On Set With The Men Behind Milk

9.29.2008

By Michael Joseph Gross

Milk was the Barack Obama of his time and place. When he ran for the board of supervisors, Milk made grand promises to heal deep social tensions in his city. At his swearing-in, he said, 'A true function of politics is not just to pass laws, but to give hope.' Dianne Feinstein, then president of the board, responded, 'Hope is fine, but you can't live on hope.'

Harvey Milk was not butch. He was not exactly effeminate, either, but his manner was overtly gay. Vintage footage in the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk shows that Milk carried himself, as many gay men do (much as we hate to think about this) in a distinct style. Most of us are lit from deep inside by a subtle, unmistakable edge of self-consciousness that is the closet's bequest. Gaydar is the ability to recognize this quality: the faint but indelible separation between mind and body that develops when a man has spent years wondering if everyone can see the truth about him.

Penn's performance in Milk nails these mannerisms and inflections and, movingly, depicts their evolution. At the beginning of the film, Milk is audacious, but he quivers like a lapdog while seducing Scott Smith (played by James Franco), who became his lover. As time goes on and Milk becomes a man in full, he does not cast off the quiver but fills it with power. 'A homosexual with power,' he brags -- and marvels -- in a confrontation with San Francisco mayor George Moscone just before the two are assassinated. 'That's scary.'

This incremental change in the way Milk inhabits his own body is cued by the screenplay's fine structure, in which the character's sentimental and political educations are inextricable. In a conversation with Milk's filmmakers about how Penn crafted this performance (Penn declined to be interviewed), screenwriter Dustin Lance Black said the script shows love and politics to be 'absolutely related, because it was illegal to be in love and do the things that showed you were in love with a gay man.' Director Gus Van Sant added, 'Almost all of Sean's depiction of Harvey is oriented toward Harvey's political drive. There is some sexual drive too. I think that was sort of entertaining to Sean.'

Dan Jinks, one of the movie's producers, reminded Van Sant, 'You said that the first time you sat down seriously to talk to Sean about it, he had strong feelings about a heterosexual guy playing this role.'

The director explained, 'Another thing Sean really liked about it was that it was playing with his strongly heterosexual image. Playing a strong gay character was going someplace he hadn't gone before.'

'He plays Harvey as a gay man with a lot of sexuality who's very affectionate, very physical,' said Bruce Cohen, another executive producer.

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