BEVERLY HILLS, California — Look beyond “Twilight” and “Four Christmases,” and you’ll see that it was a small-budget Gus Van Sant film that hauled in four times their per-screen averages this past weekend while entering the top 10 on only 36 screens. Read the reviews, listen to the Oscar hype or check the news, and you might find it hard to believe that a ’70s-set biopic about a homosexual politician could prove so popular and relevant with all kinds of audiences. But there was only one Harvey Milk — and appropriately enough, the movie that tells his story is similarly becoming a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.
“It’s funny, I grew up in the Bay Area in Palo Alto, 45 minutes away from San Francisco,” marveled “Pineapple Express” star James Franco, who shows tremendous range alongside Sean Penn‘s portrayal of the nation’s first openly gay elected official, but grew up never having heard of Harvey Milk’s nearby Castro Street revolution. “I’m a huge Gus fan and really wanted to just work with him on anything. When I heard he was doing this movie about Milk, I did a little research on who Harvey Milk was. I remember when I first watched the Oscar-winning documentary, ‘The Times of Harvey Milk,’ that something about Milk kind of looked familiar, like maybe I had seen a picture or something when I was in the city as a kid or something, but the fact was that I didn’t learn anything about him in school or growing up. And here I am in the Bay Area! So the rest of the country, I’m sure, knows absolutely nothing about him.
“That’s sad,” Franco added. “One of the great things about this movie is that I hope it really raises the awareness of who Harvey was and what he did.”
But one of the main obstacles in making the film was finding the right lead actor — if you could count our greatest leading actors on one hand, listing the number who could effectively portray Milk would probably limit you to a finger or two. Luckily, four-time Oscar nominee (and winner for 2004’s “Mystic River”) Sean Penn was eager to dig deep and give what some are calling the best performance of his career, all in the name of raising that awareness.
“When I went to the set, the first day I was there, like, two or there weeks after they’d stared shooting, [Penn] was a different person — not the guy I met a few years ago at a film festival, not the guy I had been rehearsing with,” said Diego Luna, who, like Franco, portrays one of the influential lovers Milk was forced to put on the back burner during his all-absorbing quest for civil rights. “Sean found that character, and it’s very different from everything that he has done before. Normally, his characters are more dark, and this guy is a guy that knew that love was the only thing that mattered.”
Unfortunately, those familiar with the story of Harvey Milk also know that the tale has a villain: fellow city supervisor Dan White. And while the Twinkie-fueled assassin certainly deserves to be remembered as a bad guy, it was the job of Josh Brolin to put the humanity back into a historical madman.
“You don’t want to misrepresent [White]. The thing is, you want to represent him in a way that is accurate, and he is seen as the bad guy. He is the monster of the story, but that’s the result of the story,” Brolin said of his own awards-worthy work, another facet of “Milk” that is building huge awards-season buzz. “The more interesting question to me is ‘Why?’ How did the guy get to the point that he felt [murder] was the only thing that he could resort to? So you follow this guy’s life, you follow his frustrations, you follow — at least from my character’s point of view — that he did have a relationship with Harvey. He was trying to be diplomatic and open himself up to diversity in order to work with people he wasn’t used to being around, especially gay people at that time. … [His supporters] wanted San Francisco to be what it used to be, built on this Catholic, white mentality.”
To be sure, the film is a powerhouse of acting performances, led by the work of Penn, Brolin, Franco, Luna and “Speed Racer” star Emile Hirsch.
“This is an opportunity for a whole new generation of people to learn about who Harvey Milk was — especially young people — and I think it’s high time,” said 23-year-old Hirsch, who plays Milk protégé Cleve Jones in the film. “After I learned about his life and his story, I had such a different perspective of gay people in general, and the gay-rights movement. I had so much more sympathy, because it humanized the movement and gives you a very close-up view of gay people’s lives in the film; you see it in a different way. Most people don’t know that many gay people, so they can make judgments on things they don’t fully understand.
“What Milk says in the film so eloquently is, ‘People vote two to one for us when they know one of us,’ ” Hirsch remembered, quoting one of Harvey’s equal-rights-for-all lines from the film. “And it’s so true.”