Does Martyr Equal Oscar?

2.17.2009

By Nathan Lee

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the following actors are straight: Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Hurt, Ed Harris. Each of these fine leading men received an Academy Award nomination for the feat -- so brave! -- of playing a gay character. You know, like without the benefit of having ever actually sucked dick.

At least that's the official story. Any frank discussion of Hollywood heterosexuality calls for skepticism; I mean, God bless the queen Sir Ian McKellen, but Magneto is scarcely the lone lavender mutant up on the silver screen. In any event -- namely, the Hollywood event, the Oscars -- let's call these fellas straight for the sake of argument, or rather inquiry: How, exactly, do heterosexual actors construct gayness? By what mannerisms, vocal inflections, and styling -- if any -- do they inhabit a body whose hard-wired erotic urges, whose socialization and psychology, categorically differ from their own? And more specifically, what does it take to go home with the hottest bachelor in Hollywood?

Sean Penn's Best Actor nomination, and likely win, for the title role in Milk affirms that the surest path to bedding Oscar is to play the martyr. For as long as gay characters have been nominated -- or indeed, for as long as there have been movie 'mos at all -- they have been sacrificed: to love (Brokeback Mountain), politics (Philadelphia), or both (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Philip Seymour Hoffman's Best Actor turn as the flamboyant Capote struck the ultimate Oscar double whammy: The character is both a martyr to his art and a celebrity. Because if there's anything the Academy loves more than a sacrificial homo, it's a high-minded biopic. That Hoffman bested Ledger's intense, taciturn Brokeback triumph, widely regarded as one of the great performances in modern movies, suggests the oversize power of mimicry to impress Oscar voters. (Or maybe, like Homer Simpson, they just prefer their beer cold, their TV loud, and their homosexuals fuh-laming?)

As the ultimate gay martyr in the ultimate gay biopic, with extra momentum from Hollywood shame over the Brokeback dis and Prop. 8 apathy, Penn should be a sure thing. But what kind of thing, exactly, is he? Penn's Milk, like Hoffman's Capote, is a virtuoso act of mimicry, and one whose source material comes with an Oscar-winning pedigree: The Milk saga, as told in the extraordinary The Times of Harvey Milk, took home the Best Documentary statue in 1985. Revisiting the doc in light of Milk allows for a close look at Penn's scrupulous simulation and, perhaps, his slips of the wrist? 'Harvey was less fey,' observes Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman, 'more butch than Penn played him. That whole sugary, nerdish, singsong voice, the way that Penn made Milk into just a little bit of a swish, was an exaggeration invented for the film.' You could 'make the case that there's something regressive about that,' Gleiberman adds, but 'Penn was looking for an actor's hook, for a way to dramatize Harvey's exuberance -- and, yes, his gayness -- and give it an indelible touch of theater. And he succeeded.'

Notwithstanding the long-haired hippie stylings he rocked during his first run for political office, Harvey Milk's general appearance and manner -- if not his wit -- were strictly status quo. He was, in a word, butch, though it pays to remember that Milk considered politics a form of theater and was highly aware of public personae as performance. Many gay men exhibit a kind of situational effeminacy; one behaves in a different manner when, say, thanking the Academy onstage than one does later that night, dishing over cocktails with Kevin Spacey about Nicole Kidman's gown.

What Milk did let slip on-camera were flashes of impish mirth, a quickening of the eyes and a widening of the smile that were part of his famous charm, but which knowing eyes might see as intimating a subterranean order of experience erupting to the surface. There's a marvelous anecdote told in The Times of Harvey Milk about the occasion that Milk met Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelical sister of President Carter, who told him she could covert him to Christianity despite his being Jewish, and that on doing so his homosexuality would disappear. 'I'm surprised that you shook my hand,' said Harvey when they met, 'because you never know where my hand's been.'

Penn has a bit of fun hinting at where Harvey's hand has been, but he's far too meticulous an actor, much too controlled in his effects, to instinctively capture Milk's naughty twinkle, his queering, one might say, of the respectable politician's facade. But who could? His Milk is, like Milk himself, a dazzling piece of theater.

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