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Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

Sean Penn as "Milk"; a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento
Thanksgiving, 2008

I saw Gus Van Sant's new film, "Milk" earlier this week, but waited until Thanksgiving Day to write about it. If you'll notice on this year's calendar, Thanksgiving falls exactly 30 years to the day after activist Harvey Milk was shot dead in his San Francisco office on November 27, 1978.

Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. He served as a San Francisco City Supervisor just short of one year before he was assassinated by fellow City Supervisor, Dan White.

My reviews are heard on some radio stations and appear on a few other web sites, but primarily, and initially, here at Tulsa TV Memories. So, Tulsans should know, if not remember, that a good deal of the tension seen in "Milk" centers on 1978's Proposition Six in California which was supported by a well-known Tulsan who was the runner-up to Miss America in 1959.

Also named the Briggs Initiative---after John Briggs, a conservative state senator from Orange County--- Prop 6 would have banned gays and lesbians, and those supporting gay rights from working in California public schools. Unlike this month's anti-gay ballot measure in the Golden State, California's Prop 6 was defeated. And Harvey Milk had something to do with that.

Anita Bryant

Anita Bryant

Along with Briggs, the campaign for Prop 6 was spearheaded by Tulsa singer and beauty queen, Anita Bryant (new TTM page). Ms. Bryant was born in Barnsdall, OK in 1940 and graduated from Tulsa's Will Rogers high school in 1958. She went on to become Miss Oklahoma in 1959 and pursue a successful recording career. I used to play her records on Tulsa radio stations. Several documentary sound clips of Bryant, in rhetorical flourish, are seen in "Milk."

Vintage film is also shown of Dianne Feinstein (now California's senior U.S. Senator and one-time Mayor of San Francisco) as she announced to the media that Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor, George Moscone had been shot to death at City Hall.

On my TV screen in Tulsa, I remember seeing Feinstein (nearby as each shooting occurred) verify, almost in a state of shock, to the media that both Milk and Moscone were dead. Those images of Feinstein (then President of the Board of Supervisors) helped revitalize her political career. They play almost as vividly in my memory as seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being shot in Dallas on live network television.

Too bad the screening of "Milk" had sound problems from start to finish. Some of it may have been due to poor microphone placement in the live-action scenes shot in San Francisco by Van Sant's crew, a poor sound mix, a bad print or maybe it was the audio system of the cinema where I saw it in Sacramento's Downtown Plaza. Take your pick, but it was a distraction and kept us from understanding some of the dialogue and, especially, Sean Penn's opening monologue as he begins (in character) the narration of "Milk," speaking into an inexpensive portable cassette recorder on the kitchen table.

This may have caused me to perceive approximately the first third of the film to be rather slow as it explains Milk's arrival to San Francisco from New York in 1972 and his venture into a small business called Castro Camera---named after a district of the city which was to be part of his constituency as an activist and politician.

Alison Pill and Emile Hirsch

Alison Pill and Emile Hirsch

The sound got a bit better and the film began to move for me---and move me, as well, with Milk hiring a lesbian named Anne Kronenberg (played by Alison Pill) to head his successful campaign to become a supervisor. Kronenberg still lives in the Bay Area and works in the public sector.

Relationships with gay men are part of "Milk," too and show mostly non-specific same gender intimacies and gentle affection. It's rated "R." Emile Hirsch is Cleve Jones (who also consulted on the film), Diego Luna is Jack Lira and James Franco plays Scott Smith. Victor Garber, who was Jennifer Garner's father in the TV series, "Alias," is Mayor Moscone.

Josh Brolin, who's been busy on the screen lately, plays the shooter, Dan White. Brolin has appeared recently as a detective on-the-take in "American Gangster," a 1980s Texas cowboy on the run with a million dollars of hot drug money in "No Country for Old Men" and just last month as President George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's "W."

Former Mormon Dustin Lance Black wrote the script for "Milk." Earlier, Black was a script editor on "Big Love," and wrote several episodes of the HBO series depicting a contemporary Mormon businessman who leads a closeted heterosexual life in Utah, having several children with three wives. Tulsan Jeanne Tripplehorn had a significant role in "Big Love" as the eldest wife. Tulsa's Mary Kay Place played the mother of the second eldest spouse.

Other films by Gus Van Sant I remember best are: "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989); "To Die For" (1995) and "Good Will Hunting" (1997) which got Oscar's attention. Now, amid all of the activism and assassination of "Milk," let me, hopefully, add a brief line or two of levity.

Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin and his bad haircut

If you remember, in "No Country for Old Men," Javier Bardem (who won the Best Actor Oscar last year for his role in that film) had a very bad haircut. He was teased about it by cast members at the close of the Oscar telecast last year. Well, this is a circuitous way to say that Josh Brolin, in "Milk," now has the bad haircut. I couldn't help thinking about it as Brolin stalked the set in the bad temper of Dan White, who spent just five years in jail for manslaughter for both killings, then returned to San Francisco and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1985. Later in the film, another incongruous thought ran through my mind while watching "Milk."

There are no two American film actors who die 'better' than Sean Penn and Marlon Brando. I just couldn't help leaping to the final scene of the fictional "Last Tango in Paris" when Brando is shot by his anonymous female lover (played by Maria Schneider). There's something macabre seeing Brando drawing his 'last breath' while looking out over the Paris skyline as I see, for the first time, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, in his final moment, gazing out the window of his office across the street at the San Francisco Opera House where the film has him just seeing, the night before, Puccini's "Tosca." But from all the way back in 1972, when "Last Tango" came out, Brando one-ups Penn. Marlon puts his chewing gum on the underside of the balcony rail just before he drops, remember? How freakin' existential can you get?

Playing the tormented father, Jimmy Markum, in "Mystic River" (2003) was a tour de force for Sean Penn. He won the Best Actor Oscar for it by using his fine talent like a scalpel. He's at it again in the completely different character of Harvey Milk. Associates of Milk claim that Penn has captured the essence of a man some call an ardently human, courageous and gentle freedom fighter, who urged all gays to come out and succeed in their lives with honesty.

All of this could be just in time for taking on this month's passage of California's ban on same sex marriage: Prop 8.

"Milk" preview
"Milk" official site.

12/12: Now playing at the Southroads 20.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa  for theaters & times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2008, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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