Milk doesn’t make much of a point about those lost years. “Forty years old and what have I done with my life?” he asks a new lover near the beginning. But the script is never explicit about what prevented him from living fully before 1973, the pivotal year in which he opened his camera store in the Castro. For a better sense of the painful secrecy Milk endured as a closeted gay man living in a pre-Stonewall world, and of the subsequent, purposeful freedom he felt during his belated coming-out, one can turn not only to Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s exceptional 1984 film, The Times of Harvey Milk (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1985), but to the bits of documentary footage Van Sant inserts into Milk‘s manufactured world.
Especially moving are the silent black-and-white images that make up the movie’s title sequence, in which well-groomed, thin, and for the most part white young men are rounded up in bars, cuffed, and arrested, while newspaper articles act as a kind of graphic voiceover: “Homosexuals and Police Clash”; “Tavern Charges Police Brutality”; “Police Start Crackdown on Homosexual Bars, Arrest 6.” These prefatory images, set apart from the main narrative, remain the film’s clearest statement of an essential fact: for most of his life, Milk lived in terror of arrest, interrogation, and punishment.
Born in Woodmere, Long Island, on May 22, 1930, Milk was the younger of two boys in a family descended from Lithuanian Jews on both sides. (Their last name was originally Milch.) Milk’s paternal grandfather maintained strong ties to the synagogue he helped build in his grandson’s hometown. Nearly from the first, young Harvey was the Jewish arrival myth made flesh. Charismatic and athletic, the opera-loving Bay Shore High School student was also a linebacker on the school’s football team. He graduated in 1947 and—aware that he was gay, but still closeted—enrolled that fall in New York State College for Teachers at Albany (since renamed the University of Albany). By 1951, his senior year, Milk was the school paper’s sports editor. He was also the preferred friend of those outsiders among the student body—blacks, queens—who could take shelter behind his macho affect and butch interests.
Three months after receiving his degree, Milk enlisted in the Navy. He rose through the Navy’s ranks quickly. Within eight months of enlisting, he applied for and was granted a place at Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. After that, the late gay historian and critic Randy Shilts tells us in his biography, The Mayor of Castro Street,1 Milk became “communications officer, lieutenant junior grade,” and served on the USS Kittiwake, “a San Diego–based aircraft carrier that cruised the Pacific.” In San Diego—which became Milk’s home for most of his tour of duty—another kind of cruising was going on, not so official. Gay seamen and civilians would congregate at his apartment, a relatively safe zone away from the menace of undercover cops and the threat of entrapment. Gay bars raided by the police risked losing their liquor licenses, and if their customers were arrested, the authorities would place phone calls to their families and employers, effectively outing them as gay and making them personal and professional pariahs.
“In essential ways, my homosexual needs have made me a nigger,” Paul Goodman wrote in his 1969 essay “Being Queer.” He continues:
Most obviously, of course, I have been subject to arbitrary brutality from citizens and the police; but except for being occasionally knocked down, I have gotten off lightly in this respect…. What makes me a nigger is that it is not taken for granted that my outgoing impulse is my right….
Nobody likes to be rejected, but there is a way of rejecting someone that accords him his right to exist and is the next best thing to accepting him. I have rarely enjoyed this treatment.2
The outsider status Goodman describes would have applied just as well to Milk’s experience as a gay man—although his pre–San Francisco self would be loath to claim it. Milk was (and to a large degree always remained) an ethical dreamer who tried to repel any unjust truth with a smile, another dream.
After his Navy stint, which ended in 1955, Milk worked as a high school math and history teacher and basketball coach, for an insurance company, and then as research supervisor for Bache and Company, a Wall Street investment firm. Stolid and bourgeois, he slogged on, wearing suits and punching a time clock, not quite knowing who he might be, and always hiding behind his at times overwhelming personal responsibilities and burdens. He took a series of younger lovers, all of whom were in some way needy or damaged. (Several attempted suicide, with the last, Jack Lira, succeeding some months before Milk’s own death.) Hoping to temper the insecurities of Jack McKinley, a lover who suffered from manic depression, abused drugs and alcohol, and frequently threatened suicide, the still-closeted Milk pulled up stakes in 1967 and moved with McKinley to Dallas, where he worked for Bache’s Texas branch. Three weeks after arriving, McKinley, bored, went back to New York. Milk returned a year later.
In New York McKinley met Tom O’Horgan, the director of the Broadway production of Hair, and went on to direct the show’s San Francisco production; Milk followed him there in 1969 and found work as an analyst in the city’s financial district. Life among the free-love set, including hanging out with McKinley’s progressive theater friends, contributed to Milk’s growing recognition of his queer self; the times, as Shilts writes, were “eroding Milk’s conservatism.” His resistance to coming out was the last thing to erode—he didn’t want to put a name to his oppression—but still, he was changing. A “break,” according to Shilts,
came the day the United States announced the invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970…. Milk joined protestors at the Pacific Stock Exchange. In a burst of charismatic theatricality, he jumped in front of the crowd and angrily burned his BankAmericard, denouncing big business.
By 1971, Milk was back in New York, this time living with Scott Smith, a Southern-born actor he’d met in the Christopher Street subway station on his forty-first birthday. That year, Milk became an associate producer on a theater project of O’Horgan’s, in which Smith was a cast member. But his interest in the play was short-lived. He preferred San Francisco, and moved out west again; Smith followed a few months later, after honoring his commitment to the show. Once reunited, the lovers purchased a car, adopted a dog, and spent the better part of a year traveling through California, living off their unemployment checks. Nearly twenty years younger than Milk, Smith had a different attitude toward queerness—an unapologetic politicized attitude that dovetailed with the burgeoning hippie movement, and no doubt influenced Milk’s decision to come out by the time they settled into the Castro.
Milk more or less begins there, with its hero dropping out, growing his hair, smoking pot, loving Smith, and starting a different life. The transformation itself isn’t shown or explained; from the outset, Penn conveys Milk’s newfound freedom with a degree of physical joy that verges on the ecstatic, especially in those moments when he’s not encumbered by Black’s bland dialogue.
Just after Milk opens his store on Castro Street, there is a series of brief, beautifully composed, nearly dialogue-free shots that show the new merchant and his boyfriend expressing their love—at times quite publicly—against the backdrop of their still largely conservative, working-class, Irish Catholic neighborhood. Milk and Scott’s “out” behavior signifies a social shift in the Castro, a shift the filmmakers exhibit with great swiftness and skill. In one emblematic scene, we witness the economic power of Milk’s influence over the increasing numbers of gay men in the neighborhood when he asks them to patronize a liquor store run by a homophobe, and they do—the better to show the straight businessman the power of the gay dollar. (He’d be out of business if Milk, who went on to dub himself the “unofficial Mayor of Castro Street” even before he sought public office, were to turn all those queens against him.) As the men line up for their bottle of fun, Milk swishes through the shop, shirtless, delighted by his power and the power of his people, en masse. The happiness Penn shows here is almost giddy. He’s a joyful lord in a new, gay kingdom.