‘Milk’ Celebrates the Life of a Man Who Opened Doors For Many

I keep hearing about how Sean Penn wants to retire from acting and just direct from now on. He keeps saying he never really enjoys acting, so it has to make you wonder why he would keep doing something he doesn’t enjoy. But after watching him give another great performance in “Milk,” I would really like to believe he really enjoyed playing the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk despite the role’s emotionally draining moments. Penn gives us a man who loved life and smiled more often than not. Whether you are gay or straight, I am sure you would have like to have known the real Harvey Milk as he always seemed to be in the best of spirits no matter what he is doing.

Milk” is a longtime dream project of Gus Van Sant, and it looks at Harvey before and after he became America’s first openly gay man ever elected to political office. It follows him from when he moves from New York to the Castro district of San Francisco and the numerous political races he ran in. It culminates with his and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at the hands of Supervisor Dan White. But don’t worry, I have not given anything away. The movie is an intimate character piece of Harvey as well as those closest to him as he fought for equal rights for all homosexuals in San Francisco and the rest of America.

It was actually quite prophetic that “Milk” was released in the same year California witnessed the depressing and infuriating passage of Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in the state (it was later ruled unconstitutional in 2010). In the movie, we see Harvey and his friends fighting the good fight against Proposition 6 which was enacted by then California Senator John Briggs with the objective of banning gay men and women from teaching jobs in California public schools. Back then, people foolishly believed there was a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia which was and still is total crap. “Milk” came out at a time when the fight for gay rights was still far from over.

The majority of the action takes place in San Francisco in the Castro market. Anyone residing in or familiar with the history of Castro will see it is to San Francisco what West Hollywood is to Los Angeles. Harvey ends up opening a little camera shop with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), but he is not greeted with open arms from the local merchants as they are convinced that, because he is gay, he will be closed down in record time. From there, Harvey decides to run for public office in order to find a voice for those who never had one before.

Van Sant does a great job of recreating 1970’s ever so vividly on what must have been a very tight budget. He also successfully interweaves television footage of the time with the actors to where it is not at all distracting. But his biggest accomplishment here is he does not turn Harvey Milk into some sort of superhero, and instead he treats him as a regular human being with flaws and all. Harvey helps those in need of help as much as he can, and he does this to a fault. His political life eventually overtakes his personal life and creates heartbreaking difficulties in his ability to maintain a loving relationship. He is encouraged to give up running for political office after he loses for a second time (he ran for office 4 times before he won), but with each election he makes a bigger impact with more and more voters.

Van Sant was originally planning to make this movie with Robin Williams in the lead several years before, but it did not work out. At first, it almost seems a bit odd to have Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, but after the movie is over, you realize there is nothing odd about it at all. Penn gives this role an utterly gleeful spirit which I do not often see in his other performances. Most roles he plays are of characters in the pit of despair or of those so cynical about the world that it takes a battering ram to get through the traumatized psyche to get a genuine sense of feeling. This may very well be his most cheerful performance since he played Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Penn really captures the spirit of what made Harvey so special, that he wanted to help people and gays around him come out of the closet.

Aside from Penn, there are other great performances to be found. James Franco plays Harvey’s lover, Scott Smith, and he is excellent as he creates a link to Harvey which can never be broken, ever. Franco matches Penn step for step in showing the highs and lows of a relationship between two loving people who struggle constantly to make things work between them.

Another standout performance comes from Emile Hirsch who plays street hustler Cleve Jones, and Harvey ends up encouraging him to help run his campaign. Hirsch gives Cleve a spirit and a determination which can never be easily broken, and he shows no shame in whom he is nor should he.

Other great performances come from Alison Pill who plays campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, a proud lesbian who helps Harvey finally win an election. Diego Luna is also heartbreakingly good as Harvey’s second lover, Jack Lira. An emotionally high-strung man with needs greater than anyone, let alone Harvey, can ever satisfy, Luna holds the screen strongly as he carefully illustrates his character’s constantly unsteady state of mind.

But another truly great performance in “Milk” comes from Josh Brolin who portrays Supervisor Dan White. Ever since 2007, Brolin has made a name for himself with terrific performances in “No Country for Old Men.” With his role as Dan White, he never goes the route of simply demonizing this man whose crime is still absolutely unforgivable to so many. Along with director Van Sant, Brolin gives us a complex portrait of a man brought up through a strong religious background, and who ends up getting so caught up in it to where it blinds him to the deep dark hole he keeps digging for himself. In a sense, his outcome is tragic in its own way, and when you find at the end credits how he ended up leaving this earth, there is no cheering. There is nothing but pity for the man who got a much too lenient sentence thanks to the so called “Twinkie defense.”

You don’t come out of this movie wanting to forgive Dan White for what he did, but the filmmakers never try to make you hate him. Besides, I am not sure Harvey would have wanted anyone to hate him either.

Van Sant succeeds in making “Milk” a largely uplifting motion picture without resorting to manipulative tactics in an effort to tug at your feelings or with an overwhelmingly emotional film score which begs you to shed tears. Truth be told, composer Danny Elfman does a great job of creating music which supports the characters and the movie without ever overdoing it. Van Sant is also served well with a tremendous screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, and he introduces us to the wonderful people in Harvey’s inner circle and makes each one a unique individual worthy of attention.

If there is anything which disappointed me about “Milk,” it is the archival footage of Anita Bryant featured throughout where she talks about how she sees homosexuality as a sin. Anita speaks of how the word of God must be directed, and she is clearly one of many people who have completely misinterpreted what the bible says about homosexuality. The one scene I kept waiting for was when she got a pie thrown in her (even God knows she deserved that). The fact this footage was not shown here was a bit of a letdown.

The real triumph of “Milk” is in how Van Sant makes you see what an inspiration Harvey was to so many people. The movie starts out with him saying, as he is about to turn 40, that he has done nothing with his life. By the end, both Van Sant and Penn make it clear he did so much and is still a huge inspiration to many more than 30 years after his assassination. Come to think of it, he may even be more of an influence to people in death than he was in life.

Many may end up not seeing this movie either because of their misplaced religious views, or because we know it will end with Harvey Milk being murdered. But “Milk” is not a movie about how Harvey died. It is a movie about how he lived, and of how his life is worthy of celebration. His courage did so much for people, and it is still needed in the darkest of times. This was a career high for Van Sant and Penn, and it was one of 2008’s best movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier on ‘The Case Against 8’

The Case Against 8 Kris Perry and Sandy Stier photo

The Case Against 8” is a highly in-depth documentary about the historic federal lawsuit filed to overturn the discriminatory (and completely unnecessary) ban on marriages for gay couples. This fight for marriage equality went on for five years, and filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White were there for it all as they went behind the scenes with the legal team of David Boies and Ted Olson (the same two lawyers from the “Bush v. Gore” case) and the four plaintiffs named in the suit. HBO aired the documentary on June 23, 2014 which coincided with the first anniversary of the Supreme Court rulings which restored marriage equality to California and ended federal discrimination against gay couples under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

I was very excited to talk with Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, two of the plaintiffs in the case, when they arrived in Los Angeles in 2014 to talk about “The Case Against 8.” We see them both getting married at the documentary’s beginning, and it’s a wonderful ceremony to watch. But then came the passage of Proposition 8 which defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, and their marriage was soon declared void. After five years of fighting for marriage equality, Kris and Sandy succeed in getting married again and they are still trying to adjust to the reality of that.

The Case Against 8 poster

Ben Kenber: When the idea of the documentary came about, was it something you were initially open to or were you hesitant to participate in it?

Kris Perry: Well we were a little hesitant about media in general at the beginning of the process. We didn’t know how it would turn out, we didn’t know what was going to happen, and we knew people would be opposed to marriage equality and they might direct it at us personally. So we were pretty reticent about media, but the filmmakers were sort of in a different category. They obviously were supportive of Sandy and I and everybody on the team. The obviously had good intent, they were incredibly trustworthy and thoughtful and supportive, so we always felt like they were different and they did something different than what a lot of people did which was just cover a minute or two here and there. They lived through it all with everybody and I think that sets them apart and made them special for us, so we were really happy they were around actually.

Sandy Stier: They became invisible very early on which is kind of interesting. They were very quiet so they set up the cameras quietly everywhere and they were such sweet guys. It was easy to accept them being there, and they also seemed protective of us in some really nice ways. I always felt like they wouldn’t include anything that we didn’t feel comfortable with, and they were very open to our perspective and what we felt okay with being in it or not. And also, on some level, I don’t really believe they would make a documentary or that it would really even happen because we had no idea what would happen with the case. We didn’t expect it to be as big a deal as it was, and I thought these nice guys are here filming and that’s great. They might make a documentary, but it’s probably kind of a long shot that it’ll be something that’s that big of a deal. So I know that sounds kind of crazy but I thought that they were so sweet and I hope that this works out okay for them, but I kind of thought that they were wasting their time.

BK: Is there anything that you wish was included in this documentary but wasn’t for one reason or another, or are you perfectly happy with the way it turned out?

KP: We’re very happy with it. We were just on a panel with the editor (Kate Amend) the other night, and somebody asked her that question because she looked at all 600 hours and was the one with the job of deciding what was in or out and had to fight with Ben and Ryan about what they wanted in. Her answer I thought was beautiful as she said, “Now that I’ve seen it this many times, I think I wouldn’t change one bit of it. I wouldn’t put anything in that I took out, and what’s in is what should have been in.” I was happy to hear her say it because she saw everything and we never did and yet I think it couldn’t be longer, it couldn’t have more in it, and I think they made some beautiful decisions.

SS: I think they did certainly a fantastic job, and we will never really know about all the footage that they have. I’m sure we would be kind of blown away by some of what they have that we will probably never see. The one thing is when I watch our wedding, I loved the way they captured it but hoped so much that are four boys would’ve been there that day we got married, and they couldn’t be there. It’s always a reminder of how we had only one out of the four and that was just painful, but they could not have done a better job putting it together and making it make sense. It’s a complicated case to make sense of and they did a great job of weaving it together.

BK: The voice of love speaks louder in this documentary than any other voice that’s featured in it. What was it like watching your wedding as it is presented here?

KP: It’s great. I mean who gets to see their wedding on a full screen in a movie theater with Dolby? That’s like a really lucky thing. I like seeing Sandy’s face again because it really was such a blur that day and there was so much happening and there were so many people including the Attorney General and all the people standing there all of a sudden. To be able to focus just on the person I was marrying was like, “Oh right, that was what was happening too.” There were the two of us and then there was everybody else, but you get pulled into that everybody else part. So I like how easy it is to focus on the two of us in the way that they included it in the film, but you can see everybody else too. But they are not the point of the wedding.

SS: To see all the people that were there supporting us at our wedding, it’s a rare wedding where you don’t know most of the people. But that’s how it happened. It’s kind of fun to see all those faces again.

BK: Now that the documentary is finished, what effect do you think it has had on your life so far?

SS: So far I think it has been a wonderful gift to us to go back and see people and see how it comes together and relive it. Every time we get to relive it slightly differently and focus on a different part of the film. It’s been a very positive impact on us so far. I think it that what will honestly be a little weird is that once it’s on TV on HBO, there are all these people we don’t know who will see it and they peer into your lives. People are in your kitchen with you and at your child’s graduation, and it’s just an odd thing knowing that so many people we don’t know will have been viewing our lives. But it’s okay.

KP: Yeah, I really think it’s been positive so far. The people who have seen it like you who have come in and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize how much was going on because I didn’t track it every day,” I’m really glad for someone like you that’s open to looking at the bigger story. It gets interesting again, and now when you hear about Utah or you hear about Pennsylvania or Illinois you’ll go, “Wow! Now I know what it takes to fight something in court. Now I know what it takes to be a plaintiff.” It gives you new perspective.

BK: What was your first reaction when you found out that Ted Olson, the lawyer who essentially gave us George W. Bush as President, would be representing you in this case?

KP: Skepticism maybe a little bit. But the people that found him and wanted him to do it and hired him are some of the people I respect the most. The political efforts of Chad Griffin and Rob Reiner and Bruce Cohen and Dustin Lance Black, I just thought these are guys who have seen so many battles and have tried to win so many rights that, if they think Ted’s the guy, who am I to question their wisdom? And they were right; he ended up being a terrific champion and still is and will continue to be. So I just was relying on the jury of peers that we had before we met.

BK: We’re so quick to judge people based on political beliefs, and I’m really getting sick of that. One of the great things about “The Case Against 8” is that it strips away partisan politics and forces us to get beyond our own biased beliefs to fight for what’s right.

SS: Yeah, and I think on some level that highlights the fact that we have politicized almost every argument in our country as though they are political arguments and they aren’t. Issues of marriage equality, why is that a political argument? Why are so many other issues… Why do they need to be political arguments also? So the more we can get out of that realm, the more we can actually make progress.

BK: The lawyers representing you at one point talk about how they’re getting more grief from the gay and lesbian groups than the conservative groups, and it shows how the mob mentality can take over on either side of the political spectrum. The documentary aims to be saying that need to be open to people and what they have to offer, and that’s even if you don’t agree with their belief system.

KP: Yeah. I think getting away from the ballot box and raising money for political campaigns and people saying things in political campaigns that aren’t even true and winning is necessary. I think it was the right time to go on to a new path and try to create a new way to solve that problem, and I think it was a better path. It’s harder on some levels as it takes forever. Campaigns are over in a year, and this was a five-year effort so everybody can’t do it but maybe everybody won’t have to.

BK: What are your plans for the future?

SS: Well when we were in the case it was always that and doing that in addition to our lives. Back then we were raising kids and working, and now the kids have launched basically. They take a lot less time. The youngest kids are in college and the older kids are grown-ups so we’re no longer actively parenting on a day-to-day basis, but we both have very big and busy careers that need a lot of attention and a lot of focus. So that’s our immediate thing to just get back to work and make work a huge priority, and we both in our work do a certain amount of advocacy as well. Kris still works in early childhood education advocacy at the federal level now. I work on public health and systems and policy so we want to get refocused on that, but in terms of the issue of marriage equality, the fight’s not over. We don’t have marriage equality in 50 states, so there is a lot more work to be done to the degree that we can help advance that cause in those states. We are absolutely happy and very motivated to participate, and beyond that there are so many other issues. There is employment discrimination, there are still a lot of issues around LGBT rights and, beyond rights, quality of life. It’s just something that I think Kris had a great a-ha moment when she talks about the quality of life as an LGBT kid and what it does to you to feel like you don’t have the same options and that your life is less than others. There’s a lot of work to do.

BK: Do you still encounter a lot of obstacles in life or do you feel like you are on a good path now?

KP: I think because it matters so much to get married and stay married, you have to work at it. You have to work really hard at being grateful that you have that, and you have to keep making it work because circumstances are changing all the time. Even having a situation where we had kids or we don’t, that’s an obstacle. And we don’t know what the future holds. There could be some hard things and you have to keep the bond strong, and we’re just lucky we got married. We are still trying to believe that, you know? That took so long and we’re still digesting the fact that we actually got married.

It was a real pleasure to talk with Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and I wish them the best in life. “The Case Against 8” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.