Friday, October 24, 2008

More Milk Please

Before the election-- in San Francisco-- and shortly thereafter for the rest of us, another collective mind-altering film will appear. It will be a look back at the life of a great man, and a look forward worthy of the achievement of our country's election of a liberal man of color as our new President.

Focus Features
Sean Penn as the openly gay politician Harvey Milk in the Gus Van Sant film "Milk."

A weighty, gay-theme film makes an early Oscar run

LOS ANGELES: One morning in 1978 a disgruntled San Francisco politician, Dan White, climbed through a City Hall window, assassinated Mayor George Moscone, then shot and killed an openly gay adversary on the city's Board of Supervisors named Harvey Milk.

It was a fractured moment in a troubled time and place. Memories of it soon will be roiling the Oscar race.

On Oct. 28 Focus Features expects to introduce its film "Milk," directed by Gus Van Sant with Sean Penn in the title role, at a gala in San Francisco hosted by local luminaries, at least one of whom - Senator Dianne Feinstein, then the president of the board of supervisors - was just steps away when Milk and Moscone were shot. The movie will begin playing in some theaters on Nov. 26, just ahead of the 30th anniversary of the killings on Nov. 27, then gain wider release worldwide as the awards season gets under way.

Already the film is drawing attention as an early contender in the coming Oscar race. Following early screenings, for instance, Hollywood insiders and others have been startled by Penn's picture-perfect rendering of Milk, a politician who was at once gawky, ambitious and unforgettable to those whose lives he touched. "Sean's portrayal of Harvey is so beautifully right," Cleve Jones, a Milk friend who is played in the film by Emile Hirsch, said in a phone interview.

Yet the movie presents no small challenge for Focus, the specialty division owned by NBC Universal that two years ago pushed its gay-theme "Brokeback Mountain" to the cusp of Oscar glory with eight nominations, only to see "Crash" win best picture.

This time around, studio marketers are wrestling with an inherently political film at a time when audiences have been wary of them. Earlier this month the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe was not enough to save an issues-oriented thriller, "Body of Lies," which opened poorly for Warner Brothers in the United States.

Focus and Van Sant will have to connect millions of filmgoers with a world that could seem weirdly disconnected, even back then. Only nine days before the murders, for example, the Reverend Jim Jones, whose People's Temple had become influential in San Francisco politics, had orchestrated the death of more than 900 followers and others at Jonestown in Guyana.

The publishing heiress Patricia Hearst, meanwhile, was tucked in a Bay Area prison, the consequence of her engaging in a bank robbery for the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had kidnapped her.

"You're giving me an acid flashback to all the chatter before 'Brokeback,"' said James Schamus, chief executive of Focus, responding to a question about the universal message in Milk's struggles. Those could turn on matters as weighty as gay rights, or as slight as an ordinance requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets.

"Harvey said, 'This is a quest for everybody's rights,"' Schamus said. "That was his genius."

If the ranch hands of "Brokeback" were subdued, nothing about Milk was. He loudly insisted that gay people should be out of the closet, at a time when public homosexuality was largely confined to San Francisco and a few like-minded enclaves.

Milk's grandest political battle was his successful fight against a California initiative that would have banned gay teachers from the state's public schools. His roughest was the backroom scrap in which he helped to block White's reappointment to a supervisor's post from which he had resigned two weeks earlier. Moscone was planning to discuss that decision publicly on the day of the murders.

According to the film's producers and others, some of the political intricacies were whittled from Dustin Lance Black's script. Though the People's Temple had supported Milk, for instance, Jones was largely cut. "It would take so much time to explain to people who Jim Jones was," said Dan Jinks, who with his business partner Bruce Cohen are among the movie's producers.

What remained, according to Jinks, was the story of a "regular guy" - before politics, Milk was best known as co-owner of a camera store in the Castro district of San Francisco - who decided to make a difference.

Van Sant's film came together suddenly last year after he and other filmmakers, Bryan Singer and Oliver Stone among them, had struggled for two decades with various attempts to find a feature film in Milk's life.

Black, himself a director, bypassed those earlier efforts, many of them based on Randy Shilts's book "The Mayor of Castro Street," and began researching an original script with the help of those who knew Milk. In early 2007 one of those friends, Jones, showed the script to Van Sant, whom he had known for years.

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